Mam language

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Qyol Mam
Native toGuatemala, Mexico
RegionQuetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Retalhuleu;
Chiapas, Mexico
Native speakers
540,500 (2000)[1]
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3mam
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For a guide to IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Mam is a Mayan language with half a million speakers in the Guatemalan departments of Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Retalhuleu, and 10,000 in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The mam people have been around for 2000 years. There are also thousands more in Oakland, California[3] and Washington, D.C., in the United States.


Mam is closely related to the Tektitek language, and the two languages together form the Mamean sub-branch, which together with the Ixilean languages, Awakatek and Ixil, form the Greater Mamean sub-branch. Together, Greater Mamean and the Greater Quichean languages (consisting of 10 Mayan languages, including K'iche'), form the Quichean–Mamean branch.


Nora C. England (1983) recognizes three major groups of Mam dialects.

The language can vary widely from village to village. Different villages have evolved fully differentiated dialects, even though the villages may only be a few miles apart from each other. The Mam people have continually occupied their present-day territory beginning long before the Spanish Conquest. They have occupied this territory possibly as early as 500 A.D. according to linguist Terrence Kaufman (England 1983:6). This would explain the great dialectal diversity among the Mamean languages. Kaufman also suggests that the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes of Huehuetenango, which currently occupied mostly by speakers of Mamean languages.

Nevertheless, mutual intelligibility, though difficult, is possible through practice (England 1983).

Spanish colonial policy enforced a harsh penalty upon the written use of indigenous languages,and there was no standardized written dialect throughout the colonial era.


Mam is spoken in 64 communities in 4 departments.[4] Neighboring languages include Jacaltec and Q'anjobal to the north, Tekiteko to the west, and Ixil, Awateko, Sipacapeño, and K'iche to the east.



Mam has 10 vowels, 5 short and 5 long:[5]

Short Front Central Back
Close ii /iː/ u /ʉ/ uu /u͍ː/
Near-Close i /ɪ/
Mid ee /eː/ oo /o͍ː/
Mid-low e /ɛ/ o /ɔ/
Open a /ä/ aa /ɑ͍ː/
  • The Mid-central vowel is an allophone of short a, e and u that can occur in the syllable following a stressed long vowel.

Like in many other Mayan languages, vowel length is contrastive, and short and long vowels have different phonemic values and are treated as separate vowels. The long versions of the back vowels, /o/, /u/, /ɑ/ vowels, transcribed as [oo], [uu], and [aa] are slightly compressed and pronounced as /o͍ː/, /u͍ː/, and /ɑ͍ː/ respectively, being partially rounded.

In the Todos Santos dialect the vowel structure is somewhat different. While /o/, /a/, and /u/ remain the same as in other varieties, short /e/ has become the diphthong /ɛi/, an audio example of this can be heard here:[6]

In the Todos Santos dialect, the long vowels (distinguished by the doubling of the letter) have evolved into separate sounds altogether. Long /aː/ has become /ɒ/, long /oː/ has become /øː/ and long /uː/ has become /yː/.

In some dialects vowels interrupted by stop have evolved into individual phonemes themselves, for example in Todos Santos dialect /oʔ/ represented by o' has evolved into /ɵʏˀ/ and /oʔo/ represented by o'o has evolved into /ɵ'ʉ/.


Mam has 27 consonants, including the glottal stop:

Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Plain Palatalized
Plosive Plain p /p̪ʰ~ɸʰ/ t /tʰ/ k /kʰ/ ky /kʲ~kɕʰ/ q /qʰ/ ' /ʲʔ/
Ejective t' /tʼ~ɗ/ k' /kʼ/ ky'/kʲʼ~kɕʼ/
Implosive b' /ɓ/ q' /ʛ/^
Nasal m /m/ n /n/ ny/ɲ/ n /ŋ/
Fricative w /v/ s /s/ xh /ʃ/ x /ʂ~ʐ/ j /χ/
Affricate Plain b /β/ tz /t͡sʰ/ ch /t͡ʃʰ/ tx /ʈ͡ʂʰ/
Ejective tz' /t͡sʼ~dt͡sʼ/ ch' /t͡ʃʼ~dt͡ʃʼ/ tx' /ʈ͡ʂʼ~ɖʈ͡ʂʼ/
Flap r /ɾ/
Approximant w /ʋ/ l /l~ɺ/ y /j/ w /w/

/ɓ/ is realized as [βʼ] word-finally and when part of a consonant cluster in many dialects. In the Todos Santos dialect it is pronounced as [v] as part of a consonant cluster and as [βv̻] word finally.

Examples: tzeb' [tsɛβʼ] goat, kbon [kβʼɤŋ] small table. In the Todos Santos dialect, tseb' is [tsɛiβv̻] and kbon is [kvoŋ] small table.

/p/ is realized as [pʰ] word-finally and word initially, [p] elsewhere, [ɸ] in a consonant cluster and before short i, o, and u. It is pronounced as [ɸʰ] word finally in certain dialects. [f] is an interchangeable pronunciation of [ɸ].

Examples: piich [pʰiːt͡ʃ] bird, txkup [ʈ͡ʂkʰɯpʰ] or [ʈ͡ʂkʰɯɸʰ] animal , ptz'an [pʰt͡sʼaŋ] or [ɸʰt͡sʼaŋ] sugarcane.

/ch/ has evolved from /tʃ/ to /sʃ/ in most Mexican dialects and some northern Guatemalan dialects. Sometimes the /t/ sound is still lightly pronounced before the stressed /sʃ/ sound.

Example: choot [tʃʰoːtʰ] weeds has evolved into [sʃøːtʰ] or [tsʃoːtʰ]

/t/ is realized as [tʰ] word-finally and before another consonant, [t] elsewhere.

Examples: ta'l [taʔl̥] juice, soup, ch'it [t͡ʃʼɪtʰ] bird, q'ootj [ʛoːtʰχ] dough

/k/ is realized as [kʰ] word-finally and before another consonant, [k] elsewhere.

Examples: paaki'l [pɑːkɪʔl̥] butterfly, xtook [ʂtʰoːkʰ] staff, kjo'n [kʰχɤʔŋ] cornfield

/w/ can be pronounced [ʋ], [v], [v̥] or [β] word initially, [w], [ʍ] [ʋ] following a consonant, and [ʋ], [v], [v̻ʰ] or [fʰ] word finally. It is freely variable between [w] [v] [ʋ] [v̥] in all other positions with [ʋ] being the most common pronunciation. In the Todos Santos dialect, /w/ is realized as either [v] or [ʋ] word-initially or between vowels and before another consonant, as [ʍ] following a consonant and as [v̥] word finally.

Examples: waaj [ʋɑːχ], [vɑːχ], [v̥ɑːχ], or [βɑːχ]tortilla, twon [twɤŋ], [tʍɤŋ], [tʋɤŋ] introversion, lew [lɛʋ], [lɛv] [lɛv̥ʰ] [lɛfʰ] care.

/q/ is realized as [qʰ] word-finally and before another consonant, [q] elsewhere.

Examples: muuqin' [muːqɪŋ] tortilla, aaq [ɑːqʰ] honeycomb, qloolj [qʰɺoːlχ] obscurity

/tʼ/ is realized interchangeably as [tʼ] and [ɗ] word-initially and -finally, after a vowel or before [l].

Examples: t'rikpuul [tʼɾɪkʰɸuːl̥] ~ [ɗɾɪkʰpuːl̥] to jump, ch'uut [t͡ʃʼuːtʼ] ~ [t͡ʃʼuːɗ] something sharp-pointed
Examples: t'ut'an [tʼɯtʼaŋ] ~ [ɗɯɗaŋ] wet, wit'li [vɪtʼli] ~ [vɪɗli] seated squatting

/n/ is realized as [ŋ] before velar- and uvular consonants and word-finally,
as [ɲ] before [j] and as [m] before /ɓ/ and /p/, [n] elsewhere.

Examples: nim [nɪm] much, juun [χuːŋ] one, q'ankyoq [ʛaŋkʲɤqʰ] thunder
Examples: saajel [sɑːŋχel̥] sent, nyuxh [ɲɯʃ] my godfather
Examples: qanb'ax [qamɓaʂ] foot, npwaaqe [mpwɑːqɛ] my money

/l/ is realized as [l̥] word-finally, [ɺ] before short vowels and after plosives, bilabial, aveolar and retroflex consonants and [l] elsewhere.

Examples: luux [luːʂ] cricket, lo'l [ɺoʔl̥] to eat fruits, wlat [vɺatʰ] stiff.

/ky/ is realized as [kɕʲ] in front of another consonant and kɕʰ word finally. It is pronounced as kʲ in all other instances.

Examples: kyja'tzan [kɕʲχaʲʔtsʰaŋ], kyokleen [kʲɤkleːŋ]

/ ' / is realized as [ʲʔ] following /a/, /aa/, /e/, /ee/, /i/, /u/, /uu/ and /oo/. The standard pronunciation is simply [ʔ] after all vowels however in spoken speech [ʲʔ] is the common pronunciation. A similar trend can be seen in other Eastern Mayan languages. After /o/ it is pronounced as [ʉʔ] and after /ii/ it is pronounced simply as [ʔ]. Following consonants / ' / modifies each individual consonant differently as explained in the section above. In the Mam language every word must start with a consonant. In the current orthography initial / ' / is not written but if a word ever begins with a vowel, the word is treated as if it begin with a / ' /. The initial / ' / may be pronounced as either [ʔ] or [ʡ] in free variation.


The most extensive Mam grammar is that of Nora C. England's A grammar of Mam, a Mayan language (1983), which is based on the San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán dialect of Huehuetenango Department.

The basic word order of Mam is VSO (Verb-Subject-Object, Verb-Ergative-Absolutive, or Verb-Agent-Patient). Most roots take the morphological shape CVC (England 1983:93). The only possible root final consonant cluster is -nC.


Mam has no independent pronouns (England 1983:155). Rather, pronouns in Mam always exist as bound morphemes.

Below is a table of Set A (ergative) and Set B (absolutive) prefixes from England (1983:56). (Note: The terms "Set A" and "Set B" are frequently used by Mayanists to describe the ergative systems typical of Mayan languages.)

Mam Set A and Set B Pronominal Markers
Person Set A Set B Enclitics
1s n- ~ w- chin- -a ~ -ya
2s t- Ø ~ tz- ~ tz'- ~ k- -a ~ -ya
3s t- Ø ~ tz- ~ tz'- ~ k- -
1p (excl.) q- qo- -a ~ -ya
1p (incl.) q- qo- -
2p ky- chi- -a ~ -ya
3p ky- chi- -

Phonologically conditioned allomorphs are as follows.

  • n- ~ w-
    • n- /__C
    • w- /__V
  • Ø ~ tz- ~ tz'- ~ k-
    • k- /potential
    • tz'- /__V initial root, non-potential
    • tz- /__uul 'arrive here', iky' 'pass by', non-potential
    • Ø- /__C, non-potential
  • -a ~ -ya
    • -ya /V__ ; In the first person in post-vowel environments, -ya varies freely with -ky'a and -y'.
    • -a /C__

When Set A prefixes can also be used with nouns. In this context, the Set A prefixes become possessives.

  • n- 'my'
  • t- 'your (sg.)'
  • t- 'his, her, its'
  • q- 'our (exclusive)'
  • q- 'our (inclusive)'
  • ky- 'your (pl.)'
  • ky- 'their'

Some paradigmatic examples from England (1983) are given below. Note that "Ø-" designates a null prefix. Additionally, ma is an aspectual word meaning 'recent past.'

Set A markers + NOUN
jaa ‘house’
n-jaa-ya ‘my house’
t-jaa-ya ‘your house’
t-jaa ‘his/her house’
q-jaa-ya ‘our (not your) house’
q-jaa ‘our (everyone’s) house’
ky-jaa-ya ‘you (pl)’s house’
ky-jaa ‘their house’
Set B markers + VERB
b'eet- to walk
ma chin b'eet-a 'I walked.'
ma Ø-b'eet-a 'You walked.'
ma Ø-b'eet 'He/she walked.'
ma qo b'eet-a 'We (not you) walked.'
ma qo b'eet 'We walked'
ma chi b'eet-a 'You all walked.'
ma chi b'eet 'They walked.'

The following Set B person markers are used for non-verbal predicates (i.e., nouns, adjectives). Also, in statives, aa can be omitted when the rest of the stative is a non-enclitic (in other words, a separate, independent word).

Mam Set B Pronominal Markers
(non-verbal predicates)
Person Stative[7] Locative / Existental[8]
1s (aa) qiin-a (a)t-iin-a
2s aa-ya (a)t-(a'-y)a
3s aa (a)t-(a')
1p (excl.) (aa) qo'-ya (a)t-o'-ya
1p (incl.) (aa) qo' (a)t-o'
2p aa-qa-ya (a)t-e'-ya
3p aa-qa (a)t-e'

Paradigmatic examples from England (1983:76) are given below.

NOUN + Set B markers
xjaal person
xjaal qiin-a ‘I am a person.’
xjaal-a ‘You are a person.’
xjaal ‘He/she is a person.’
xjaal qo’-ya ‘We (excl.) are persons.’
xjaal qo- ‘We (incl.) are persons.’
xjaal qa-ya ‘You all are persons.’
xjaal qa ‘They are persons.’
ADJECTIVE + Set B markers
sikynaj tired
sikynaj qiin-a ‘I am tired.’
sikynaj-a ‘You are tired.’
sikynaj ‘He/she is tired.’
sikynaj qo’-ya ‘We (excl.) are tired.’
sikynaj qo’ ‘We (incl.) are tired.’
sikynaj qa-ya ‘You all are tired.’
sikynaj qa ‘They are tired.’


The Mam language displays inalienable possession. Certain Mam nouns cannot be possessed, such as kya7j 'sky' and che7w 'star' (England 1983:69). On the other hand, some Mam nouns are always possessed, such as t-lok' 'its root' and t-b'aq' 'its seed'.

Noun phrase structure can be summarized into the following template (England 1983:140).

Demonstrative Number Measure Plural Possessive affixes NOUN
Possessor Adjective Relative clause

The plural clitic is qa.


San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán Mam numbers are as follows (England 1983:84). Numbers above twenty are rarely used in Ixtahuacán and are usually only known by elderly speakers. Although the number system would have originally been vigesimal (i.e., base 20), the present-day number system of Ixtahuacán is now decimal.

1. juun
2. kab'
3. oox
4. kyaaj
5. jwe7
6. qaq
7. wuuq
8. wajxaq
9. b'elaj
10. laaj
20. wiinqan
40. kya7wnaq
60. oxk'aal
80.. junmutx'


Like all other Mayan languages, Mam is an ergative language.

Further reading[edit]

  • B'aayil, Eduardo Pérez, et al. Variación dialectal en mam = Tx'ixpub'ente tiib' qyool / Proyecto de Investigación Lingüística de Oxlajuuj Keej Maya' Ajtz'iib'. Guatemala, Guatemala: Cholsamaj, 2000.
  • England, Nora C. A grammar of Mam, a Mayan language. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.
  • Pujbʼil yol mam / Kʼulbʼil Yol Twitz Paxil; Kʼulbʼil Yol Mam = Vocabulario mam / Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala; Comunidad Lingüística Mam. Guatemala, Guatemala: Kʼulbʼil Yol Twitz Paxil, 2003.
  • Rojas Ramírez, Maximiliano. Gramática del idioma Mam. La Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala: Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín, 1993.



  1. ^ Mam at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Mam". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (2003). Pujb'il Yol Mam: Vocabulario Mam.
  5. ^ A Grammar of Mam, A Mayan Language, Nora C. England, University of Texas Press, page 33
  6. ^ Speaking in MAM (streaming video). Todos Santos, Guatemala: YouTube. 2009.
  7. ^ Means 'This is X.'
  8. ^ Means 'X is in a place.'


  • Pérez, Eduardo & Jiménez, Odilio (1997). Ttxoolil Qyool Mam - Gramática Mam. Cholsamaj.

External links[edit]