Proto-Mayan language

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Proto-Mayan is the hypothetical common ancestor of the 30 living Mayan languages, as well as the Classic Maya language documented in the Maya inscriptions.

Genealogy of Mayan languages.


The Proto-Mayan language is reconstructed (Campbell and Kaufman 1985) as having the following sounds:

Five vowels: a, e, i, o and u. Each of these occurring as short and long: aa, ee, ii, oo and uu,

Type Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Sound plain ejective plain ejective plain ejective plain ejective plain ejective plain
Stop p  [p] b'/p'  [ɓ']/[p'] t   [t] t'  [tʼ] ty  [tʲ] ty'  [tʲʼ] k  [k] k'  [kʼ] q  [q] q'  [qʼ]  '   [ʔ]
Affricate   ts  [tsʰ] ts'  [tsʼ] ch  [tʃʰ] ch'  [tʃʼ]          
Fricative   s  [s] x  [ʃ]   j  [χ] h  [h]
Nasal   m  [m]   n  [n]     nh  [ŋ]    
Liquid   l  [l]  r  [r]        
Glide       y  [j]   w  [w]    

Sound rules[edit]

The following set of sound changes from proto-Mayan to the modern languages are used as the basis of the classification of the Mayan languages. Each sound change may be shared by a number of languages; a grey background indicates no change.

Overview of soundrules from Proto-Mayan to modern Mayan language groups
Huastecan Yucatecan Cholan-Tzeltalan Q'anjob'alan-Chujean K'ichean-Mamean
Ch'olan Tzeltalan Q'anjob'alan Chujean K'ichean Mamean
Core K'iche' Kaqchikel-
Mam Ixil
*w > b
*h > w/_o,u
*q > k, *q' > k'
*ŋ > h *ŋ > n *ŋ > x
*e: > i, *o: > u
*a: > ɨ
*-t > -tʃ *t > tʃ
*-h > -j
*r > t
*r > j
*tʃ > tʂ
*-ɓ > -ʔ/VCV_#


The palatalized plosives [tʲʼ] and [tʲ] are not carried down into any of the modern families. Instead they are reflected differently in different branches allowing a reconstruction of these phonemes as palatalized plosives. In the western branch (Chujean-Q'anjob'alan and Cholan) they are reflected as [t] and [tʼ]. In Mamean they are reflected as [ts] and [tsʼ] and in Yukatek and K'ichean as [tʃʰ] and [tʃʼ].[1]

reflexes of Proto-Mayan [tʲʼ] and [tʲ] [2]
Proto-Mayan Q'anjob'al Mam K'iche' English
*tʲeːʔ teʔ tseʔ tʃeːʔ tree
*tʲaʔŋ tan tsaʔχ tʃaːχ ashes

The Proto-Mayan liquid [r] is reflected as [j] in the western languages (Chujean- Q'anjob'alan and Cholan), Huastecan and Yukatek but as [tʃʰ] in Mamean and [r] in K'ichean and Poqom.[1]

reflexes of Proto-Mayan [r] [2]
Proto-Mayan Yukatek Ixil K'iche' English
*raʔʃ jaʔʃ tʃaʔʃ raʃ green
*kar kaj tʃaj kar fish

Proto-Mayan velar nasal *[ŋ] is reflected as [x] in the eastern branches (K'ichean Mamean), as [n] in Q'anjob'alan, Cholan and Yukatekan, and only conserved as [ŋ] in Chuj and Poptí.[3] In Huastecan *[ŋ] is reflected as [h].

reflexes of Proto-Mayan [ŋ] [2]
Proto-Mayan Q'anjob'al Ixil Poptí English
*ŋeːh ne xeh ŋeh tail

The changes of Proto-Mayan glottal fricative [h] are many and it has different reflexes according to position. In some positions it has added length to the preceding vowel in languages that preserve a length distinction. In other languages it has the reflexes [w], [j], [ʔ], [x] or a zero-reflex.[4]

Only K'ichean-Mamean and some Q'anjob'alan languages have retained Proto-Mayan uvular stops [q] and [qʼ] whereas all other branches have changed these into [k] and [kʼ] respectively.

In Mamean a chain shift took place changing *[r] into [t], *[t] into [tʃ], *[tʃ] into [tʂ] and *[ʃ] into [ʂ]. These retroflex affricates and fricatives later diffused into Q'anjob'alan.[5]

In polysyllabic words Kaqchikel and Tz'utujil have changed a final Proto-Mayan *[w] and *[ɓ] into [j] and *[ʔ] respectively.[6]

Huastecan is the only branch to have changed Proto-Mayan *[w] into [b]. Wastek also is the only Mayan language to have a phonemic labialized velar phoneme [kʷ], but this is known to be a postcolonial development. Comparing colonial documents in Wastek to modern Wastek it can be seen that they were originally clusters of [k] and a rounded vowel followed by a glide. For example the word for "vulture" which in modern Wastek is pronounced [kʷiːʃ] was written <cuyx> in colonial Wastek and pronounced [kuwiːʃ].

The Yucatecan languages have all shifted Proto-Mayan *[t] into [tʃ] in wordfinal position.

Several languages particularly Cholan and Yucatecan have changed short [a] into [ɨ].

All Cholan languages have changed long proto-Mayan vowels [eː] and [oː] into [i] and [u] respectively.

Vowel length distinction has been lost in Q'anjob'alan-Chujean (except for Mocho' and Akateko), Kaqchikel and Cholan. Some languages have reduced the vowel length distinction into a tense lax distinction that was later lost for most vowels, Kaqchikel however retains a centralized lax schwa-like vowel as a reflex of Proto-Mayan [a].[7] Two languages, Yukatek and Uspantek and one dialect of Tzotzil have introduced a tone distinction in vowels between high and low tones as reflexes of former vowel length and [h] and [ʔ].


  1. ^ a b England (1994), p.35.
  2. ^ a b c adapted from cognate list in England (1994)
  3. ^ England (1994), pp.30-31.
  4. ^ England (1994), p.37.
  5. ^ Campbell (1997), p.164.
  6. ^ Campbell, Lyle, 1998, "Historical Linguistics", Thames & Hudson p.170
  7. ^ England (1994), pp.110-111.


  • England, Nora C., 1994, Autonomia de los Idiomas Mayas: Historia e identidad. (Ukuta'mil Ramaq'iil Utzijob'aal ri Maya' Amaaq'.) Cholsamaj. Guatemala.
  • Handbook of Middle American Indians, 1967, 1969, R. Wauchope (series ed.). Vol 7 (ethnographic sketches of Mayan groups), Volume 5 (linguistic sketches and other useful materials). F 1434, H 3, LAC (ref).
  • Lyle Campbell and Terrence Kaufman, Annual Review of Anthropology. 1985. "Mayan Linguistics: Where are We Now?".
  • Bibliography of Maya related topics from the University of Texas Anthropology website

External links[edit]