SIL Mexico

Mayan Family

blouse in traditional Tzeltal style

The Mayan language family comprises five sub-families of languages that are spoken in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. In Mexico, Mayan languages are spoken in seven states: Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche, San Luis Potosí and Veracruz. In the state of Chiapas, all indigenous languages are Mayan with the exception of Zoque. In Guatemala, Mayan languages are also predominant.

The Mayan family is not obviously related to other languages in Mexico.

The maps below show approximate distribution of Mayan languages, including some recent migrations.

huastecaMap: where the Mayan languages are spoken
huastecachujeana-kanjobalyucatecach'ol-tzotzilquicheana-mameanaMap: where the Mayan languages are spoken

The five subfamilies of the Mayan language family are:

There are numerous ruins of the ancient Mayan civilization in the states of Chiapas and Yucatan, as well as in Guatemala. These archeological sites and the artifacts discovered in them display a highly developed aesthetic sense—in stone sculpture, ceramic work, the casting of precious metals, mosaics, and the carving of crystal and jade—all of these produced without metal tools. The sites also display advanced scientific concepts. The Mayas had invented the abstract symbol of zero to simplify mathematics long before it was in use in Europe, and the Mayan calendar was older and more efficient than the Julian calendar that was in use by the Spaniards who conquered Mexico.

In the 1950s, traditional clothing was extensively worn by Mayan people, with patterns and designs indicative of their geographic area of origin. This distinction is being lost as both men and women are abandoning the traditional by purchasing their clothing. But in high altitude areas, many women still prefer traditional dress with its long skirts and shalws woven with wool from their own sheep.

Mayans cultivate corn (maize), beans, and squash, which form a typical diet. In addition, some cultivate small gardens near their homes, planting cabbage or other greens, long radishes, and other vegetables.

Many Mayans are forced to seek land in other areas since they have insufficient land to grow all the corn necessary for their families, as well as lacking wooded areas to provide them with firewood. For example, the Tseltal people, have expanded greatly from their original territory during the second half of the twentieth century, migrating into the jungles in eastern Chiapas.

Many of the languages in this family tend to have long, complex words containing many prefixes and suffixes. For example, ‘the teacher’ in Tsotsil 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’.

One distinctive characteristic of Mayan languages is their use of ejective consonants. These are formed by closing off the vocal folds (vocal cords) behind a consonant like p, t, or k, and raising the larynx to build up extra pressure that results in a “pop” after the consonant as the pressure is released by the tongue or lips. (See the diagram of the principal organs of articulation.) Usually, ejectives are written with an apostrophe following the consonant. For example, there are three ejectives in the Tseltal phrase c'ux c'ajc'al,

which means ‘it’s hot out’ (more literally, ‘the sun/day hurts’).


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