Proto-Mayan is the hypothetical common ancestor of the 30 living Mayan languages, as well as the extinct Classic Maya language documented in the Maya Hieroglyphical inscriptions.


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,

  Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
  plain ejective plain ejective plain ejective plain ejective plain ejective plain
Stops p  [p] b'  [ɓ] t   [t] t'  [t'] ty  [tʲ] ty'  [tʲ'] k  [k] k'  [k'] q  [q] q'  [q']  '   [ʔ]
Affricate   ts  [ʦʰ] ts'  [ʦ’] ch  [ʧʰ] ch'  [ʧ’]          
Fricative   s  [s] x  [ʃ]   j  [X] h  [h]
Nasal   m  [m]   n  [n]     nh  [ŋ]    
Liquids   l  [l]  r  [r]        
Glide       y  [j]   w  [w]    

Sound rules

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.

Overview of soundrules from Proto-Mayan to modern Mayan language groups
Huastecan Yucatecan Cholan-Tzeltalan Q'anjob'alan-Chujean K'ichean-Mamean
Ch'olan Tzeltalan Q'anjob'alan Chujean K'ichean Mamean
Core K'iche' Kaqchikel-
Mam Ixil
*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
*r > t
*r > j
*tʃ > tʂ
*-ɓ > -ʔ/VCV_#


The palatalized plosives [tʲ'] 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 eastern branch (Chujean-Q'anjob'alan and Cholan) they are reflected as [t] and [t']. In Mamean they are reflected as [ts] and [ts'] and in Yukatek and K'ichean as [ʧʰ] and [ʧ’].

reflexes of Proto-Mayan [tʲ'] and [tʲ]
Proto-Mayan Q'anjob'al Mam K'iche' English
*tʲeːʔ teʔ tseʔ ʧeːʔ tree
*tʲaʔŋ tan tsaʔX ʧaːX ashes

The Proto-Mayan liquid [r] is reflected as [j] in the eastern languages (Chujean- Q'anjob'alan and Cholan), Huastecan and Yukatek but as [ʧʰ] in Mamean and [r] in K'ichean and Poqom.

reflexes of Proto-Mayan [r]
Proto-Mayan Yukatek Ixil K'iche' English
*raʔʃ jaʔʃ tʃaʔʃ raʃ green
*kar kaj tʃaj kar fish

Proto-Mayan velar nasal *[ŋ] is reflected as [x] in the western 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].

reflexes of Proto-Mayan [ŋ]
Proto-Mayan Q'anjob'al Ixil Poptí English
*ŋeːh ne xeh ŋeh tail

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 [q'] whereas all other branches have changed these into [k] and [k'] respectively.

In Mamean a chain shift took place changing *[r] into [t], *[t] into [tʃ], *[tʃ] into [ʈʂ] and *[ʃ] into [ʂ]. These retroflex affricates and fricatives later diffused into Q'anjob'alan.

In polysyllabic words Kaqchikel and Tz'utujil have changed a final proto-Mayan *[w] and *[ɓ] into [j] and *[ʔ] respectively.

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 [kwi:ʃ]was written in colonial Wastek and pronounced [kuwi:ʃ].

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, 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?".

Bibiliography of Maya related topics from the University of Texas Anthropology website

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