Classic Maya language

Classic Maya (or properly Classic Ch'olti') is the oldest historically attested member of the Maya linguistic family. It is the main language documented in the pre-Columbian inscriptions of the classical period of the Maya civilization.[1] It is also a direct descendant of Proto-Mayan (as are Wastek and Yucatec) and the common ancestor of the Cholan branch of Mayan languages. Contemporary descendants of classical Maya include Ch'ol and Ch'orti'. Speakers of these languages can understand many Classic Mayan words.

Classic Maya
*Ch'olti' tziij
Palenque glyphs-edit1.jpg
Part of an inscription at Palenque
RegionYucatan (Mexico), Guatemala
Maya script
Language codes
ISO 639-3emy
emy Epigraphic Mayan
Glottologepig1241  Epigraphic Mayan

Classic Maya is quite a morphologically binding language, and most words in the language consist of multiple morphemes with relatively little irregularity. It shows some regional and temporal variations, which is completely normal considering the long period of use of the language. Even so, the texts make it clear that it is a single, uniform language. Classical Maya shows ergative alignment in people, as well as syntactically in focus constructs. Although the descendant Cholan languages limit this pattern of ergative alignment to sentences in completive aspect, classical Mayan does not show evidence of divided ergativity.[2]


During the Classic Period, the main branches of Proto-Mayan began to diversify into separate languages. The division between Proto-Yucatecan (in the north, the Yucatan Peninsula) and Proto-Cholan (in the south, the Chiapas highlands and the Petén Basin) had already occurred in the Classic, when most of the Mayan inscriptions existing were written. Both variants are attested in hieroglyphic inscriptions at Maya sites of the time, and both are commonly known as the "classical Mayan language".

Although a single prestigious language was by far the most frequently recorded in extant hieroglyphic texts, evidence of at least three different varieties of Maya has been discovered within the hieroglyphic corpus: an Eastern Ch'olana variety found in texts written in the southern Maya area and the highlands, a western Ch'olana variety spread from the Usumacinta region from the mid-7th century onwards, and a Yucatecan variety found in texts from the Yucatan Peninsula.[3] The reason that only a few linguistic varieties are found in the glyphic texts is probably that they served as prestigious dialects throughout the Maya region; hieroglyphic texts would have been written in the language of the elite.

Stephen Houston, John Robertson, and David Stuart have suggested that the specific variety of chʼolan found in most southern lowland glyphic texts was a language they called "classical chʼoltiʼ," the ancestor language of the Chʼortiʼ languages and modern chʼoltiʼ. They propose that it originated in the western and south-central basin of the Petén, and that it was used in inscriptions and perhaps also spoken by elites and priests. However, Mora-Marín has argued that the traits shared by the Classic Lowland Maya and Chʼoltian languages are retentions rather than innovations, and that the diversification of Chʼolan is indeed Post-Classical. The language of the classical lowland inscriptions would then have been Proto-Cholan.


It is now thought that the codices and other Classic texts were written by scribes, usually members of the Maya priesthood, in a literary form of the Chʼoltiʼ language.[4][5] It is possible that the Maya elite spoke this language as a lingua franca over the entire Maya-speaking area, but also that texts were written in other Mayan languages of the Petén and Yucatán, especially Yucatec. There is also some evidence that the Maya script may have been occasionally used to write Mayan languages of the Guatemalan Highlands.[5] However, if other languages were written, they may have been written by Chʼoltiʼ scribes, and therefore have Chʼoltiʼ elements.

Writing systemEdit

Classic Maya is the principal language documented in the writing system used by the pre-Columbian Maya, and is particularly represented in inscriptions from the lowland regions in Mexico and the period c. 200—900. The writing system (generally known as the Maya script) has some similarities in function (but is not related) to other logosyllabic writing systems such as the cuneiform originating in Sumer, in which a combination of logographic and syllabic signs (graphemes) are used. The script's corpus of graphemes features a core of syllabic signs which reflect the phonology of the Classic Maya language spoken in the region and at that time, which were also combined or complemented by a larger number of logograms. Thus the expressions of Classic Maya could be written in a variety of ways, represented either as logograms, logograms with phonetic complements, logograms plus syllables, or in a purely syllabic combination. For example, in one common pattern many verb and noun roots are given by logographs, while their grammatical affixes were written syllabically, much like the Japanese writing system.


The classical Maya consonant system can be represented as follows:[6]

Consonants Labial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosives p  p'  b t  t'   k  k' ʔ
Affricates t͡s  t͡s' t͡ʃ  t͡ʃ'    
Fricatives   s ʝ x h
Liquid l        
Nasals   m n      
Semivowels w j

The Latin alphabet of the classical Maya transliteration is: ’, a, b, ch, ch’, e, h, i, k, k’, l, m, n, o, p, p’, s, t, t’, tz, tz’, u, w, x, y.

In Classic Maya, no word begins with a vowel; these actually begin with a glottal stop.[6]


Like most other Mayan languages, Classic Maya is verb–subject–object and is an ergative–absolutive language. Being polysynthetic, it uses both prefixes and suffixes to show grammatical function. Nouns are not inflected for case or gender. There is also an entire class of intransitives that convey the object's spatial position. In addition, the language employs counter words when quantifying nouns and uses a vigesimal number system. Verbs are not conjugated according to tense, but rather are semantically altered by a series of aspect particles.


Linguists and epigraphers still debate the accurate reading of classical Maya numerals. Numbers greater than 20 are recorded in classical Mayan inscriptions, as part of the so-called "lunar series", for example, when describing the number of days that a "lunar month" specifically has (for example, "20 + 9"; "20 + 10") or the count or order of dynasties to be counted.[6]

List of numerals: mih (0), jun (1), cha’ / ka’ (2), ox / ux (3), chan / kan (4), ho’ (5), wak (6), huk / wuk (7), waxak (8), balun / bolon (9), lajun (10), buluch / buluj (11), laj cha’ / laj ka’ (12), ox lajun / ux lajun (13), chan lajun / kan lajun (14), ho’ lajun (15), wak lajun (16), huk lajun / wuk lajun (17), waxak lajun (18), balun lajun / bolon lajun (19), winak (20).


The personal pronouns attested in prefix form are in- (1st p. Sing.), u- (3rd p. Sing. Preconsonant) and y- (3rd p. Sing. Prevocalic). Possessive pronominal morphemes are ni- (1st p. Sing.), a- (2nd p. Sing. Before consonant), aw- (1st p. Sing. Before vowel), u- (1st p. Sing. Before consonant), y- (1st p. sing. before vowel) and ka- (1st p. pl.). The pronominal suffixes are -en (1st p. Sing.), -at (2nd p. Sing.) and -Ø (3rd p. Sing.). The independent personal pronouns attested are ha'at (2nd p. Sing.), ha', hin and ha'i[n] (3rd p. Sing.) and ha'ob (3rd p. Pl.).[6]


Many verbal roots of classical Maya have been attested. Some of these are: ak'- 'give', al- 'speak', cha'- 'do', tz'ib- 'write, paint', ch'ab- / kob'- 'create', ch'am - 'receive', hul- 'arrive', pok- 'wash', chum- 'sit', jel- 'change', il- 'see', k'at- 'want', och- 'enter, give of eat ', pitz-' play ball ', way-' sleep, transform ', k'ay-' sing ', tal-' come ', nak-' conquer ', pas-' open ', pay-' guide ', tzutz-' finish '.[6]


Maya literature is among the oldest in the world, spanning two millennia from pre-Columbian antiquity to the present.[7] The Maya used to draw and write on surfaces that were not intended to be a means of graphic expression. The most abundant preserved works of this type are found within rooms of buildings whose ceilings and walls are preserved. The floors, the walls, the vaults of the rooms, among other things, are usually intact, although with writing on them. The only place where much effort has been made to document writing on surfaces is Tikal, in Guatemala.[8]

From the period of classical Mayan literature, which lasted from 400 BC. Until the XIII century, the texts that have survived to the present day were painted or carved in stones, bones, resistant wood, ceramics, shells or stucco. It is possible that much more has also been written on paper, but what little has come to this day is illegible. In places dating from the Classic Period, remains of books have been found in tombs, which would have been placed in chests or next to the heads of their deceased owners. The only four still readable books that have survived date from more recent times.[8]


  1. ^ Houston, Stephen; Robertson, John; Stuart, David (2000). "The Language of Classic Maya Inscriptions". Current Anthropology. 41 (3): 321–356. doi:10.1086/300142. ISSN 0011-3204. JSTOR 10.1086/300142. PMID 10768879. S2CID 741601.
  2. ^ Stuart, David; Law, Danny. "Classic Mayan: An overview of language in ancient hieroglyphic script". In: Aissen, Judith, Nora C. England and Roberto Zavala Maldonado (Eds.) the Mayan Languages. Routledge Language Family Series. New York: Routledge.
  3. ^ "Mesoweb Resources". Retrieved 2021-01-20.
  4. ^ Houston, Stephen D.; Robertson, John; Stuart, David (2000). "The Language of Classic Maya Inscriptions". Current Anthropology. 41 (3): 321–356. doi:10.1086/300142. ISSN 0011-3204. PMID 10768879. S2CID 741601.
  5. ^ a b Kettunen and Helmke (2005, p.12)
  6. ^ a b c d e "The Updated Preliminary Classic Maya-English/English-Classic Maya Vocabulary of Hieroglyphic Readings" (PDF).
  7. ^ 2000 Years of Mayan Literature.
  8. ^ a b TEDLOCK, DENNIS (2010). 2000 Years of Mayan Literature (1 ed.). University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-23221-1. JSTOR 10.1525/j.ctt1pp1qq.