Mayan Languages

Mayan languages constitute a group of languages spoken mainly in the Mesoamerican region. These languages were also prevalent during the ancient Mayan civilisation.

Even at that time, there were multiple Mayan languages spoken throughout the various Mayan kingdoms. However, some languages were considered the prestige languages and were spoken by the nobility and elite.

These languages are thought to have been developed through interaction between the diverse peoples of the Mesoamerican region.

Mayan Alphabet

Mayan Alphabet

Mayans used these alphabets to pen down a large body of literature, most of it included in Mayan books called codices Read more about the Mayan Alphabet >>

Mayan Glyphs

Mayan Glyphs

Mayans used a written language that utilised different images and symbols, there were two major types of glyphs - logograms and syllabograms Read more about the Mayan Glyphs >>

Mayan Hieroglyphics

Mayan Hieroglyphics

Mayan hieroglyphics were the script of the Mayan written language and it comprised of images and symbols Read more about the Mayan Hieroglyphics >>

Mayan Words

Mayan Words

Mayan words are part of Mayan languages that thrived over the course of several thousand years in and around the Yucatan Peninsula Read more about the Mayan Words >>

Mayan Writing

Mayan Writing

The Mayan writing system (hieroglyphs) used symbols to convey both complete words as well as phonetic syllables Read more about the Mayan Writing >>

Mayan Languages Origins and History

Mayan languages are derived from the so-called Proto-Mayan language which is thought to have been 5,000 years old. In the Archaic period, before 2,000 BC, a lot of words from Mixe – Zoquean languages are thought to have entered the Proto-Mayan language. During the Classic Period, between 250AD and 900AD, the contact between the Mayans and people from other cultures such as Lencan and Xinca became intense. Also, by this time, different Mayan languages were spoken in different kingdoms and city sates of the Mayan civilisation.

Mayan Languages Phonology

Proto-Mayan is the common ancestor of different Mayan languages and has been reconstructed using the comparative method. This language is dominated by a CVC syllable structure with only consonant clusters allowed across syllable boundaries. Different Mayan languages have been classified into different groups depending on their phonological differences. Three main groups of Mayan languages divided on this basis are Huastecan, Yucatecan, and Ch’olan.

Branches of Mayan Language

Based on the differences between the structure and the grammar, different Mayan languages have been classified into different branches. For instance, Mayan languages of the Huastecan branch are those that are spoken in the Mexican states of Veracruz and San Luis Potosi. Languages of the Yucatecan Branch, on the other hand, are those spoken predominantly in the Yucatan Peninsula. Other important branches of Mayan languages include Ch’olan, Tzeltalan, Q’anjobalan, Quichean–Mamean, Mamean, and others.

Language Innovations

A wide range of innovations have occurred in different groups of Mayan languages throughout centuries. Languages in each group are classified because of the innovations that distinguish them from languages in the other groups. Various innovations in sound and syllables increased the gaps between the languages over the course of centuries. Innovations have also occurred independently in several language branches. One example is the loss of a distinctive vowel length in Kaqchike and some other languages.

Mayan Loanwords

Mayan loanwords are those words of Mayan languages that are found in other languages. A variety of such words exist in different languages including English, Spanish, and some other Mesoamerican languages. For instance, the English word “shark” comes from the Mayan language word “xoc” which means fish. Similarly, the word “cigar” is derived from the Mayan language word “sicar” which means “to smoke tobacco leaves”. Various other Mayan loanwords have seeped into English and different other European and Mesoamerican languages.

Grammar and Morphology

The overall morphology – which includes the root words, parts of speech, affixes, stresses, and intonations etc – of Mayan languages is not very far removed from other Mesoamerican languages. However, its distinct grammatical differences make its morphology more agglutinating and polysynthetic. In the grammar of these languages, possessed nouns are reserved for person of possessor while there are no cases or genders in Mayan languages.

Word Order

Mayan languages have a basic verb-object-subject word order. However, there are possibilities of switching to verb-subject-object order in case of certain complex sentences particularly those where object and subject are of the same “animacy” or in case where the subject is definite. Various contemporary Mayan languages have a verb-object-subject word order which is fixed. Other languages, on the other hand, follow the verb-subject-object order. One Mayan language, Ch’orti, also has a basic subject-verb-object word order.

Numerical Classifiers

Numerical classifiers are used to specify the class of item that is being counted where the numeral appears with an accompanying classifier. Class is assigned based on the animate or inanimate nature of the object or on the basis of object’s general shape. Thus numeral classifier is different while counting ‘flat’ objects than when counting round objects or people. In some Mayan languages, numerical classifiers also take the form of affixes attached to the numeral.

Mayan Languages: Subjects, Objects, and Verbs

In Mayan languages, subject of an intransitive verb is treated in a manner similar to the object of a transitive verb, but differently from the subject of a transitive verb. Two different sets of affixes are used to indicate the person of subjects of intransitive verbs and the object of transitive verbs. Mayan verb has various affixes used to signify aspect, tense, and mood in various ways.


Earliest forms of literature in the Mayan language are found in the form of monumental inscriptions. These inscriptions usually deal with the documentation of ruler-ship, succession, and ascension. A lot of these inscriptions are also religious in nature. Some literature in Mayan languages was also written on perishable materials such as codices made of bark, not much of which survived due to humid weather. After the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, Latin letters were introduced for the Mesoamerican languages and this considerably increased the power of the language, allowing rich literature to be produced in the Mayan languages.

Writing Systems

Different kinds of writing systems have been used for documentation of Mayan languages. The earliest forms included monumental writings and hieroglyphs mainly consisting of logograms and syllables. The language on these glyphs that predominates the Classic-era inscriptions in called the Classic Maya. Following the Spanish conquest, colonial orthography replaced the classic system of hieroglyphic writing after the introduction of the Latin alphabet.

 Mayan Language Summary

Mayan languages are multiple languages spoken in the Mesoamerican region which have collectively been derived from the ancient proto-Mayan language. This Proto-Mayan language is thought to have been 5,000 years old although it diverged into different languages even before the Classic Period of the Maya civilisations. During this period, different Mayan languages were spoken in different regions of Maya. Based on the differences in the grammar and structures, scholars have divided different Mayan languages into different branches. Most of the languages in these branches are still spoken in various regions of Central America.