Kʼicheʼ language

Kʼicheʼ ([kʼiˈtʃʰeʔ], also known as Qatzijobʼal lit.'our language' among its speakers), or Quiché (/kˈ/[2]), 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
RegionQuetzaltenango, Quiché, Retalhuleu, Sololá, Suchitepéquez, Totonicapán
Native speakers
1.1 million (2019 census)[1]
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 Kʼicheʼ speaker.

The Central dialect is the most commonly used in media and education. Despite a low literacy rate, Kʼicheʼ is increasingly taught in schools and used on the 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, which often produces consonant clusters even word-initially. 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 (such as Nahualá and Totonicapán) retain the ten-vowel system. Others (such as 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.[3] 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. This table 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
// /a/ aa a
/e/ /e/ e ë e
// ee e
/i/ /i/ i ï i
// ii i
/o/ /o/ o ö o
// oo o
/u/ /u/ u ü u
// uu u

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


Kʼicheʼ has pulmonic stops and affricates, /p/, /t/, /ts/, /tʃ/, /k/, and /q/, and glottalized counterparts /ɓ/, /tʼ/, /tsʼ/, /tʃʼ/, /kʼ/, and /qʼ/. The glottalized /ɓ/ is a weak implosive, and the other glottalized consonants are ejectives. The pulmonic stops and affricates are typically aspirated.[4]

Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasals ⟨m⟩ m ⟨n⟩ n
aspirated ⟨p⟩ ⟨t⟩ ⟨tz⟩ tsʰ ⟨ch⟩ tʃʰ ⟨k⟩ ⟨q⟩ ⟨ʼ⟩ ʔ
glottalized ⟨bʼ⟩ ɓ ⟨tʼ⟩ ⟨tzʼ⟩ tsʼ ⟨chʼ⟩ tʃʼ ⟨kʼ⟩ ⟨qʼ⟩
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/, /r/, /j/, and /w/ devoice and fricate to [ɬ], [], [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.[5] 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 because of the active process of penultimate syncope. Complex codas are rare except when the first member of the complex coda is a phonemic glottal stop, which is written with an apostrophe. The sonorants /m, n, l, r/ may be syllabic.


Historically, different orthographies have been used to transcribe the Kʼicheʼ languages. The classical orthography of Father Ximénez, who wrote down the Popol Vuh, is based on Spanish orthography and has been replaced by a new standardized orthography, defined by the ALMG (Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala). The ethnohistorian and Mayanist Dennis Tedlock uses his own transliteration system, which is completely different from any of the established orthographies.

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
1st person singular nu- or in- w- or inw-
plural qa- q-
2nd person singular a- aw-
plural i- iw-
3rd person singular u- r-
plural ki- k-
Set B markers
1st person singular in-
plural oj- (uj- in some varieties)
2nd person singular at-
plural ix-
3rd person singular Ø-
plural e- (ebʼ- in some varieties)


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

Subject and object pronouns
orthography IPA
1st person singular in /in/
plural uj /uχ/
2nd person singular at /at/
plural ix /iʃ/
3rd person singular areʼ /aɾeʔ/
plural iyareʼ /ijaɾeʔ/


Kʼicheʼ verbs are morphologically complex and can take numerous prefixes and suffixes, which serve both inflectional and derivational purposes. Agreement follows an ergative/absolutive pattern: subjects of transitive verbs are indexed with Set A markers, while intransitive subjects and transitive objects are indexed with Set B markers. Aspect and mood are also indicated via verbal morphology, as is movement: the prefix ul- in the movement slot indicates movement towards the speaker, and the prefix e- (or bʼe- in some varieties) indicates movement away from the speaker.

The table below shows the inflectional template of a Kʼicheʼ verb.

Example Kʼicheʼ verb inflection
Aspect/mood Set B
Movement Set A
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 morpheme, the form of which is determined by a set of rules that includes factors such as:

  • 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")

Also, derivational suffixes may be included, 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 other 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, but influence from Spanish (an SVO language) promotes a subject-initial order.


Contrary to how 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 since in Quiche Mayan culture, high pitch is very often used to address persons of high status.[7][8]

Loanwords in other languagesEdit

The UTZ label for sustainable farming got its name from utz kapeh ("good coffee").[9]


  1. ^ Kʼicheʼ at Ethnologue (24th ed., 2021)  
  2. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  3. ^ Larsen (1988).
  4. ^ Larsen (1988), pp. 12–13.
  5. ^ Romero (2015), p. 42.
  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. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-02-22.
  8. ^ Pye, Clifton (1986). "Quiché Mayan speech to children". Journal of Child Language. 13 (1): 85–100. doi:10.1017/S0305000900000313. PMID 3949901.
  9. ^ "The Story of UTZ". UTZ Certified. June 26, 2019.


External linksEdit