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,
|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]|
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.
|*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|
|CVʔVC > CVʔC|
|*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].
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.
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. In Huastecan *[ŋ] is reflected as [h].
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.
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.
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]. 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].
- England (1994), p.35.
- adapted from cognate list in England (1994)
- England (1994), pp.30-31.
- England (1994), p.37.
- Campbell (1997), p.164.
- Campbell, Lyle, 1998, "Historical Linguistics", Thames & Hudson p.170
- 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
- The Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages - Spanish/Mayan site, the primary authority on Mayan Languages
- Yucatec - English Dictionary
- The Mayan Languages- A Comparative Vocabulary contains more than 40,000 entries for 31 Mayan languages
- English Words and their Classic Maya Equivalents
- Ethnologue Mayan language family tree