Q'eqchi' language

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Native to Guatemala, Belize
Region Alta Verapaz, Petén, Izabal, Baja Verapaz, El Quiché; Toledo
Ethnicity Q'eqchi'
Native speakers
800,000 (2009)[1]
Official status
Official language in
(national language of Guatemala[2])
Regulated by Academía de las Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala
Language codes
ISO 639-3 kek
Glottolog kekc1242[3]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

The Q'eqchi' language, also spelled Kekchi, is one of the Mayan languages, natively spoken within Q'eqchi' communities in Guatemala and Belize.


Q'eqchi' has traditionally been described as having two dialects—one spoken in Cobán, Alta Verapaz, and the surrounding areas; and an "eastern" dialect spoken everywhere else.[citation needed]

In Guatemala, Q'eqchi' is spoken in the departments of Alta Verapaz, Petén, Izabal, Baja Verapaz, and El Quiché. Several Maya communities in the Toledo District of Belize use this language as their first language, and the majority of Mayas in Toledo speak Q'eqchi'.

Locations investigated in Xtz'ilb'al Rix Li Aatinak Sa' Q'eqchi': Informe de Variación Dialectal en Q'eqchi (2007) are:

  1. Cobán, Alta Verapaz
  2. Chamelco, Alta Verapaz
  3. Lanquin, Alta Verapaz
  4. Cahabón, Alta Verapaz
  5. Chisec, Alta Verapaz
  6. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Alta Verapaz
  7. Chahal, Alta Verapaz
  8. San Luis, Petén
  9. Panzós, Alta Verapaz
  10. Senahú, Alta Verapaz
  11. Carchá, Alta Verapaz
  12. El Estor, Izabal
  13. Livingston, Izabal
  14. Tucurú, Alta Verapaz


Below is the Q'eqchi' phonology, with orthography (ALMG) in parentheses.


Q'eqchi consonant phonemes
Bilabial Alveolar Post-alveolar Alveo-palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m (m) n (n)
Plosive voiceless p (p) t (t) k (k) q (q) ʔ (')
glottalized ɓ (b') (t') (k') (q')
voiced b (b) d (d) ɡ (g)
Affricate voiceless ts (tz) (ch)
glottalized tsʼ (tz') tʃʼ (ch')
Fricative s (s) ʃ (x) x (j)
Tap ɾ (r)
Lateral l (l)
Semivowel w (w) j (y)

The non-glottalized voiced plosives /b d ɡ/ have appeared as a result of influence from Spanish.


Q'eqchi vowel phonemes
Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a


With a few exceptions—interjections, such as uyaluy, mainly (Kockelman 2003)—stress always falls on the final syllable (Stewart 1980).


Several writing systems have been developed for Q'eqchi', but only two are in widespread use: SIL and ALMG.

Early transcriptions[edit]

The first transcriptions of Q'eqchi' in the Latin alphabet were made by Roman Catholic friars in the 16th century. Francisco de la Parra devised additional letters to represent the unfamiliar consonants of Mayan languages, and these were used to write Q'eqchi'. Examples of Q'eqchi' written with the de la Parra transcription can be seen in the 18th century writing of the Berendt-Brinton Linguistic Collection (Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Coll. 700). In the 20th century, before Sedat and Eachus & Carlson developed their SIL orthography, field researchers devised alternate Latin transcriptions. For example, Robert Burkitt (an anthropologist fluent in spoken Q'eqchi' and familiar with a range of Q'eqchi' communities and language variation), in his 1902 paper "Notes on the Kekchí Language", uses a transcription based on then-current Americanist standards.[4]


A Spanish-style orthography was developed by Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) field researchers, principally William Sedat in the 1950s and Francis Eachus and Ruth Carlson in the 1960s.[5] Though no longer considered standard, this orthography remains in circulation in large part due to the popularity of a few texts including the Protestant Bible produced by the SIL/Wycliffe Bible Translation Project, and a widely used language learning workbook "Aprendamos Kekchí".


The Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín (PLFM) developed an alternative IPA-style orthography in the late 1970s. Of note, the PLFM orthography used the number "7" to write the glottal plosive, whereas the apostrophe was used in digraphs and trigraphs to write ejective stops and affricates. This system, as later modified by the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (ALMG), which replaced the "7" with the apostrophe, has been the standard, official way to write Q'eqchi', at least in Guatemala, since 1990.

In the current orthography there are 35 graphemes ("letters", including digraphs and trigraphs), each of which is meant to correspond to a particular phoneme. These include separate vowels for long and short sounds, as well as the use of apostrophes (saltillos) for writing ejectives and the glottal stop.[6]

Comparison of the two major orthographies[edit]

Comparative examples of the ALMG and SIL orthographies
ALMG SIL English translation
maak'a ta chink'ul sa' laa muheb'al aaki'chebal maac'a ta chinc'ul sa' laa muhebal aaqui'chebaal May nothing happen to me in your shady places and your forests.
yo chi amaq'ink laj Kachil Petén yo chi amak'inc laj Cachil Petén Carlos lives (is living) in Petén.


At the time of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Q'eqchi' was probably spoken by fewer people than neighboring languages such as Itza', Mopan, and Cholti', all of which are now moribund or extinct. The main evidence for this fact is not colonial documents, but the prevalence of loan words apparently stemming from these languages in Q'eqchi'. However, a number of factors made Q'eqchi' do better than the just-mentioned languages. One is the difficult mountainous terrain which is its home. Another is that, rather than simply being conquered, as the Cholti', or resisting conquest for an extended period, as the Itza' did for over 200 years, the Q'eqchi' came to a particular arrangement with the Spaniards, by which Dominican priests, led initially by Fray Bartolome de las Casas, were allowed to enter their territory and proselytize undisturbed, whereas no lay Spaniards were admitted. This led to their territory being renamed "Verapaz" (true peace) by the Spaniards, a name which continues today in the Guatemalan departments Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz. This relatively favorable early development allowed the people to spread, and even make war on neighboring Mayan groups. Although it was later followed by the brutal policies of the late-19th-century liberals and the late-20th century military governments, it largely explains the status of Q'eqchi' as the 3rd largest Mayan language in Guatemala and the 4th across the Mayan region. The relatively recent, postcolonial expansion is also the reason that Q'eqchi' is perhaps the most homogeneous of the larger Mayan languages.[7]

Q'eqchi is taught in public schools through Guatemala's intercultural bilingual education programs.


Like most other Mayan languages, Q'eqchi' is still in the process of becoming a written and literary language. Existing texts can roughly be divided into the following categories.

  1. Educational texts meant to teach people how to speak, read or write Q'eqchi'. This category includes materials such as dictionaries and grammars, as well as workbooks designed to be used in rural Guatemala schools in communities where the majority of the people are native speakers of Q'eqchi'.
  2. Religious texts. The Protestant version of the Bible (published by the SIL based on the work of William Sedat, and Eachus and Carlson) mentioned above is probably the most widely available text in Q'eqchi'. In the last twenty years or so, the Roman Catholic Church has been one of the primary proponents of written Q'eqchi'. Various Catholic organizations are responsible for producing a number of texts, including the New Testament, Genesis and Exodus, and various instructional pamphlets. A songbook entitled Qanimaaq Xloq'al li Qaawa' 'We praise the Lord' is very popular among Catholics, has been in print for many years, and is updated with new songs regularly. The Book of Mormon also is available in Q'eqchi' as are also other LDS religious texts.[8]
  3. Non-instructive secular texts have also begun to appear in the last ten years or so, although they are still few in number. The most ambitious of these works have been a free translation of the K'iche' text Popol Wuj ("Popol Vuh") by the Q'eqchi' language teacher and translator Rigoberto Baq Qaal (or Ba'q Q'aal), and a collection of Q'eqchi' folk tales. A number of government documents have also been translated into Q'eqchi', including the Guatemalan Constitution.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Q'eqchi' at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Proyecto de Reformas a la Constitución Política
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Kekchi". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ Burkitt, Robert (1902). "Notes on the Kekchí". American Anthropologist 4 (3): 441–63. doi:10.1525/aa.1902.4.3.02a00060. 
  5. ^ SIL bibliography for Eachus and Carlson
  6. ^ DeChicchis, Joseph. "Revisiting an imperfection in Mayan orthography" (PDF). 
  7. ^ Wichmann, Soeren. "Loanwords in Q'eqchi', a Mayan language of Guatemala" (PDF). 
  8. ^ Kai A. Andersen, “‘In His Own Language'”, Liahona, June 1997, 29; see available list of Q'eqchi' LDS publications at ldscatalog.com.


Wilson, Richard (1995). Maya Resurgence in Guatemala: Q'eqchi' Experiences. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2690-6. OCLC 31172908. 
Stewart, Stephen (1980). Gramática kekchí. Guatemala: Editorial Académica Centroamericana. OCLC 318333627. 
Kockelman, Paul (2003). "The Meanings of Interjections in Q'eqchi' Maya". Current Anthropology 44 (4): 467. doi:10.1086/375871.