- Nora C. EnglandNora C. EnglandUniversity of Texas at Austin
Mayan languages are spoken by over 5 million people in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. There are around 30 different languages today, ranging in size from fairly large (about a million speakers) to very small (fewer than 30 speakers). All Mayan languages are endangered given that at least some children in some communities are not learning the language, and two languages have disappeared since European contact. Mayas developed the most elaborated and most widely attested writing system in the Americas (starting about 300 BC).
The sounds of Mayan languages consist of a voiceless stop and affricate series with corresponding glottalized stops (either implosive and ejective) and affricates, glottal stop, voiceless fricatives (including h in some of them inherited from Proto-Maya), two to three nasals, three to four approximants, and a five vowel system with contrasting vowel length (or tense/lax distinctions) in most languages. Several languages have developed contrastive tone.
The major word classes in Mayan languages include nouns, verbs, adjectives, positionals, and affect words. The difference between transitive verbs and intransitive verbs is rigidly maintained in most languages. They usually use the same aspect markers (but not always). Intransitive verbs only indicate their subjects while transitive verbs indicate both subjects and objects. Some languages have a set of status suffixes which is different for the two classes. Positionals are a root class whose most characteristic word form is a non-verbal predicate. Affect words indicate impressions of sounds, movements, and activities. Nouns have a number of different subclasses defined on the basis of characteristics when possessed, or the structure of compounds. Adjectives are formed from a small class of roots (under 50) and many derived forms from verbs and positionals.
Predicate types are transitive, intransitive, and non-verbal. Non-verbal predicates are based on nouns, adjectives, positionals, numbers, demonstratives, and existential and locative particles. They are distinct from verbs in that they do not take the usual verbal aspect markers. Mayan languages are head marking and verb initial; most have VOA flexible order but some have VAO rigid order. They are morphologically ergative and also have at least some rules that show syntactic ergativity. The most common of these is a constraint on the extraction of subjects of transitive verbs (ergative) for focus and/or interrogation, negation, or relativization. In addition, some languages make a distinction between agentive and non-agentive intransitive verbs. Some also can be shown to use obviation and inverse as important organizing principles. Voice categories include passive, antipassive and agent focus, and an applicative with several different functions.