Ch’ol language

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Native to Chiapas, Mexico
Region Northern Chiapas
Ethnicity Indigenous Maya
Native speakers
100,000-200,000 (2000 – date of reference or census)
  • Ch'olan-Tseltalan
    • Chol-Chontal
      • Ch'ol
  • Tila
  • Tumbala
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3 639-3
Linguist list
ctu cti, ctu
Glottolog chol1282[1]

The Ch'ol (Chol) language is a member of the western branch of the Mayan language family used by the Ch'ol people in the Mexican state of Chiapas. There are two main dialects:

  • Ch'ol of Tila spoken by 43,870 people of whom 10,000 are monolinguals in the villages of Tila, Vicente Guerrero, Chivalito and Limar in Chiapas.
  • Ch'ol of Tumbalá spoken by 90,000 people of whom 30,000 are monolinguals in the villages of Tumbalá, Sabanilla, Misijá, Limar, Chivalita and Vicente Guerrero.

Records of the language known as Ch’ol, a Mayan language, can be traced back to 1789 in Tila, Chiapas Mexico.[2] The word ch’ol refers to both the language and the speakers.[3] The speakers call the language lak ty’an, which translates to ‘our speech’.[3]  Prior to the Spanish conquests, populations that spoke the language ranged from the Usumacinta River, to the mouth of the Lacantun River, and along the Tulija River.[2]  As a result of the Spanish conquests, and a number of other factors, the majority of the ch’ol speaking population were confined to Tila and Tumbala, Chiapas.[2] The estimated number of modern speakers is between 100,000 and 200,000 people.[3]  Ch’ol is one of three Mayan languages that are classified under the Cholan category.[4] It is an ergative language that also has accusative patterns in the main verbs which shows split-ergativity.[5]

The Cholan branch of the Mayan languages is considered to be particularly conservative and Ch'ol along with its two closest relatives the Ch'orti' language of Guatemala and Honduras, and the Chontal Maya language of Tabasco are believed to be the modern languages that best reflect their relationship with the Classic Maya language.[6]


The people who speak Ch'ol as their primary language refer to themselves as Choles. The estimated number of modern speakers is between 100,000 and 200,000. Currently, the largest Chol town is Tila, which is located in northern Chiapas, Mexico. Tila has an estimated 35,000 residents, and they speak Chol in their daily life.[7] Ch'ol is the first language learned by the children and is spoken in their homes and villages. Due to the growing need to leave the village for higher education, children learn Spanish at an early age.[3] A majority of choles live in rural areas where they grow corn and beans and raise livestock, primarily chickens and turkey. The rural choles are known to have a lesser understanding of the Spanish language.

During colonial times, the Choles occupied the heart of the Maya Old Empire, which is where the most famous Maya art was found.[8] It is believed that the Choles may have a greater ethnological importance than any other division of the Maya group. This is because they had been influenced very slightly or not at all by Mexican Cultural contacts although the outside influence increases each year.[8]

Geographical distribution[edit]

Chiapas, Mexico

A majority of the Choles reside in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. They are also located in Tabasco and Campeche, Mexico. The Ch'ol communities in Chiapas are primarily located in the municipalities of Tila, Palenque, Sabanilla, Salto de Agua, and Tumbalá.[9]


Chol consists of two distinct dialects, Tila and Tumbalá. They are not very different from one another; there are only slight differences between their phonology and morphology.

Álvarez states the differences in the following quote, "The phonological differences include, for example, that in Tumbalá the affricate stop [ʧ] and the fricative [ʃ] are realized as retroflexes. Such a salient feature is easily noticeable for the speaker of the Tila variety. In their morphology, these dialects have a different realization of the progressive and the perfective aspect. In Tumbalá, the progressive morpheme is realized as wo(li), while in the Tila variety it is chonko(l). In Tumbalá, the perfective is realized as tsa’ but in Tila it is realized as tyi."[10]



The basic word order is VOS. However, word order varies and VOS is not always grammatical: factors including animacy, definiteness, topicalization and focus contribute to determining which word order is appropriate.[11]


The system of agreements for all Mayan languages are ergative–absolutive. Ch'ol is different because it displays aspectually based splits. The normal ergative–absolutive alignment is present with perfective clauses, while imperfective and progressive clauses show a nominative–accusative alignment.[12]

Numeral classifiers are obligatorily included in noun phrases containing numerals. They occur between the numeral and the noun. The classifiers vary according to semantic properties of the noun: -tyikil is used for persons, -tyejk for trees, etc. [13]


There are twenty consonants with five ejectives and one glottal stop in the Ch'ol phonemic inventory, along with six phonemic vowel sounds. The ejective consonants are contrastive in relation with the other fifteen consonants. An example of this relationship is that ty'an means 'word', and tyan translates to 'lime'.[3] The sixth vowel found in Ch'ol is one of the main aspects that distinguishes it from the other Cholan languages.[4]

Vowels: (i, ɨ, u, e, o, a); lengthened aspirated counterparts: (iʰ, ɨʰ, uʰ, eʰ, oʰ, aʰ)[14]

Below is the consonant inventory of Ch'ol.[15]

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stops Voiced b
Voiceless p k ʔ
Ejective p' tʲ' k'
Fricative s ʃ x
Affricates Voiceless ts
Ejective ts'
Nasals m ɲ
Laterals l
Trills r
Glides w j

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). |chapterurl= missing title (help). Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  2. ^ a b c Hopkins, Nicholas A.; Cruz Guzmán, Ausencio; Josserand, †J. Kathryn (2008-01-01). "A Chol (Mayan) Vocabulary from 1789". International Journal of American Linguistics. 74 (1): 83–114. ISSN 0020-7071. doi:10.1086/529464. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Coon, Jessica (2004). Roots and words in Chol (Mayan): a distributed morphology approach. p. 10. 
  4. ^ a b McQuown, Norman (1956). "The Classification of the Mayan Languages". International Journal of American Linguistics. 22: 191–195 – via JSTOR. 
  5. ^ Quizar, Robin; Knowles-Berry, Susan (1988). "Ergativity in the Cholan Languages". International Journal of American Linguistics. 54: 73–95 – via JSTOR. 
  6. ^ Houston, S., O. Chinchilla, Stuart D. "The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing", U. of Oklahoma Press, 2001.
  7. ^ Josserand, J. Kathryn; Hopkins, Nicholas A. (2005-01-01). "Lexical Retention and Cultural Significance in Chol (Mayan) Ritual Vocabulary". Anthropological Linguistics. 47 (4): 401–423. 
  8. ^ a b Thompson, J. Eric (1938-01-01). "Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Reports on the Chol Mayas". American Anthropologist. 40 (4): 584–604. 
  9. ^ Álvarez, J. J. (2011, August 01). A grammar of Chol, a Mayan language. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from
  10. ^ Álvarez, J. J. (2011, August 01). A grammar of Chol, a Mayan language. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from
  11. ^ Vázquez Álvarez, Juan Jesús. A Grammar of Chol, a Mayan Language. Austin, Texas: University of Texas at Austin, 2011; pp.21-22
  12. ^ Coon, Jessica (2010-04-01). "Rethinking Split Ergativity In Chol". International Journal of American Linguistics. 76 (2): 207–253. ISSN 0020-7071. doi:10.1086/652266. 
  13. ^ Vázquez Álvarez, Juan Jesús. A Grammar of Chol, a Mayan Language. Austin, Texas: University of Texas at Austin, 2011; p.160
  14. ^ Gallagher, Gillian; Coon, Jessica (2009-01-01). "Distinguishing Total and Partial Identity: Evidence from Chol". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory. 27 (3): 545–582. 
  15. ^ Vázquez Álvarez, Juan Jesús. A Grammar of Chol, a Mayan Language. Austin, Texas: University of Texas at Austin, 2011; p.35

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