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Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs

The Classification of Mayan Languages
by Peter Mathews

Philologists and linguists have now been studying the Mayan 1   languages for over one hundred years, and there have been many studies both of how the Mayan languages may relate to other languages in Mesoamerica and also how they are related internally. 2   By the 1950s and 1960s, the study of historical and comparative linguistics was detailed enough that more sophisticated classifications of the Mayan languages were possible. 3 

In fact the Mayan languages are among the best documented in the world, and ironically this was initially due to the Spanish conquerors of New Spain and Guatemala. When they arrived in the New World in the years following the conquest, the Spanish clergy faced a huge task. They fervently believed that the Maya Indians needed to be converted to Christianity in order to save their souls. However there were very few priests to accomplish the mission. 4   The priests and friars quickly adopted the solution of learning the Mayan languages in order to proselytize to the Indians, and many of them compiled vocabularies, wrote grammars, and translated catechisms and so on to help the priests and friars who came after them. The result is that we have good documentation of many Mayan languages from the 16th and 17th centuries. These early works complement the many excellent linguistic studies of the modern languages and also our increasing knowledge of the language of the Classic Maya hieroglyphs.

There have been several recent classifications of the Mayan languages, and for the most part they are in agreement. 5   Generally it is agreed that there are eight major sub-groupings of the Mayan languages:

Wastekan (Huastecan in the old orthography),
Yukatekan (Yucatecan),
Ch’olan (Cholan),
Tzeltalan (Tzeltalan),
Chujean (Chujean),
Q’anjob’alan (Kanhobalan),
Mamean (Mamean),
K’ichee’an (Quichean).

These eight sub-groupings of the Mayan languages are reflected in thirty or thirty-one languages (by most linguists’ count) that have survived to modern times 6 , in addition to two languages that were documented by 16th century Spanish friars, but which are now extinct.

Another way in which Mayan languages have been classified is in somewhat larger groupings based roughly on geography: the so-called "lowland" Mayan languages, and the "highland" languages. The lowland Mayan languages comprise the first four of the above sub-groupings: Wastekan, Yukatekan, Ch’olan, and Tzeltalan. Three of these in turn seem to be implicated as possible languages of the hieroglyphic system. Ch’olan can be demonstrated to be most closely tied to Maya hieroglyphs, but Yukatekan and, more rarely and locally, Tzeltalan are also represented in the inscriptions of some sites.

The Ch’olan sub-group of Mayan languages has three modern descendants: Ch’orti’, Ch’ontal, and Ch’ol. Two extinct Mayan languages also belong to this sub-group: Ch’olti’ and Acalan. There is some debate over how all these languages are to be classified internally. The traditional model (see for example Kaufman and Norman 1984:81) has a two-branch system with Acalan and its modern-day descendent Chontal and Ch’ol comprising the "Western Ch’olan" branch, and Ch’olti’ and Ch’orti’ as the two sub-branches of "Eastern Ch’olan", as shown below.

Ch'olan sub-branch of Mayan languages

Furthermore, based on analyses of Maya hieroglyphic grammar done in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was widely held that the language of the Maya hieroglyphs was closest to Ch’ol.

A more recent proposed classification of the Ch’olan languages has been put forward by John Robertson (1992:3; 1998:10-11; see also Stuart, Houston, and Robertson 1999:II-39), who has argued that the language of the hieroglyphs (for which Robertson, David Stuart, and Stephen Houston have since proposed the label "Classic Mayan") is the direct ancestor of Ch’olti’, which in turn is the ancestor of Ch’orti’, as illustrated in the following chart.

Classification of the Ch'olan languages

At present, there is still some debate over these two proposed models, which in turn obviously has implications for the language of the hieroglyphs: was it closer to modern Ch’ol or to modern Ch’orti’ and/or sixteenth century Ch’olti’?

While the Ch’olan language "Classic Mayan" is clearly the most important one relating to the hieroglyphs, it is clear that it was not the only one involved. It has long been known that many northern inscriptions were written in an ancestral form of Yukatek Mayan, and recently it has been argued that some inscriptions at Tonina have constructions in Tzeltal. Thus far these three–the Ch’olan "Classic Mayan", Yukatek, and Tzeltal–are the only three languages that have been identified as involved in the glyphs.


  1. It has been conventional for linguists to use "Mayan" with final "n", while archaeologists, epigraphers, and historians usually use the term "Maya". I shall use these distinctions in this online Maya Dictionary. The term "Mayan", therefore, refers to a Mayan language, be it a modern language, a reconstructed "proto-"language, or the language of the hieroglyphs (which is now commonly referred to as "Classic Mayan"). "Maya" refers to such things as Classic Maya civilization, Maya writing, Maya ritual, etc.
  1. Earlier studies include those of Pimental (1862), Orozco y Berra (1864), Berendt (1876), Stoll (1884), Charencey (1890), Gatschet (ca.1895 [see also Campbell 1973]; 1900), León (1901), Thomas and Swanton (1911), Lehmann (1920), Gates (1920), Rivet (1924), Schmidt (1926), Kroeber (1939), Mason (1940), and Halpern (1942).
  1. More recent studies include those by Swadesh (1961), Kaufman (1964; 1968; 1969; 1972), McQuown (1956; 1964), Suárez (1983), England (1994), and Campbell (1988). A useful summary of the history of the classification of Mayan languages can be found in Campbell (1977:74-101).
  1. In 1536, there were probably only about sixty Spanish priests and friars in New Spain. In 1545—three years after the founding of the Spanish capital at Mérida—the first Franciscan friars arrived in Yucatán: they were four in number! Even by 1580, there were only thirty-eight (Farriss 1984:93; Clendinnen 1987:47-54). The Yukatek Maya Indians they had come to convert to Christianity numbered an estimated one million–plus on the eve of the conquest.
  1. Perhaps the major dissenting view is proposed by John Robertson (1992; 1998; Stuart, Houston, and Robertson 1999), whose views differ mainly over the Chujean and Q’anhob’alan sub-groupings and the internal relationships within the all-important Ch’olan sub-grouping.
  1. One of them, Chikomuseltek, is now extinct; there were only a few speakers by the early decades of the twentieth century, and by the 1970s only odd words were remembered by people in the original Chikomuseltek region (Campbell 1988:199).

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