Detail of the codex Nuttall

The confusing names
“Maya” and “Mayo”


The great Mayan language family, like the Mayan empire that is known by the same name, occupies the south-eastern part of Mexico and much of Guatemala. Within that family, the language that is called Maya is spoken in the Yucatán peninsula. Mayo, by contrast, is a Uto-Aztecan language of the Taracahitic family, spoken in the north-west part of Mexico, along the Mayo river in the states of Sonora and Sinaloa. The traditional homelands of these languages are indicated on the following map.

The location of the Maya and Mayo languages in Mexico

The Maya language of the Yucatán (ISO code yua ) is sister to the Lacandón language, and cousin to Ch'ol, Tabasco Chontal, Huastec, Tojolabal, Tzeltal and Tzotzil, besides the Chuj-K'anjobal and Quiché-Mamean languages of Guatemala.

Mayo (ISO code mfy) is a close relative of the better-known Yaqui language yaq); it is estimated that there is about 80% mutual intelligibility between the two. In both cases the people call themselves and their language Yoreme(m) rather than Mayo or Yaqui.

The etymology of “Maya” and “Mayo”

The case of Maya and Mayo is the only one of those discussed here where the resemblance seems to be totally accidental. That is, it is only in this one case that the two names come from completely different sources and the similarity in the way they sound has nothing to do with a similarity of meaning in the naming language.

Various etymologies have been proposed for the name “Maya”. It may possibly come from the word ma'ya'ab which means ‘few, a little bit’, that is ‘(place) where few people live’ or from the word ma'yaan ja' ‘waterless (place)’, or from máay ja' ‘(place of) sedimented water’. Whatever the true etymology is, the name became attached to the Mayab, the area we know as the Yucatán Peninsula, and various other forms of the word refer to the Yucatecan people and their language, and the language family and civilizations associated with them.

The Mayo people (or Yoremem) apparently received their Spanish name from their traditional homeland’s being along the Mayo River of Sonora. It is not clear how the river got its name. It is possible that it comes from the Spanish month name mayo ‘May’; possibly the river was discovered or named in that month.


The image at the beginning of this page is a detail from Codex Nuttall, courtesy of Tom Frederiksen, and is used by permission.