Yucatec Maya language

"Maya language" redirects here. For other uses, see Maya language (disambiguation).
Màaya T'àan
Native to Mexico, Belize
Region Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche, northern Belize
Native speakers
790,000 (2010 census)[1]
Official status
Official language in
Regulated by INALI
Language codes
ISO 639-3 yua
Glottolog yuca1254[3]

Yucatec Maya (Yukatek Maya in the revised orthography of the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala), called Màaya t'àan (lit. "Maya speech") by its speakers, is a Mayan language spoken in the Yucatán Peninsula and northern Belize. To native speakers, the proper name is Maya and it is known only as Maya. The qualifier "Yucatec" is a tag linguists use to distinguish it from other Mayan languages (such as K'iche' and Itza'). Thus, the use of term Yucatec Maya to refer to the language is a scientific jargon or nomenclature; its use is roughly equivalent to persons referring to English as British Anglo-Saxon.

Yucatec Maya is incorrectly used as an ascribed ethnic, social, cultural, historical, national, racial, or civilizational term of identity or name. The use of Yucatec Maya as a term of identity is correctly used in the same way that terms such as Indo-European or Romance language speakers are used. The proper names of the Mayan languages, in contrast, tend to be the ethnic or cultural-racial names of identity. The word Mayan is, however, not an ethnic or cultural label or other term of social, political identification; Mayan, as an identity term, is an ascribed identity, not a self-identity.

In the Mexican states of Yucatán, some parts of Campeche, Tabasco, Chiapas, and Quintana Roo, Maya remains many speakers' first language today, with 800,000 speakers. There are 6,000 speakers in Belize. When these speakers identify as indigenous, they identify as Maya, not Mayan.


Yucatán Peninsula

Yucatec Maya forms part of the Yucatecan branch of the Mayan language family. The Yucatecan branch divides into the subgroups Mopan-itza and Yucatec-Lacandon, which in turn split into four languages: Itza, Mopan in Mopan-Itza and Yucatec Maya and Lacandon in Yucatec-Lacandon (as seen in the image). All the languages in the Mayan language family are thought to originate from an ancestral language that was spoken some 5,000 years ago, known as Proto-Mayan.[4]

Christopher Columbus traded with Maya merchants off the coast of Yucatán in 1502, but never made landfall. Arriving in Yucatán during the decade following Columbus' first contact with the Maya, the first Spanish to set foot on Yucatán soil did so by chance, the survivors of a shipwreck in Caribbean. Most of the shipwrecked men were sacrificed, leaving just two survivors. In 1519, one of these men (Gerónimo de Aguilar) accompanied Hernán Cortez to the Yucatán island of Cozumel, also taking part in the conquest of central Mexico. The other survivor (Gonzalo Guerrero) became a Mexican legend as father of the first Mestizo: by Aguilar’s account, Guerrero "went native"- he married native women, wore traditional native apparel, and even fought against the Spanish.[5] Francisco de Montejo's military incursion of Yucatán took three generations and three wars of heavy fighting that lasted a total of 24 years.The Maya Empire, which had been around since 1500 BC, was on a stable decline when Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1517 AD. From 200 to 800 AD the Maya were thriving and making great technological advances and created a system for recording numerals and hieroglyphs that was more complex and efficient than what had come before. They migrated Northward and Eastward to the Yucatán peninsula from Palenque, Jaina, and Bonampak. In the 12th and 13th centuries, a coalition emerged in the Yucatán peninsula between three important centers, Uxmal, Chichen Uitza, and Mayapan, where they were able to grow and practice intellectual and artistic achievement during a period of peace, but then war broke out and both intellectual and artistic achievements came to end. By the 15th century Mayan Toltec fell. In the 18th century the Spanish turned the lands to large maize and cattle plantations with luxurious haciendas and exported natural resources.[6] The Maya where subjects of the Spanish Empire from 1542 to 1821.

Language tree

During the colonization of the Yucatán peninsula, the Spanish believed that in order to evangelize and govern the Maya they needed to reform Yucatec Maya and shape it to serve their ends of religious conversion and social control.[7] Spanish missionaries undertook a project of linguistic and social transformation known as reducción (from Spanish reducir), a term not widely recognized by historians. The linguistic aspect of this process involved the reformulation of Yucatec Maya, primarily through the translation of religious texts from Spanish into Yucatec Maya and the creation of neologisms needed to express Catholic religious concepts. The result of the process of reducción was Maya reducido, a semantically transformed version of Yucatec Maya. Along with the attempted eradication of all Maya religious practices and associated written works, the missionaries thus shaped a language that was used to convert, subjugate, and govern the Maya population of the Yucatán peninsula. Notwithstanding, Maya reducido was appropriated by its Maya speakers for their own purposes and served efforts to resist colonial domination. The oldest written records in Maya reducido (which used the Roman alphabet) were written by Maya notaries between 1557 and 1851. These works can be found in the United States, Mexico, and Spain in libraries and archives[5]


A characteristic feature of Yucatec Maya (and all Mayan languages) is the use of ejective consonants/pʼ/, /tʼ/, /kʼ/. Often referred to as glottalized consonants, they are produced at the same place of oral articulation as their non-ejective stop counterparts – /p/, /t/, /k/. However, the release of the lingual closure is preceded by a raising of the closed glottis to increase the air pressure in the space between the glottis and the point of closure, resulting in a release with a characteristic popping sound. These sounds are written using an apostrophe after the letter to distinguish them from the plain consonants (e.g., t'àan "speech" vs. táan "forehead"). The apostrophes indicating these sounds were not common in written Maya until the 20th century but are now becoming more common. The Mayan b is also glottalized, an implosive /ɓ/, and is sometimes written b', though this is becoming less common.

Yucatec Maya is one of only three Mayan languages to have developed tone, the others being Uspantek and one dialect of Tzotzil. Yucatec distinguishes short vowels and long vowels – indicated by single versus double letters (ii ee aa oo uu) – and between high- and low-tone long vowels. High-tone vowels begin on a high pitch and fall in phrase-final position but rise elsewhere, sometimes without much vowel length; in either case this is indicated in writing by means of an acute accent (íi ée áa óo úu). Low-tone vowels begin on a low pitch and are sustained in length; they are sometimes but not always indicated in writing by means of a grave accent (ìi èe àa òo ùu). Also, Yucatec has contrastive laryngealization (creaky voice) on long vowels, sometimes realized by means of a full intervocalic glottal stop and written as a long vowel with an apostrophe in the middle, as in the plural suffix -o'ob.

Acquisition of Phonology

Overall notes on child acquisition

Phonology acquisition is received in an idiosyncratic manner. While one child seems to have severe difficulties with affricates and sibilants, another might have no difficulties with these, but significant problems with sensitivity to semantic content, which the first child might show no issue with.[8]


There seems to be no incremental development in phonology patterns. Monolingual children learning this language have shown acquisition of aspiration and deobstruentization, but experience difficulty with sibilants and affricates, while other children exhibit reverse relation. In the same vein, children have been observed fronting palatoalveolars, while others retract lamino-alveolars, while others retract both.[8]

Glottalization was not found to pose an articulatory problem any more difficult than aspiration does. This is significant with Yucatec Mayan languages' use of ejectives. Glottal constriction is high in the developmental hierarchy, in which features like [fricative], [apical], or [fortis] are found to be later acquired.[9]


Neutral vowels [-tonality] are far less subject to mishearing than any long high, broken high, and long low vowels (all[+tonality]). Long vowels appear to be mutually confusable. Possible reason for this phenomenon of high confusion for long nuclei is that the nuclei themselves are more complex. There is a tendency for back vowels to be misheard more often than front vowels in children acquiring the language.[9]

Vowel quality seems to stabilize much earlier than other associated prosodic variations, though the neutral tone version of the vowel is typically the first to be stabilized and secure than the tonal variants, especially back vowels.


Like almost all Mayan languages, Yucatec Maya is verb-initial. Word order varies between VOS and VSO, with VOS being the most common. Many sentences may appear to be SVO, but this order is due to a topic–comment system similar to that of Japanese. One of the most widely studied areas of Yucatec is the semantics of time in the language. Yucatec, like many other languages of the world (Kalaallisut, arguably Mandarin Chinese, Guaraní and others) does not have the grammatical category of tense. Temporal information is encoded by a combination of aspect, inherent lexical aspect (aktionsart), and pragmatically governed conversational inferences. Yucatec is unusual in lacking temporal connectives such as 'before' and 'after'. Another aspect of the language is the core-argument marking strategy, which is a 'fluid S system' in the typology of Dixon (1994)[10] where intransitive subjects are encoded like agents or patients based upon a number of semantic properties as well as the perfectivity of the event.

Verb paradigm

Class Ia: Transitive verbs of action or state[11] ('het', to open [something])
Phase Example
Present tin (tan-in) het-ik "I am opening something"
Past Simple tin (t-in) het-ah "I opened something"
Recent tz'in (tz'on-in) het-ah "I have just opened something"
Distant in het-m-ah "I opened something a long time ago"
Future Simple hēn (he-in) het-ik-e "I shall open something"
Possible kin (ki-in) het-ik "I may open something"
Going-to future bin in het-e "I am going to open something"
Imperative het-e "Open it!
Class Ia: Intransitive verbs of action or state ('het', to open)
Phase Example
Present tin (tan-in) het-el or het-el-in-kah (het-l-in-kah) "I am performing the act of opening"
Past Simple het-en or t'-het-en "I opened"
Recent tz'in het-el "I have just opened"
Future Simple hēn (he-in) het-el-e "I shall open"
Going-to future ben-het-ăk-en "I am going to open"
Imperative het-en "Open!"
Class Ia: Passive verbs of action or state ('het', to be opened)
Phase Example
Present tun (tan-u) het-s-el "it is being opened"
Past het-s-ah-b-i or het-s-ah-n-i "it was opened"
Future hu (he-u) het-s-el-e or bin het-s-ăk-i "it will be opened"
Class Ib: Transitive verbs of action or state with causal ('kim', to kill [something])
Phase Example
Present tin (tan-in) kim-s-ik "I am killing something"
Past Simple tin (t-in) kim-s-ah "I killed something"
Recent tz'in (tz'on-in) kim-s-ah "I have just [killed] something"
Distant in kim-s-m-ah "I killed something a long time ago"
Future Simple hēn (he-in) kim-s-ik-e "I shall kill something"
Possible kin (ki-in) kim-s-ik "I may kill something"
Going-to future bin in kim-s-e "I am going to kill something"
Imperative kim-s-e "Kill it!
Class Ia: Intransitive verbs of action or state with causal ('kim', to die)
Phase Example
Present tin (tan-in) kim-il or kim-il-in-kah "I am dying"
Past Simple kim-i or t'-kim-i "He died"
Recent tz'u kim-i "He has just died"
Future Simple hēn (he-in) kim-il-e "I shall die"
Going-to future bin-kim-ăk-en "I am going to die"
Imperative kim-en "Die!"
Class Ia: Passive verbs of action or state ('kim', to be killed)
Phase Example
Present tin (tan-in) kim-s-il "I am being killed"
Past kim-s-ah-b-i or kim-s-ah-n-i "he was killed"
Future hēn (he-in) kim-s-il-e or bin kim-s-ăk-en "I shall be killed"
Class II: Verbs in t-al, "endowed with" ('kux', to live)
Phase Example
Present tin (tan-in) kux-t-al "I am living"
Past kux-t-al-ah-en or kux-l-ah-en "I lived"
Future Simple hēn (he-in) kux-t-al-e "I shall be living"
Going-to future bin kux-tal-ăk-en "I am going to live"
Imperative kux-t-en or kux-t-al-en "Live!"
Class IIIa: Transitive nominal verbs ('tz'on', gun)
Phase Example
Present tin (tan-in) tz'on-ik "I am shooting something"
Past Simple tin (t-in) tz'on-ah "I shot something"
Recent tz'in (tz'ok-in) tz'on-ah "I have just shot something"
Distant in tz'on-m-ah "I shot something a long time ago"
Future Simple hēn (he-in) tz'on-ik-e "I shall shoot something"
Possible kin (ki-in) tz'on-ik "I may shoot something"
Going-to future bin in tz'on-e "I am going to shoot something"
Imperative tz'on-e "Shoot it!
Class IIIa: Intransitive nominal verbs ('tz'on', gun)
Phase Example
Present tin (tan-in) tz'on "I am shooting"
Past Simple tz'on-n-ah-en "I shot"
Recent tz'in (tz'ok-in) tz'on "I have just shot"
Distant tz'on-n-ah-ah-en "I shot a long time ago"
Future Simple hēn (he-in) tz'on-e "I shall shoot"
Going-to future bin-tz'on-ăk-en "I am going to shoot"
Imperative tz'on-en "Shoot!"
Class IIIa: Passive nominal verbs ('tz'on', gun)
Phase Example
Present tin (tan-in) tz'on-ol "I am being shot"
Past tz'on-ah-b-en or tz'on-ah-n-en "I was shot"
Future hēn (he-in) tz'on-ol-e "I shall be shot"


The Maya were literate in pre-Columbian times, when the language was written using Maya script. The language itself can be traced back to proto-Yucatecan, the ancestor of modern Yucatec Maya, Itza, Lacandon and Mopan. Even further back, the language is ultimately related to all other Maya languages through proto-Mayan itself.

Yucatec Maya is now written in the Latin script. This was introduced during the Spanish Conquest of Yucatán which began in the early 16th century, and the now-antiquated conventions of Spanish orthography of that period ("Colonial orthography") were adapted to transcribe Yucatec Maya. This included the use of x for the postalveolar fricative sound (often spelled as sh in English), a sound that in Spanish has since turned into a velar fricative nowadays spelled j.

In colonial times a "reversed c" (ɔ) was often used to represent [tsʼ], which is now more usually represented with dz (and with tz' in the revised ALMG orthography).

The Maya do not use or recognize the ALMG. Unfortunately, some academics have imposed the ALMG—an orthographic convention created by Guatemalan Maya for Guatemalan Mayan languages—on Maya orthography. While this seems to be a politically correct move, it is actually highly incorrect in both linguistic and political senses. To state what should be obvious, the Maya, who reside in Yucatán Mexico, are not native Guatemalans, are not Guatemalan Mayans, and do not live in Guatemala, and thus have not recognized or accepted the conventions established by Guatemalan Maya. Indeed, within the Yucatán Peninsula, there are three to six different groups of Maya revitalization scholars and intelligentsia that have been each developing and asserting their own specific version of a "definitive, authoritative" convention for writing Maya.

There is no consensus among these groups. There is no single orthodoxy; and thus books and other publications continue to be published in heterodox conventions. The main points of dispute are with regard to the representation of glottalization of consonants, tone and accent of vowels, the spacing of compound words and prefixing or other conjoining of clitics and morphemes, punctuation, and the actual spelling of words. It is not infrequent to find two publications might use the same contemporary orthography, but because writers often spell according to their own dialectical pronunciation, the spellings of words can be quite varied and inconsistent.


Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m [m] n [n]
Implosive b [ɓ]
Plosive aspirated p [pʰ] t [tʰ] k [kʰ] ' [ʔ]
ejective p' [pʼ] t' [tʼ] k' [kʼ]
Affricate aspirated tz [tsʰ] ch [tʃʰ]
ejective tz' [tsʼ] ch' [tʃʼ]
Fricative s [s] x [ʃ] j [x] h [h]
Approximant w [w~v] l [l] y [j]
Flap r [ɾ]

† the letter w may represent the sounds /w/ or /v/. The sounds are interchangeable in Yucatec Mayan although /w/ is considered the proper sound.


Yucatec Maya English
Pronunciation of
western Yucatán,
northern Campeche
and Central Quintana Roo
Normal translation Literal translation
Bix a beel? Bix a beh? How are you? How is your road?
Ma'alob, kux teech? Good, and you? Not bad, as for you?
Bey xan teen. Same with me. Thus also to me.
Tu'ux ka bin? Where are you going? Where do you go?
T(áan) in bin xíimbal. I am going for a walk.
Bix a k'aaba'? What is your name? How are you named?
In k'aaba'e' Jorge. My name is Jorge. My name, Jorge.
Jach ki'imak in wóol in wilikech. Pleased to meet you. Very happy my heart to see you.
Ba'ax ka wa'alik? What's up? What (are) you saying?
What do you say?
Mix ba'al. Mix ba'ah. Nothing.
Don't mention it.
No thing.
Bix a wilik? How does it look? How you see (it)?
Jach ma'alob. Very good. Very not-bad
Ko'ox! Let's go! (For two people - you and I)
Ko'one'ex! Let's go! (For a group of people)
Ba'ax a k'áat? What do you want?
(Tak) sáamal. Aasta sáamah. See you tomorrow. Until tomorrow.
Jach Dyos bo'otik. Thank you.
God bless you very much.
Very much God pays (it).
Uacax Cow

Yucatec-language programming is carried by the CDI's radio stations XEXPUJ-AM (Xpujil, Campeche), XENKA-AM (Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo) and XEPET-AM (Peto, Yucatán).

The 2006 film Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson, was filmed entirely in Yucatec Maya. The script was translated into Maya by Hilario Chi Canul of the Maya community of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, who also worked as a language coach on the production.

In the video game Civilization V: Gods & Kings, Pacal, leader of the Maya, speaks in Yucatec Maya.

In August 2012, the Mozilla Translathon 2012 event brought over 20 Yucatec Mayan speakers together in a localization effort for the Google Endangered Languages Project, the Mozilla browser, and the MediaWiki software used by Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects.[12]

Baktun, the "first ever Mayan telenovela," premiered in August 2013.[13][14]

See also


  1. INALI (2012) México: Lenguas indígenas nacionales
  2. Ley General de Derechos Lingüisticos Indígenas
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Yucateco". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. "Mayan Language Family | About World Languages". aboutworldlanguages.com. Retrieved 2016-08-02.
  5. 1 2 Restall, Matthew (1999). The Maya World Yucatec Culture and Society, 1550-1850. Stanford University press,Stanford,California. ISBN 0-8047-3658-8.
  6. "Yucatan History". Institute for the Study of the Americas. Retrieved 2016-08-02.
  7. Hanks, William F. (2012-01-01). "BIRTH OF A LANGUAGE: The Formation and Spread of Colonial Yucatec Maya". Journal of Anthropological Research. 68 (4): 449–471. JSTOR 24394197.
  8. 1 2 Straight, Henry Stephen (1976) "The Acquisition of Maya Phonology Variation in Yucatec Child Language" in Garland Studies in American Indian Linguistics. pp.207-18
  9. 1 2 Straight, Henry Stephen 1976
  10. Dixon, Robert M. W. (1994). Ergativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-44898-0.
  11. Tozzer, Alfred M. (1977). A Maya Grammar. New York: Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-23465-7.
  12. Alexis Santos (2013-08-13). "Google, Mozilla and Wikimedia projects get Maya language translations at one-day 'translathon'". Engadget. Retrieved 2012-08-21.
  13. Munoz, Jonathan (2013-07-09). "First ever Mayan telenovela premieres this summer". Voxxi. Retrieved 2013-08-02.
  14. Randal C. Archibold (August 1, 2013). "A Culture Clings to Its Reflection in a Cleaned-Up Soap Opera". The New York Times. Retrieved August 2, 2013.


Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo (dir.); Juan Ramón Bastarrachea Manzano (ed.); William Brito Sansores (ed.); Refugio Vermont Salas (col.); David Dzul Góngora (col.); Domingo Dzul Poot (col.) (2007) [1980]. Diccionario Maya (in Spanish). Mexico City [Mérida, Yucatán]: Editorial Porrúa [Cordemex]. ISBN 978-970-07-2741-7. 
Blair, Robert W.; Refugio Vermont Salas; Norman A. McQuown (rev.) (1995) [1966]. Spoken Yucatec Maya ((Book I + Audio, Lessons I-VI; Book II + Audio, Lessons VII-XII). Program in Latin American Studies. Chapel Hill, NC: Duke UniversityUniversity of North Carolina. 
Bolles, David (1997–). "Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language" (revised 2003). Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI). Retrieved 2007-02-01.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
Bolles, David; Alejandra Bolles (2004). "A Grammar of the Yucatecan Mayan Language" (revised online edition, 1996 Lee, New Hampshire). Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI). The Foundation Research Department. Retrieved 2007-02-01. 
Bricker, Victoria; Eleuterio Po'ot Yah; Ofelia Dzul de Po'ot (1998). A Dictionary of the Maya Language as Spoken in Hocabá, Yucatán. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. ISBN 0-87480-569-4. 
Brody, Michal (2004). The fixed word, the moving tongue: variation in written Yucatec Maya and the meandering evolution toward unified norms (PhD thesis, UT Electronic Theses and Dissertations, Digital Repository ed.). Austin: University of Texas. OCLC 74908453. hdl:2152/1882. 
Coe, Michael D. (1992). Breaking the Maya Code. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05061-9. OCLC 26605966. 
Curl, John (2005). Ancient American Poets: The Songs of Dzitbalche. Tempe: Bilingual Press. ISBN 1-931010-21-8.  External link in |title= (help)
McQuown, Norman A. (1968). "Classical Yucatec (Maya)". In Norman A. McQuown (Volume ed.). Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 5: Linguistics. R. Wauchope (General Editor). Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 201–248. ISBN 0-292-73665-7. OCLC 277126. 
Tozzer, Alfred M. (1977) [1921]. A Maya Grammar (unabridged republication ed.). New York: Dover. ISBN 0-486-23465-7. OCLC 3152525. 

Language courses

In addition to universities and private institutions in Mexico, (Yucatec) Maya is also taught at:

Audio course materials are available for purchase at

Free online dictionary, grammar and texts:

Yucatec Maya language test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator
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