Kʼicheʼ language

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Kʼicheʼ ([kʼiˈtʃʰeʔ], also Qatzijobʼal "our language" to its speakers), or Quiché (/kˈ/[3]), is a Mayan language of Guatemala, spoken by the Kʼicheʼ people of the central highlands. With over a million speakers (some 7% of Guatemala's population), Kʼicheʼ is the second-most widely spoken language in the country after Spanish. It is also the most widely spoken indigenous American language in Mesoamerica.

Native toGuatemala
RegionJalapa Department
Native speakers
2,330,000 (2000)[1]
300,000 monolinguals
Early form
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Regulated byAcademia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala
Language codes
ISO 639-3quc
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
A K'iche' speaker.

The Central dialect is the most commonly used in the media and education. The literacy rate is low, but Kʼicheʼ is increasingly taught in schools and used on radio. The most famous work in the Classical Kʼicheʼ language is the Popol Vuh (Popol Wuʼuj in modern spelling).


Kaufman (1970) divides the Kʼicheʼ complex into the following five dialects, with the representative municipalities given as well (quoted in Par Sapón 2000:17).


The Nahualá dialect of Kʼicheʼ shows some differences from other Kʼicheʼ dialects. It preserves an ancient Proto-Mayan distinction between five long vowels (aa, ee, ii, oo, uu) and five short vowels (a, e, i, o, u). It is for that conservative linguistic feature that Guatemalan and foreign linguists have actively sought to have the language called Kʼichee rather than Kʼicheʼ or Quiché.


Kʼicheʼ has a rather conservative phonology. It has not developed many of the innovations found in neighboring languages, such as retroflex consonants or tone.


Stress is not phonemic. It occurs on the final syllable, and on every other syllable before the final in an iambic pattern.

Unstressed vowels are frequently reduced (to [ɨ] or [ə]) or elided altogether, often producing consonant clusters even at the beginnings of words. For example, sibʼalaj "very" may be pronounced [siɓlaχ], and je na laʼ "thus" [χenðaʔ].


Kʼicheʼ dialects differ in their vowel systems. Historically, Kʼicheʼ had a ten-vowel system: five short and five long. Some dialects (for instance, Nahualá and Totonicapán) retain the ten-vowel system. Others (for instance, Cantel) have reduced it to a six-vowel system with no length distinctions: short /a/ has become /ə/ in these dialects, and the other short vowels have merged with their long counterparts.[4] Different conventions for spelling the vowels have been proposed, including by the Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín, the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala. The table below shows the two vowel systems, and several of the spelling systems that have been proposed.

Phonemes Spelling
Ten-vowel Six-vowel PLFM SIL ALMG
/a/ /ə/ a ä a
/aː/ /a/ aa a
/e/ /e/ e ë e
/eː/ ee e
/i/ /i/ i ï i
/iː/ ii i
/o/ /o/ o ö o
/oː/ oo o
/u/ /u/ u ü u
/uː/ uu u

Vowels typically undergo syncope in penultimate syllables, allowing for a wide array of complex onsets. Diphthongs are found in recent loanwords.


Kʼicheʼ has both pulmonic stops and affricates, p /p/, t /t/, tz /ts/, ch /tʃ/, k /k/, and q /q/, and glottalized counterparts /ɓ/, /tʼ/, tzʼ /tsʼ/, chʼ /tʃʼ/, /kʼ/, and /qʼ/. The glottalized /ɓ/ is a weak implosive, while the other glottalized consonants are ejectives. The pulmonic stops and affricates are typically aspirated.[5]

Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasals m [m] n [n]
Glottalized plosive [ɓ] [tʼ] [kʼ] [qʼ]
Aspirated plosive p [pʰ] t [tʰ] k [kʰ] q [qʰ] ʼ [ʔ]
Glottalized affricate tzʼ [tsʼ] chʼ [tʃʼ]
Aspirated affricate tz [tsʰ] ch [tʃʰ]
Fricative s [s] x [ʃ] j [χ] h [h]
Approximant w [w] l [l] y [j]
Rhotic r [ɾ~r]

In West Quiche, the approximants l /l/, r /r/, y /j/, and w /w/ devoice and fricate to [ɬ], [r̥], [ç], and [ʍ] word-finally and often before voiceless consonants. In the dialect of Santa María Chiquimula, intervocalic /l/ alternates between [l] and [ð], a highly unusual sound change. The fricative [ð] is most common in the vicinity of the vowels /a(:)/ and /o(:)/.[6]

Syllabic structureEdit

Complex onsets are very common in Kʼicheʼ, partially due to the active process of penultimate syncope. Complex codas are rare, except when the first member of the complex coda is a phonemic glottal stop, written with an apostrophe. The sonorants /m, n, l, r/ may be syllabic.


Historically, different orthographies have been used to transliterate the Kʼicheʼ languages. The classic orthography of Father Ximénez who wrote down the Popol Vuh is based on the Spanish orthography and has been replaced by a new standardized orthography defined by the ALMG (Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala). Ethnohistorian and Mayanist Dennis Tedlock uses his own transliteration system which is completely different from any of the established orthographies, but this system will not be given here.

The first line of Popol Wuj in different orthographies
Ximénez's classical orthography Are v xe oher tzíh varal Quíche ubí.
ALMG orthography Areʼ uxeʼ ojer tzij waral Kʼicheʼ ubʼiʼ.
(Ximénez's Spanish translation) Este es el principio de las Antiguas historias aquí en el Quiché.
(Tedlock's English translation) "This is the beginning of the ancient word, here in the place called Quiché."


Like other Mayan languages, Kʼicheʼ uses two sets of agreement markers—known to Mayanists as "Set A" and "Set B" markers—which can appear on both nouns and verbs. "Set A" markers are used on nouns to mark possessor agreement, and on verbs to agree with the transitive subject (ergative case). "Set B" markers are used on verbs to agree with the transitive object or the intransitive subject (absolutive case).

Set A markers
Before a consonant Before a vowel
First person singular nu- or in- w- or inw-
Second person singular a- aw-
Third person singular u- r-
First person plural qa- q-
Second person plural i- iw-
Third person plural ki- k-
Set B markers
First person singular in-
Second person singular at-
Third person singular Ø-
First person plural oj- (uj- in some varieties)
Second person plural ix-
Third person plural e- (ebʼ- in some varieties)


Kʼicheʼ distinguishes six pronouns, classified by person and number. Gender and case are not marked on pronouns. Pronouns are often omitted, as subject and object agreement are obligatorily marked on the verb.

Subject and object pronouns
In orthography In IPA
First person singular in /in/
Second person singular at /at/
Third person singular areʼ /aɾeʔ/
First person plural uj /uχ/
Second person plural ix /iʃ/
Third person plural iyareʼ /ijaɾeʔ/


Verbs are highly morphologically complex, and can take numerous prefixes and suffixes serving both inflectional and derivational purposes.

The table below shows the inflectional template of a Kʼicheʼ verb. Agreement follows an ergative/absolutive pattern. Subjects of transitive verbs are indexed using Set A markers. Intransitive subjects and transitive objects are indexed using Set B markers. Aspect and mood are also indicated, as is movement: the prefix ul- in the movement slot indicates movement towards the speaker, while the prefix e- (or bʼe- in some varieties) indicates movement away.

Verb inflection
Aspect/mood Set B (absolutive) Movement Set A (ergative) Stem Status suffix
k- at- bʼin -ik katbʼinik "You walk."
x- at- inw- il -o xatinwilo "I saw you."
ch- Ø- a- kʼam -aʼ chakʼamaʼ "Carry it!"
k- Ø- ul- waʼ -oq kulwaʼoq "S/he comes and eats."

The last morpheme on a verb, the so-called "status suffix", is a portmanteau morph whose form determined by a rather complicated set of rules. Relevant factors include:

  • whether the verb is transitive or intransitive
  • whether the verb's mood is indicative or imperative
  • whether or not the verb contains a movement marker
  • whether or not the verb falls at the end of an intonational phrase

Voice and derivationEdit

The examples above involve verbs with simple stems. Verb stems may also be morphologically complex. Complex stems may involve voice suffixes

  • Causative: -isa (-kam- "die", -kam-isa- "kill (someone)")
  • Passive: -x (-kuna- "cure (someone)", -kuna-x- "be cured")
  • Completive passive: -taj (-kuna- "cure (someone)", -kuna-taj- "be completely cured; recover")
  • Antipassive: -n, -on or -un (-mes- "sweep (something) clean", -mes-on- "sweep up")

or derivational suffixes, many of which form verb stems from other parts of speech. For instance, the versive suffix -ir or -ar forms verb stems from adjectives: utz "good", -utz-ir- "get good"; nim "big", -nim-ar- "get big." Multiple suffixes can appear within a single stem: -nim-ar- "get big", -nim-ar-isa- "enlarge (something)", -nim-ar-isa-x- "be enlarged."


As with all Mayan languages, Kʼicheʼ has an ergative pattern of verb agreement, and often uses verb-object-subject (VOS) word order. Most modern speakers use SOV, SVO, and VSO word orders interchangeably. Language purists have tried to preserve the traditional verb-initial word order, while influence from Spanish (an SVO language) promotes a subject-initial order.


Contrary to the way many other languages use high pitch in child directed speech (babytalk), Kʼicheʼ babytalk has been shown not to use high pitch. Mayans in fact lower their pitch slightly when they speak to children, due to the fact that in the Quiche Mayan culture high pitch is very often used to address persons of high status.[7][8]


  1. ^ Kʼicheʼ at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
  2. ^ Endangered Languages Project data for K'iche'.
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. ^ Larsen, Thomas (1988). Manifestations of Ergativity in Quiché Grammar. University of California, Berkeley: Ph.D. thesis.
  5. ^ Larsen (1988), pp. 12–13.
  6. ^ Larsen (1988), p. 48.
  7. ^ Ratner, Nan Bernstein; Pye, Clifton (1984). "Higher pitch in BT is not universal: acoustic evidence from Quiche Mayan" (PDF). Journal of Child Language. 11 (3): 515–522. doi:10.1017/S0305000900005924. PMID 6501462. S2CID 41534938.
  8. ^ Pye, Clifton (1986). "Quiché Mayan speech to children". Journal of Child Language. 13 (1): 85–100. doi:10.1017/S0305000900000313. PMID 3949901.


External linksEdit