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Guatemalan Languages: A Tapestry of Legacy

The Language Lovers Series, Part 2                                

By Christine S. Maxwell

As a lifelong student of the Spanish language, I once remarked to my long-time Guatemalan teacher and friend, Pedro Lucas, Director of  the Centro Maya School of Languages, that the Guatemalan Spanish is clear and easy to understand compared to my experience with other dialects of the Spanish language during my travels and studies in other countries. Pedro replied that Guatemalan Spanish is so clear because, for many Guatemalans, Spanish is not their first language, so Spanish is learned, carefully, precisely, and methodically. As with the beautiful and vibrant tapestries for which Guatemala is known, Spanish is just one thread that unites the Guatemalan people, along with the many other threads of indigenous languages,  to form the  rich and cultural tapestry for which Guatemala is celebrated.

Fascinated with this marvelous aspect of Guatemalan culture and as a tribute to the country that I have visited five times, I explored the linguistic component of Guatemalan history.  Spanish, which is the official language of the country, is not  the first or only language spoken by approximately half of the country’s population.   For many Guatemalans who live outside of the large cities of Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango (Xela), an indigenous language may be their first or only spoken language.   At present, 21 Mayan languages ares spoken within the borders of Guatemala.

Idiomasmap_GuatemalaCreative Commons Indiomasmap Guatemala.svg is licensed under CCBY-SA3.0  This map illustratesthe diversity of languages spoken in Guatemala.  The purple areas represent Spanish (Castilian) and the other colors represent the other languages.

A Rich History

The indigenous languages are a legacy of the Mayan Indians who left a rich cultural heritage to their ancestors.   The Mayan languages are part of the Mesoamerican Indian languages found in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala.   Although K’iche’, Q’eqchi, Kaqchikel, and Mam  are the predominant Mayan languages,  other Mayan languages, and the two non-Mayan languages of Garifuna and Xinca, are widely spoken and scattered throughout the Guatemalan terrain.    

As with most other languages, the Mayan languages have evolved over time.  The earliest forms of the language were spoken and written forms developed later.   During the Classic Period of Mayan history (approximately 200 CE), early forms of writing were etched in hieroglyphics.    With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16 and 17th centuries, Spanish became the dominant language.  Spanish influenced the Mayan languages by creating a Roman alphabet for many of the indigenous languages.   During the Modern period of the 20th century, a nationalist effort to  preserve the Mayan languages and cultures emerged.   In 1986, the Academia de Lenguajes Mayas de Guatemala became the governing body for preserving the Mayan languages and for developing a standard alphabet for the the languages.  Similarly, in 1996, the government allowed for bilingual translations of Spanish/Mayan Indigenous Language for some government documents and voting materials.

A Peaceful Co-existence

Do Spanish and the Mayan languages peacefully co-exist in the 21st century?   Yes and no.    The Mayan languages and Spanish have influenced each other profoundly over the years.  The Mayan languages have affected Spanish in terms of clear pronunciation, the slow, rhythmic delivery,  and the intonation of the language, thus producing a clear, understandable Spanish that is appreciated by so many second-language learners. In turn, Spanish has influenced the Mayan dialects with the introduction of new words from technology, medicine, and industry.   

Unfortunately, the Mayan languages are accepted by fewer people today because many younger people have learned Spanish early in life, and Spanish is the means by which domestic and international business is conducted.    Also,  with the event of immigration from other countries, such as Nicaragua, Spanish has become the unifying language.   Sadly, many native Guatemalans do not want to speak the native, indigenous languages for fear of racial, cultural and linguistic discrimination.

According to “Ten Guatemalan Languages on the Verge of Extinction”   (See some Mayan languages are endangered.  However, efforts are being made to preserve the valuable Mayan languages through organizations that work with children and by Google through the Endangered Language Project.

Despite the diminishing influence of the Mayan languages on everyday life in Guatemala, the native languages continue to be held dear by the people who speak them.  For many Guatemalans, the Mayan languages are a link to their ancestors and  a legacy to their cultural past.     They continue to speak the Mayan languages within their homes and communities.   Thus the rich, vibrant, and diversified threads of the Mayan languages will not likely be unraveled  and will  be preserved in the cultural tapestry woven by the Guatemalan people for many years to come.

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