Mayan languages

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The Mayan languages are a family of related languages spoken from South-Eastern Mexico through northern Central America as far south as Honduras. They go back at least some 5000 years in the Pre-Columbian era of Mesoamerica. Although the Spanish language (and in Belize the English language) is the official language of the area today, dialects of Maya are still spoken as a primary or secondary language by over 3 million Maya people in the region today. In Classical times (600-800 AD) and as late as the Spanish Conquest, the language was written on buildings, pottery and bark-paper codices in a highly elaborate script now called Maya hieroglyphics.

The most used Maya language is often called Yucatec Maya by linguists but known simply as Maya to its speakers. It is spoken in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico as well as in parts of northern Belize and the Peten region of Guatemala. It is documented in the ancient hieroglyphs in Pre-Columbian Maya civilization sites such as Chichen Itza, has a rich literature through the Spanish Colonial era, and remains common as the first language in rural areas in Yucatan today, where in many towns even Yucatecans of Spanish ancestry have a working knowledge of the tongue.

The second most historically important dialect or language is Chol, formerly widespread, but spoken only in pockets in Chiapas and Guatemala today. A closely related dialect, Chorti, is spoken in a region around the boundaries of the nations of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These particular dialects are believed to be the most conservative in vocabulary and phonology, and are closely related to the language of the inscriptions of the ancient sites of the Classic era Central Lowlands.

The Classic Maya language is quite closely related to modern Chol and Yucatec, and the split between these two languages may be observed in Maya inscriptions.

In the Highlands of Guatemala are the Quichéan-Mamean Maya languages and dialects, including Quiché proper, Cachiquel, Kekchi, Tzutuhil, Pocomam, and Mam. The famous Popol Vuh is in Quiché. In the western highlands around Huehuetenango, Jacaltec is spoken.

The Huastec language, spoken in east-central Mexico, is part of the Mayan language family, although it is distant both linguistically and geographically from the rest of the language family.

Mayan languages

Language Origin

It is generally agreed that the Mayan writing system was adopted from the Olmecs (Schele & Freidel, 1990; Soustelle, 1984). An Olmec origin for many PreClassic Maya sites, would explain Schele and Freidel's (1990) claim that the first king of Palenque was the Olmec leader U-Kix-chan; and that the ancient Maya adopted many Olmec social institutions and Olmec symbolic imagery.

B. Stross (1973) mentions the Mayan tradition for a foreign origin of Mayan writing. This idea is also confirmed by Mayan oral tradition (Tozzer, 1941), and C.H. Brown (1991) who claimed that writing did not exist among the Proto-Maya.

Terrence Kaufman has proposed that the Olmec spoke a Mexe-Zoquean speech and therefore the authors of Olmec writing were Mexe-Zoquean speakers. This view fails to match the epigraphic evidence. The Olmec people spoke a Manding "Malinke-Bambara" language and not Zoquean.

1. Mayan Terms for Writing

Figure 1. Mayan Terms for Writing

Yucatec c'i:b' Chorti c'ihb'a Mam c'i:b'at

Lacandon c'ib' Chol c'hb'an Teco c'i:b'a

Itza c'ib' Chontal c'ib' Ixil c'ib'

Mopan c'ib' Tzeltalan c'ib'

Proto-Term for write *c'ib'

The Mayan /c/ is often pronounced like the hard Spanish /c/ and has a /s/ sound. Brown (1991) argues that *c'ihb may be the ancient Mayan term for writing but, it can not be Proto-Mayan because writing did not exist among the Maya until 600 B.C. This was 1500 years after the break up of the Proto-Maya (Brown, 1991).

Landa's tradition concerning the origin of writing among the Maya supports the linguistic evidence (Tozzer, 1941). Landa noted that the Yucatec Maya claimed that they got writing from a group of foreigners called Tutul Xiu from Nonoulco (Tozzer, 1941).

The Tutul Xi were probably Manding speaking Olmecs. The term Tutul Xiu, can be translated using Manding as follows:

Tutul, "Very good subjects of the Order".

Xiu, "The Shi (/the race)".

"The Shis (who) are very good Subjects of the cult-Order". The term Shi, is probably related to the Manding term Si, which was also used as an ethnonym.

The Mayan term for writing is derived from the Manding term

  • se'be. Below are the various terms for writing used by the Manding/Mande people for writing.

Manding Term for Writing

Malinke se'be Serere safe

Bambara se'be Susu se'be

Dioula se'we' Samo se'be

Sarakole safa W. Malinke safa

Proto-Term for writing *se'be , *safâ

Brown has suggested that the Mayan term c'ib' diffused from the Cholan and Yucatecan Maya to the other Mayan speakers. This term is probably derived from Manding *Se'be which is analogous to *c'ib'. This would explain the identification of the Olmec or Xi/Shi people as Manding speakers. There are also many cognate Mayan and Manding terms (Wiener, 1920-22) .

External links

da:Maya (sprog) es:Idioma maya fr:Langues mayas it:Lingua maya nl:Mayatalen sk:Mayské jazyky


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