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. While there has been some controversy with Mayan subgrouping, there has been a general agreement that the following are the main five subgroups of the family: Huastecan, Yucatecan, Cholan-Tzeltalan, Kanjobalan-Chujean, and Quichean-Mamean.[1]

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].[2]

reflexes of Proto-Mayan [tʲʼ] and [tʲ] [3]
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.[2]

reflexes of Proto-Mayan [r] [3]
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.[4] In Huastecan *[ŋ] is reflected as [h].

reflexes of Proto-Mayan [ŋ] [3]
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.[5]

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.[6]

In polysyllabic words Kaqchikel and Tz'utujil have changed a final Proto-Mayan *[w] and *[ɓ] into [j] and *[ʔ] respectively.[7]

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].[8] 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. ^ "MAYAN LINGUISTICS:WHERE ARE WE NOW?". Retrieved September 25, 2017.
  2. ^ a b England (1994), p.35.
  3. ^ a b c adapted from cognate list in England (1994)
  4. ^ England (1994), pp.30-31.
  5. ^ England (1994), p.37.
  6. ^ Campbell (1997), p.164.
  7. ^ Campbell, Lyle, 1998, "Historical Linguistics", Thames & Hudson p.170
  8. ^ 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?"

External links[edit]