Mayan Languages Spoken in Guatemala
Language in Guatemala is a curious thing. One of the first things we are taught in school is that Guatemala is un país multilingüe y pluricultural (a multilingual and pluricultural country).
It is amazing how, after hundreds of years, wars, changes, and adaptations, we can still experience part of what the Mayan civilization was, not only by visiting ancient Mayan sites but also through language.
Read this article to learn about Guatemala’s languages, how they shape our country, the indigenous languages are spoken in Guatemala, how to learn them, and how they’ve adapted to survive.
All About Language in Guatemala
Guatemala’s official language is español (Spanish), and 24 other languages are spoken throughout the country. Of the 25 languages spoken in Guatemala territory, 22 are Mayan languages, 1 is a Xinca language, and the other a Garífuna language.
You’ll hear many Guatemala languages at the parks, the markets, and the malls. But where do those languages come from? Why isn’t there just one native language in Guatemala? What Guatemalan indigenous languages are still in existence today?
Mayan Languages in Guatemala
Mayan languages have existed for thousands of years. The Maya civilization occupied the territory from Mexico to northern Central America, including what is today the Yucatan peninsula, Guatemala, and Belize from 2000-1000 BC.
According to linguistics experts, Mayan languages emerged around 4,000 years ago in Sierra de los Cuchumatanes—the highest non-volcanic mountain range in Central America—where the department of Huehuetenango is located now.
The proto-Mayan language that emerged there is called “nab’ee tziij” in the Mayan language K’iche’, and it means antigua lengua (ancient language). With time, and because of wars and migration, this ancient language slowly evolved into the Mayan languages we know today.
Experts believe that one of the major evolutions to the ancient language took place 3,000 years ago, where it evolved into four major branches or languages:
- Western languages (primarily Tzetal and Q’anjob’al)
- Eastern languages (primarily K’iche’ and Mam)
These four greater languages are separated into several smaller branches.
Evolution of Mayan Languages
From 1524 to 1700, Mayan languages suffered significant changes due to the Spanish conquest.
During that time the Mayans were enslaved, reduced, and controlled. This caused several languages to fuse, which created new languages.
Besides those new languages, the Mayans were displaced from their homes and forced to adapt to the traditions, customs, and language of their conquerors.
The process of castellanización (castellanizacion) was the process of teaching Spanish to everyone and making it the official language. The natives had to change the grammatical structure of their languages and add Spanish words to their vocabularies to communicate better.
Read an in-depth analysis of how the Mayan languages originated and evolved.
Mayan Languages in Guatemala Today
Today, five of the six major branches of the nab’ee tziij are spoken in Guatemala. There is a high concentration of Mayan language speakers in the west, north, and central parts of the country, while Spanish is far more spoken in the southeast.
These five major branches are divided into 30 languages, but in Guatemala, only 22 are spoken. Of these 22 languages, the following four are the most prominent.
The Quiche (or K’iche’) language in Guatemala is the most extended linguistic community in the country after Spanish. In fact, it is the second most spoken language in Guatemala and one of the most popular for people to learn.
It is used in 65 municipalities in the following departments:
- San Marcos
This language is spoken in 21 municipalities in the departments of:
- Alta Verapaz
This Mayan language is spoken by at least half a million people in Guatemala, in 54 municipalities in:
- Baja Verapaz
The Mam language in Guatemala is spoken by, at least, 500,000 Guatemalans in 61 municipalities in:
- San Marcos
According to the 2015 projections of el Instituto Nacional de Estadística (National Statistics Institute), approximately 4.75 million people speak those four groups of Mayan languages in the country.
Here’s a list of all 22 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala:
Akateko, Achi’, Awakateko, Chalchiteko, Ch’orti’, Chuj, Mopan, Itza’, Ixil, Kaqchikel, K’iche’, Mam, Q’anjob’al, Q’eqchi’, Poqomchi’, Popti’ —Antes Llamado Jakalteko—, Poqomam, Sakapulteko, Sipakapense, Tektiteko, Tz’utujil, Uspanteko
Because a great part of the population of Guatemala speaks a Mayan language, La Academia de Lenguas Mayas (ALMG; Mayan Language Academy) was founded in 1990. It’s the most important authority in the country in matters of Mayan languages.
The Importance of Mayan Languages in Guatemala
For years, people have referred to Mayan languages as dialectos (dialects), but the Mayan people in Guatemala asked for them to be recognized as idiomas (languages) instead of dialects. The correct terminology is idiomas mayas (Mayan languages).
Mayan languages have expanded beyond Guatemala thanks to migration. Native Mayan speakers in the United States and Canada have traveled there to work for a better life.
Since 1972, every April 23, el Día del Idioma (language day) has been celebrated in Guatemala because, according to the Congress of the Republic, the Mayan languages, Xinca, and Garífuna are historical wealth that must be transmitted from generation to generation.
While some of the most popular languages in Guatemala like K’iche’ or Mam thrive, others, like Itzal or Chalchiteko are in great danger of disappearing. Besides campaigns to keep this heritage alive and the work made by the communities, there might be another solution to preserve these languages: technology.
According to Plaza Pública, technology may be one of the best tools to help the Mayan communities in Guatemala, to not only preserve their languages, but to also help in their everyday life.
For example, in Técpan, a few hours outside of Guatemala City, illiterate comadronas (midwives) use their smartphones to report deliveries with audios and pictures. The device provides a fast and safe way to ask for help if needed.
Mozilla Firefox is available in Kaqchikel, as are Wikipedia articles! Mayan professionals have even developed apps to learn these languages.
In some schools in the country, learning a Mayan language is part of the curriculum. It is great to see how now these languages are appreciated and celebrated, especially after so many years of oppression and destruction. As a society, we must protect and preserve native and indigenous languages.
Build Your Future
If you are interested in learning more or learning a Mayan language, consider learning Spanish too! Mayan languages are infused with Spanish words and expressions, so learning Spanish helps you to understand these languages better!
Learning Spanish makes your life so much easier and more fulfilling when you travel to Guatemala or anywhere in Latin America (or Spain)! You’ll be able to talk with the locals and practice your Spanish. Learning Spanish helps your cognition and decision-making abilities, so that way you can decide where to go, what to eat, and what to try on your adventure!
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