Ancient Mayan Language

Ancient Mayan Language Hieroglyphs

The Maya spoke various Maya family languages some of which were phonetically transcribed via hieroglyphs. The Maya painted their words on bark paper that has disintegrated, but also wrote on more enduring substances.

Two dialects dominate the inscriptions and are presumed to be the more prestigious forms of the Maya language. One is from the southern area of the Maya and the other from the Yucatan peninsula. With the advent of the Spanish, the prestige language became Spanish.

Ancient Mayan Language

What language do Mayans speak

Today, it's estimated that about 6 million indigenous Mayans still speak Mayan languages. Most of these people live in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. In Guatemala, there are 21 known Mayan languages, and there are eight more in Mexico.

It is believed that most modern Mayan languages are derived from a 5000-year old language known as Proto-Mayan, the old Maya language. There are five branches in the Mayan language family, namely, Cholan-Tzeltalan, Huastecan, Q'anjobalan-Chujean, Quichean-Mamean, and Yucatecan.

Ancient Mayan Language

In about 1566, the first bishop of Yucatan, Diego de Landa, compiled a key to the Mayan syllabary consisting of 27 Spanish letters and the Mayan glyphs with similar sounds. This became known as the Landa Alphabet and helped with the decipherment of the script, even though it was based on the false premise that the script was alphabetic.

The various groups spoke nearly 30 closely related languages and dialects, including the Mayan and Huastec.

Ancient Mayan Language Script

For a long time many scholars believed that the script did not represent a language at all, or that it wasn't a complete writing system. The first major breakthrough in decipherment came during the 1950s when a Russian ethnologist, Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, proposed that the Mayan script was at least partly phonetic and represented the Yucatec Mayan language.

Mayan Hieroglyphs

The Maya had 800 distinct hieroglyphs, with the first evidence of language written on stela and walls of buildings beginning ca 300 BC. Bark cloth paper codexes were being used no later than the 1500s, but all but a handful were destroyed by Spanish

The Yucatec Maya continued to use the Mayan script until at least the 16th century. Recently, their descendants have started to learn the script once again from the scholars who have deciphered it.

Ancient Mayan Language

Most Mayan languages put the verb first in a sentence, a feature found in about a tenth of the world's languages. There are 30 Mayan languages currently spoken, but experts fear those numbers are on the decline. In 1976 there were an estimated 50,000 speakers of Chuj. Now there are about 40,000.

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