Qʼanjobʼal language

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Native toGuatemala
Native speakers
78,000 in Guatemala (1998)[1]
9,000 in Mexico (2010)[2]
  • Western Mayan
Language codes
ISO 639-3kjb

Qʼanjobʼal (also Kanjobal)[4] is a Mayan language spoken primarily in Guatemala and part of Mexico. According to 1998 estimates compiled by SIL International in Ethnologue, there were approximately 77,700 native speakers, primarily in the Huehuetenango Department of Guatemala.[5] Municipalities where the Qʼanjobʼal language is spoken include San Juan Ixcoy (Yich Kʼox), San Pedro Soloma (Tzʼulumaʼ ), Santa Eulalia (Jolom Konobʼ ), Santa Cruz Barillas (Yalmotx), San Rafael La Independencia, and San Miguel Acatán (Pedro Mateo Pedro 2010). Qʼanjobʼal is taught in public schools through Guatemala's intercultural bilingual education programs.


Qʼanjobʼal is a member of the Qʼanjobʼalan branch of the Mayan language family. The Mayan language family includes 31 languages, two of which are now extinct. The Qʼanjobʼalan branch includes not only Qʼanjobʼal itself but also Chuj, Akatek, and Jakaltek, also spoken in Guatemala. The Qʼanjobʼalan languages are noted for being among the most conservative of the Mayan language family, although they do include some interesting innovations.[6]


Qʼanjobʼal consists of 26 consonant sounds and 5 vowel sounds. The letters of the alphabet are as follows:

a, bʼ, ch, chʼ, d, e, h, i, j, k, kʼ, l, m, n, o, p, q, qʼ, r, s, t, tʼ, tx, txʼ, tz, tzʼ, u, w, x, xh, y, and ʼ (glottal stop).

The ʼ in chʼ, kʼ, qʼ, tʼ, txʼ, and tzʼ represents an ejective or glottalic egressive, i.e., the consonant is accompanied by a puff of air from the glottis. The letter r in Qʼanjobʼal has a limited distribution. It is used mostly in borrowings, primarily in words borrowed from Spanish, such as roxax, rose, from Spanish rosa. It is also used in affect and positional words like kʼarari 'noise of an old engine or the like', jeran 'to be in a broken position/form'. The letters tx and x represent retroflex consonants, pronounced with the tongue curled backward in the mouth. It is believed such retroflection in Qʼanjobʼal is an influence from the Mamean Mayan languages.[7]

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a
Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Retroflex Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m /m/ n /n/
Stop plain p /pʰ/ t /tʰ/ k /kʰ/ q /qʰ/ ʼ /ʔ/
ejective // //
implosive /ɓ/ /ʛ̥/
Affricate plain tz /tsʰ/ ch /tʃʰ/ tx /tʂʰ/
ejective tzʼ /tsʼ/ chʼ /tʃʼ/ txʼ /ʈʂʼ/
Fricative s /sʰ/ xh /ʃʰ/ x /ʂ/ j /χ/
Approximant w /v/ l /l/ y /j/ w /w/
Flap r /ɾ/


Primary stress in Qʼanjobʼal is fairly simple. Words in isolation and in final phrase boundaries bear stress on the last syllable. However, words within a phrasal unit (not in final phrase boundary) bear stress on their first syllable.

Morphology and syntax[edit]

As in all Mayan languages, Qʼanjobʼal classifies all verbs as either inherently intransitive (calling up only one argument) or as inherently transitive (calling up two arguments).[8] Qʼanjobʼal is an ergative–absolutive language, in which the subject of a transitive verb takes an ergative affix, while the subject of an intransitive verb, as well as the object of a transitive verb, takes an absolutive affix. Ergative affixes are also used for possession. There are two sets of affixes for ergative: the first set is used for those verbal roots beginning with a consonant, and the second set is used for those beginning with a vowel. However, there is only one set of absolutive affixes with two variations: pronounced like free words or attached to something else.

Below is the table of ergative prefixes for verbal roots beginning with a consonant:

  Singular Plural
1st person hin- ko-
2nd person ha- he-
3rd person s-/Ø- s-/Ø-

Ergative prefixes for verbal roots beginning with a vowel:

  Singular Plural
1st person w- j-
2nd person h- hey-
3rd person y- y-

Absolutive affixes when attached to preceding sounds:

  Singular Plural
1st person -in -on
2nd person -ach -ex
3rd person -0 -0...(hebʼ)

Absolutive affixes not attached to a preceding sound (they take an h):

  Singular Plural
1st person hin hon
2nd person hach hex
3rd person 0 0...(hebʼ)

Note that the third person absolutive affix is 0, i.e., unmarked or empty.


transitive (ergative)

X-0-inmaqʼ naq winaq. (Mateo 2008: p.c.)
COMP-A3S-E1S-hit CL:masc man
'I hit the man.'

intransitive (absolutive)

X-in way-i. (Mateo 2008: p.c.)
'I slept.'

possessive (ergative)

before vowel:
'my foot'

before consonant:
'his/her hand'

However, while verbs are classified as either ergative or absolutive and take their own respective sets of pronoun affixes, this rule is altered in certain cases, such as when a verb becomes progressive:

Ch-in kuy-w-i.[9]
'I study'.


Ipan hin-kuy-w-i.[10]
'I am studying'.

In Qʼanjobʼal, aspect (whether an action has been completed or not) is more important than tense. Thus, in most utterances, one will indicate whether the action is incompletive, or whether it is completed, or may happen in the future, in which case it is considered 'unreal', or of irrealis mood, the event still only in the realm of thought or imagination.

Ch(i) is used to indicate that an event is incomplete or ongoing at some time:

Chi-0 toj naq unin bʼay y-atut-al kuy-oj.[11]
INC-A3S go CL:masc child to E3S-house-ABS study-NZR
'The boy goes to school'.

Max or x- (both forms are used in free variation) are used to indicate that an event is complete:

Max-ex mulnaj-i.[12]
'You (pl.) worked.'

X-0 way-i.[13]
COM-A3S sleep-STAT
'He/she slept.'

The prefix hoq- with the suffix -oq are used to indicate that the event spoken of has not yet happened, but remains only in the realm of the 'unreal' with only the potential for occurrence in the future:

Hoq-0 saqch-oq heb'.[14]
IRR-A3 play-IRR A3P
'They will play.'

Negative particles include kʼam and manaq:

Kʼam chi-0 y-oche-j.[15]
'He/she doesn't want it.'

Manaq ix chi-0 toj kuy-oj.[16]
NEG she INC-A3S go study-NOM
'It is not she who goes to study.'

Questions can be formed simply by using rising intonation with declarative syntax:

Ch-0-oche-j cha-ch kanal-w-i w-etoq?[17]
'Do you want to dance with me?'

There is also a question particle, mi:

Watxʼ mi ha-kul?
good INTER E2S-stomach
'Is your stomach good?'
(Used as common form of greeting, like English 'How are you?')

Many different affixes are used in Qʼanjobʼal, both prefixes and suffixes. Among these are aj-, used to denote the doer or leader of an action: ajtzʼibʼ, ʼwriterʼ (< tzʼibʼ 'write'), ajbʼe, 'spiritual guide' (< bʼe 'road'); -bʼal, used to indicate the location where something happens: tzombʼal 'market' (< tzon 'buy'); -al, -alil, -il, used to derive abstract nouns from adjectives, adverbs, numerals, transitive verb roots, and nouns: syalixhal 'his/her smallness' (< yalixh 'small'); swinaqil 'husband' (< winaq 'man'); -kʼulal, to derive nouns from intransitive verbs, adjectives, other nouns, etc.: watxkʼulal 'friendliness'; -oj, nominalizer, turning verbs into nouns: kuyoj 'studying' (< kuy 'study').

Word order[edit]

Qʼanjobʼal has a fixed word order. It follows a verb–subject–object (VSO) word order. All changes to this word order are driven by pragmatic or syntactic factors like focus, negation, interrogation, relativization, etc. These are subject to an ergative–absolutive pattern where arguments cross-referenced by ergative affixes must become absolutives prior to their fronting (focus, negation, etc.). This results in some possible subject–verb (SV), object–verb–subject (OVS) orders. However SVO, SOV and OSV are not possible (or, at least, not attested in any known corpus). The apparent exception is in reflexives and reflexive possessives, where the reflexive phrase ERG-bʼa (noun) or reflexive possessive ERG-noun appears directly following the verb.[18]


Some Qʼanjobʼal nouns require that certain classifiers be used with them. Among these are no' (animals), te (trees/wood), ix (female), naq (male), chʼen (stone/metal), xim (corn), and an (plants).

noʼ jun chej
CL-animal horse
'the horse'

teʼ na
CL-wood house
'the house'

ix unin
CL-fem child (girl)
'the girl'

naq unin
CL-masc child (boy)
'the boy'

chʼen tumin
CL-metal money
'the money'

an kaq
CL-plant flower
'the flower'


Reduplication, or duplication of a root word, is a minor process in the formation of Qʼanjobʼal vocabulary, as in the following:

(onomatopoeic: based on the sound it makes)

'belly of animal'

'chewing gum'


Qʼanjobʼal consists of groups of roots that can take affixes. Words are traditionally classified as nouns, adjectives, adverbs, intransitive and transitive verbs, particles, and positionals. Positionals are a group of roots which cannot function as words on their own; in combination with affixes they are used to describe relationships of position and location. Particles are words that do not take affixes; they mostly function in adverbial roles, and include such things as interrogative particles, affirmative/negative words, markers of time and location, conjunctions, prepositions and demonstratives.

Locatives are often formed by placing a noun after a possessed body-part term: s-ti bʼe, 'edge of the road' < 'its-mouth road' and s-jolom witz, 'mountaintop' or 'summit' < 'its-head mountain'. Similarly, compound nouns may be formed by placing a noun after another possessed noun: y-atutal kuyoj, 'school' < 'its-house studying'.


Common words[edit]

anima, person
chʼenej, rock/stone
aʼ ej, water/river
ix, woman
chikay, grandmother
mamin, grandfather
ixim, corn
kaq, red
kʼu, sun/day
mam, father
mis, cat
na, house (also atut)
patej, tortilla
sat kan, sky (lit. snake's eye)
son, marimba
te', tree
txʼi', dog
txʼotxʼej, land
txʼutx', mother
unin, child
waykan, star
winaq, man
witz, mountain
xajaw, moon/month
yibʼan qʼinal, Earth/world

Abbreviations used[edit]

A1S absolutive first person singular
A1P absolutive first person plural
ABS abstractivizer
CL classifier
COM complete
E1S ergative first person singular
E1P ergative first person plural
INC incomplete
INT interrogative
IRR irrealis
NEG negative
NZR nominalizer
PL plural
PROG progressive
SFX suffix
STAT status


  1. ^ Qʼanjobʼal at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ INALI (2012) México: Lenguas indígenas nacionales
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Qʼanjobʼal". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ Other variant names include Santa Eulalia Kanjobal, Kanhobal, Qanjobal, Conob, and Eastern Kanjobal.
  5. ^ Centered around the municipio of Santa Eulalia; owing to recent emigrations there are communities of Qʼanjobʼal speakers in the United States (see Gordon (2005).
  6. ^ Robertson (1992), p.154.
  7. ^ Robertson (1992), p.58.
  8. ^ Robertson (1992), p.50.
  9. ^ Comunidad Lingüística Qʼanjobʼal (2005), p.76.
  10. ^ Comunidad Lingüística Qʼanjobʼal (2005), p.76.
  11. ^ Comunidad Lingüística Qʼanjobʼal (2005), p.154.
  12. ^ Comunidad Lingüística Qʼanjobʼal (2005), p.78.
  13. ^ OKMA (2000), p.77.
  14. ^ Comunidad Lingüística Qʼanjobʼal (2005), p.76.
  15. ^ Comunidad Lingüística Qʼanjobʼal (2005), p.205.
  16. ^ Comunidad Lingüística Qʼanjobʼal (2005), p.203.
  17. ^ Comunidad Lingüística Qʼanjobʼal (2005), p.202.
  18. ^ Mateo Toledo, Eladio (2008). The Family of Complex Predicates in Qʼanjobʼal (Maya); Their Syntax and Meaning. ProQuest.


Comunidad Lingüística Qʼanjobʼal (2005). Gramática descriptiva qʼanjobʼal = Yaqʼbʼanil stxolilal tiʼ qʼanjobʼal (in Spanish). Guatemala City: Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (ALMG), Comunidad Lingüística Qʼanjobʼal. OCLC 70631325.
Oxlajuuj Keej Mayaʼ Ajtzʼiibʼ [OKMA] (2000). Variación dialectal en qʼanjobʼal = Skʼexkixhtaqil yallay koqʼanej. Informes de variación dialectal series (in Spanish). Saaqjumay [Sonia Raymundo González], Adán Francisco Pascual, Pedro Mateo Pedro, and Bʼalam Qʼuqʼ [Eladio Mateo Toledo] (authors/contribs.), Nora C. England (advisor), Guisela Ascensio Lueg (Spanish revision). Guatemala City: Cholsamaj. ISBN 99922-53-08-8. OCLC 49332799.
Robertson, John S. (1992). The History of Tense/Aspect/Mood/Voice in the Mayan Verbal Complex. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-72075-0. OCLC 26160695.
  • Mateo Pedro, Pedro (2010). The acquisition of verb inflection in Qʼanjobʼal Maya: a longitudinal study. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kansas.

External links[edit]