Note: Because the Maya population resides throughout various parts of Central America, it is recommended that readers also review the web pages on Guatemala and Mexico. Since the Mam cultural, linguistic, and ethnic group is part of the Mayan population, this page should also be reviewed.

Learn more about the Maya

Geography & Language Subsets

There are 4 major branches of the Mayan language today. They are the Huastecan branch, Yucatecan branch, Western branch, and Eastern branch.

1. Huastecan branch:

  • Includes the Mexican states of Veracruz and San Luis Potosi.
  • Language subsets: Wastek; spoken by approximately 110,000 people.
  • It is related to the Chicomuceltec which is very different from the original proto-mayan language.

2. Yucatecan branch:

  • This is the most common of Mayan languages and is referred to as “Maya” by its speakers.
  • The Yucatecan branch is located on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and includes the states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Campeche where Maya is spoken by 800,000 people.
  • Maya language subsets: Mopan; spoken by approximately 10,000 people near Belize, and Lacandon; an endangered language spoken by approximately 1,000 people outside of Selva Lacandona and Chiapas.

3. Western branch:

  • The Western branch includes 3 Mayan languages; Ch’olan, Tzeltalan, and Q’anjobalan.
  1. Ch’olan
    1. Ch'olan language subsets: Ch'ol; spoken by 130,000 in Chiapas, Chontal; spoken by 55,000 in Tabasco, and Ch’orti’; spoken by 30,000 in Guatemala, which is on it’s way to extinction. These languages are thought to have been languages of prestige in earlier times.
  2. Tzeltalan
    1. Tzeltalan language subsets: Tzotzil; spoken by 265,000 in Chiapas, and Tzeltal; spoken by 215,000 in Chiapas.
  3. Q’anjobalan 
    1. Q'anjobalan language subsets: Jakaltek; spoken by 100,000 people in Huehuetenango, Akatek; spoken by 50,000 people in San Miguel Acatan, and San Rafael La Independencia, Chul; spoken by 40,000 people in Huehuetenango, and by 9,500 people in La Trinitaria in Mexico, lastly, Tojolab’al; spoken by 36,000 people in Chiapas.

4. Eastern branch:

  • The Eastern branch includes 4 Mayan languages; Quichean-Mamean, Meamean, Core Quichean, and Poqom.
  1. Quichean-Mamean 
    1. Quichean-Mamean language subsets: Q’eqchi’; spoken by 400,000 people in the Peten, Izabal, and Alta Verapaz departments pf Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador, Uspantek; spoken by 3,000 people in the El Quiche department of Guatemala.
  2. Mamean
    1. Mamean language subsets: Mam; spoken by 150,000 people in the San Marcos and Heuhuetenango departments of Guatemala, Awakatek; spoken by 20,000 people in the Aguacatan municiple of Huehuetanango, and Ixil; spoken by 70,000 in the El Quiche department of Guatemala.
  3. Core Quichean 
    1. Core Quichean language subsets: Achi; spoken by 85,000 people near Guatemala City, Kaqchikel; spoken by 400,000 spanning from Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan, Tz’utujil; spoken by 90,000 people near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
  4. Poqom 
    1. Poqom language subsets: Poqomchi; spoken by 90,000 people, in both Baja Verapaz and Alta Verapaz in Guatemala, Poqomam; spoken by 30,000 people in the Alta Verapaz department of Guatemala.


Note: This information represents general information about Mayan languages to give SLPs an idea of the typical linguistic characteristics of these languages. For information about a specific Mayan language (e.g., Quiche') please go to and search for the specific language.

Mayan languages are primarily spoken in 3 Central American countries - Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize, and the population of Mayan language speakers is tallied at at least 6 million indigenous Maya people. In Guatemala, there are 21 Mayan languages and in Mexico, there are eight additional languages. Note that these are languages, not dialects, despite the fact that some sound very similar. People from the Maya population identify closely with their individual ethnic groups and therefore their specific languages, so it's important to acknowledge these distinctions when working with a Maya client. The Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (ALMG) is responsible for governing all of the Mayan languages in Guatemala, and has developed a standardized orthography (see below). However, languages in Belize and Mexico are typically not included.

The Mayan linguistic family is one of the best documented and most studied in the Americas. The modern Mayan languages descend from a common ancestor known as Proto-Mayan. This ancestor language is thought to have been spoken at least 5000 years ago and has been partially reconstructed using the comparative method. The diagram below shows the evolution of the individual Mayan languages from the Proto-Mayan.

Because the Mayan languages are part of the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area, they typically share some basic diagnostic traits.

  • “All use relational nouns instead of prepositions to indicate spatial relationships.” For example, “most relational nouns are metaphorically derived from body parts so that “on top of,” for example, is expressed by the word for head.”
  • In addition, Mayan languages use ergativity, which affects word order by treating the subject of an intransitive verb like the object of a transitive verb. 
  • This group of languages also possess “specific inflectional categories on verbs, and a special word class of ‘positionals’ (see below) which is typical of all Mayan languages.”


The traditional Proto-Mayan language had a predominant CVC syllable structure, only allowing consonant clusters across syllable boundaries. However, many current Mayan languages now show complex consonant clusters at both ends of syllables. Most Proto-Mayan roots were monosyllabic, except for a few disyllabic nominal roots. The sounds present in the modern languages are largely similar to this root set.

Vowels of Proto-Mayan Languages

  Front Central Back

[i] [iː]   [u] [uː]
Mid [e] [eː]   [o] [oː]
Low   [a] [aː]  

Consonants of Proto-Mayan Languages

  Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Stops [p][ß] [t][t’] [tj][tj’] [k][k’] [q][q’] glottal stop
Affricates   [tsĥ][ts’] [t∫h][t∫']      
Frictaves   [s] [∫]   [x] [h]
Nasals [m]   [n] [η]    
Liquids   [l][r]        
Glides     [w] [j]    

Phonological Evolution of Proto-Mayan

Each Mayan ethnic group and language differs from each other in the way that they have evolved from the Proto-Mayan language. Specific differences by each ethnic group include:

Mayan Family (Current) Change from Proto-Mayan to Current Phonology
Huastecan /r/ ► /j/
  /ŋ/ ► /h/
  /w/ ► /b/
Yucatecan /r/ ► /j/
  Palatal plosives ► /tS or t/
  /t/ ► /tS/ in word final position
Tonal distinctions for vowels (high/low)
Ch’olan /r/ ► /j/
  Short /a/ ► / ɨ/
  Long /e/ and /o/ ► /i/ and /u/
  Distinctive vowel length has been lost
Mamean /r/ ► /tS or t/
  palatal plosives ► /ts and ts’/
  Retained /q/ and /q’/ sounds
All eastern branches Palatal plosives ► /t and t’/
  /ŋ/ ► /x/
Quichean Palatal plosives ► /tS and tS’/
Retained /q/ and /q’/ sounds
Q’anjobalan /ŋ/ ► /n/
  Retained /q/ and /q’/ sounds
Wastek Only language to have /kw/
Kaqchikel (Quichean) /w/ ► /j/ (in polysyllabic words)
  /ɓ/ ► /ʔ/ (in polysyllabic words)
  Distinctive vowel length has been lost
  Preserved central lax vowel (like schwa)
Tz'utujil (Quichean) /w/ ► /j/ (in polysyllabic words)
  /ɓ/ ► /ʔ/ (in polysyllabic words)
Q'anjobalan-Chujean Distinctive vowel length has been lost
Uspantek (Quichean) Tonal distinctions for vowels (high/low)
Tzotzil (Tzeltalan) Tonal distinctions for vowels (high/low)

The shared innovations between Huastecan, Yucatecan and Ch'olan show that they separated from the other Mayan languages before the changes found in other branches happened.

Other phonological rules include:

  • The sound [h] as not been retained in any languages, but does impact other sounds based on its position within a word. For example, for languages that do still have vowel length, /h/ may lengthen a preceding vowel. In some languages /h/ became /w/, /j/, /ʔ/, /x, or disappeared
  • “One distinctive characteristic of Mayan languages is their use of glottalized consonants.” An apostrophe after the sound marks it as glottalized.


A complete phonetic alphabet for the Mayan languages, as well as information on pronunciation and spelling, can be found here:



Many of the languages tend to have long, complex words containing many prefixes and suffixes. A good example is:

  • The phrase “the teacher” in Tzotzil is “li jchanubtasvaneje.” This expression consists of the following pieces: li = ‘the’, j =‘human agent’, chan =‘learn’, ub =‘become’, tas =‘causative’, van =‘habitually’, ej =‘nominalizer’ and e = ‘end of phrase’. So, the meaning of this word is literally ‘one who habitually causes (someone) to learn something’.

Word order:

Word order varies by language, and rarely follows the same format as the English language. Following are examples of the various word orders for different Mayan languages:

  • Yucatecan, Tzotzil and Tojolab'al = verb+object+subect (VOS)
  • Mamean, Q'anjob'al, Jakaltek and one dialect of Chuj =verb+subject+object (VSO)
  • Only Ch'orti' = subject+verb+object (SVO), which is the same as the English language
  • Other Mayan languages allow both VSO and VOS word orders


  • Mayan nouns are fairly simple. They inflect only for number (plural or singular), and, when possessed, for person and number of their possessor.
  • There are no cases or genders in Mayan languages.
  • Relational nouns are used for location and relationships between entities. Body parts are used primarily, so “head” will replace “on top of.” For example, a Maya language speaker might say ”'the mountain's head' (literally 'its head the mountain') to mean 'on (top of) the mountain'”.



In the Proto-Mayan laguage, voice was typically expressed with passive construction and an antipassive rule that diminished the importance of the agent in a phrase
Current Mayan languages use the following types of voice:

  • Mediopassive (middle and passive voices simultaneously)
  • Incorporational (incorporating a direct object into the verb)
  • Instrumental (promoting the instrument to object position)
  • Referential


Mayan languages typically contain the following word classes:

  • Verbs
  • Adjectives
  • Nouns
  • Statives (predicate that expresses quality or state; can be adjectives, positionals or numbers)

Mayan languages also have between 250 and 500 distinct positional roots. Positionals relate to the position, shape, or person. For example, in the following Q'anjob'al sentences, the positionals are telan (“something large or cylindrical lying down as if having fallen”), woqan (“person sitting on a chairlike object”), and xoyan (“curled up like a rope or snake”).

  • Telan ay jun naq winaq yul b'e. = There is a man lying down fallen on the road
  • Woqan hin k'al ay max ek'k'u. = I spent the entire day sitting down
  • Yet ewi xoyan ay jun lob'aj stina. = Yesterday there was a snake lying curled up in the entrance of the house.


Verbs are marked for:

  • Aspect (i.e. past tense vs. irregular past tense)
  • Tense; this varies by language (i.e. past/non-past tenses vs. future/non-future tenses)
  • The person of the subject (i.e. 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person)
  • The person of the object (in the case of transitive verbs, which require a subject and 1+ objects))
  • Plurality of person

There are also different classes of very productive derivational affixes, most of which specify transitivity or voice. Mayan languages have few affixes with adverbial meanings, nor do they have affixes with the kind of meanings expressed by English modal auxiliary verbs.

Compounding of noun stems together is extensive. Possessed nouns are marked for person of possessor. Mayan languages are ergative. This means that the subject of an intransitive verb is treated the same as the object of a transitive verb. For examples of how this system works, please visit
Mayan languages have two sets of prefixes (or, in some cases such as in Tzotzil, suffixes) that serve the function of Indo-European pronouns.


In Mayan languages, classifers accompany numbers which identify the object(s) being counted. Classes might be specified by animate/inanimate or shape. Depending on the language, classifiers may be an affix, free form, or a pronoun. “When counting 'flat” objects,' a different form of numeral classifier is used than when counting round things, oblong items or people”. For an example of counting in Mayan languages, please refer to


  • All Mayan writing uses Latin characters (similar to the English language).
  • The Diccionario Maya Cordemex established the first acceptable orthography in Yucatec. As mentioned above, the ALMG has since established orthography for the Guatemalan languages based on the Diccionario Maya Cordemex.
  • The AMLG orthography can be found in the following table:




Sign Language

  • Yucatec Sign Language is separate from Mexican Sign Language and is spoken by both hearing and deaf rural Mayas. Because both hearing and deaf Mayans speak Yucatec Sign Language, the deaf are accepted and integrated into the community.
  • In other regions, the deaf are not as widely accepted. For example Highland Maya Sign Language, also known as “mute language,” is sometimes used for segregation.



Note: Accessibility to formal education varies according to which country a person resides in. For country specific information, please refer to the country page, or

Accessibility to formal education varies according to which country a person resides in. In the Mayan families, oral tradition is a primary form of non-formal education that passes down the values and history of the Mayan community. Emphasis is placed upon familial education, socialization, and non-formal education, with productivity, discipline and determination ranked as highly important. Working skills are one of the most valuable abilities a child must learn. These skills vary depending on the child’s gender, with females learning household tasks, bringing up children, tending to the animals, and craftwork. Males are taught to work the land, paid employment, and some child rearing tasks. By the age of 15, it is expected that the children carry out their expected tasks independently.

When families were asked about their expectations of school for their children, they do not make strong demands. Families believe the advantage of formal education is that their children will learn to speak, read and write in Spanish, as well as other skills such as math. Parents may be reluctant to send their children to school, as they may waste time playing with other children, and being exposed to poor influences, rather than spending all of their time in school learning.

Perceptions of Disabilities

Disability is viewed as a punishment from God for many Mayan people. People with disabilities often do not have access to services, have few human rights, and may face a great deal of discrimination. Families often hide their family members with disabilities, or overprotect them for fear of what other people will say about their disabled family member. Because of this, there is little information on the number of people with disabilities in Mayan culture.

US Based Mayan Population

Unfortunately, there is very little information on Maya language speakers in Oregon. However, there are some details on the prevalence of this population in the United States:

  • “Between 1989 and 2000, there was a significant migration of Mayans to the US. According to a study conducted in 2004 by the Guatemala Office of the International Organization of Migration (IOM), there are 139,702 Mayan-speaking immigrants in the US.” (Dardon, 2005).33) 
  • “There are especially large and cohesive Guatemalan Maya groups residing in various communities in Florida, Texas, Rhode Island, and California, and dispersed throughout the 50 states and Canada.”
  • "In some areas of the United States, Maya do not emphasize their indigenous identity as strongly as they do their Guatemalan nationality…Maya elders in Guatemalan home communities worry that migration to the United States has made the Maya forget who they are…Though some argue that the Maya are losing their culture by adopting non-indigenous ways, others point out that the Maya are adaptive and resilient and have centuries of experience reworking Maya identities in light of dominating and intrusive cultures."

Implications for the SLP

  • This has provided a general outline about the language structure and cultural aspects of the Mayan language. It is important to know that while there is a shared identity among the Mayan sub-groups and language families, the majority of Mayan people identify with a particular ethnic group above anything else. As such, when working with a Maya family, find out more about their particular ethnic group from both their perspective and any outside research you are able to do.
  • Topics such as healthcare and education vary more by country of origin versus specific Mayan language. As such, it is recommended that you visit the web page on this site for a family's home country to learn more about these areas.
  • It is important to be mindful when approaching a Maya family about the topic of disability as it differs quite significantly from US culture. Because disability is thought of as loss of the soul and/or punishment by the Maya gods, families may not be as willing or forthcoming when speaking about it with you.
  • Many Maya families from Guatemala moved to the area due to political unrest. Keep in mind that this may be a difficult topic of discussion. 
  • Oral tradition is a primary form of non-formal education for Maya families, with emphasis placed on familial education. Parents may be reluctant to send their children to school, as they may waste time playing with other children, and being exposed to poor influences, rather than spending all of their time in school learning.


Original Contributors: Kathleen Callaghan & Brianne Wilson, Winter term 2009

References and Resources