Healthy Schools Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala since February 2013

Friday, August 1, 2014

Mayan Language Map

Guatemala is the heart of the Mayan people. There are over 20 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala to this day. This is no joke, I live in a rural town, but only about an hours drive from two "major" cities, and the vast majority of people here speak K'iche'. There are even some parents' groups that I work with who speak very little Spanish. This, combined with the high illiteracy rate among parents is why I always have a translator at my parents meetings to translate my Spanish into K'iche'. When I had my interview with my project manager to try and figure out where might be the best fit for me, I told them I wanted two things: a large host family and a place where the people speak Spanish. I like taking my K'iche' classes, but I figured I want to spend my time working on my Spanish and not on Mayan languages that only a very small percentage of people in this country (let alone in the world) speak.

I live with an indigenous host family. The older women are always in traje tipico and the girls wear it for special occasions. When they are talking among themselves they speak in K'iche'. This is terrible for eves-dropping. Because the Mayan people are such a big part of my experience here in Guatemala I thought that I would pass along a little more information about the prevalence of Mayan languages.

Linguistic map of Guatemala
Mayan, Xinka and Gariífuna languages
I live in the middle of the dark-green blob

I had never heard of the Xinka people before this map, but some light googling told me that they are the non-Mayan indigenous people of Mesoamerica. The Gariífuna are the African/Carribean-Guatemalans that predominantly live along the Carribean coast of Guatemala - I got to experience some of this Gariífuna culture when I went to Livingston and Rio Dulce for Thanksgiving last year. Forgot I did that? If you would like a refresher here are the links to my blog posts from Livingston and Rio Dulce.

You will probably have a hard enough time pronouncing the names of the Mayan languages even if you can read them so I have written the names and percentages in the graph below (the % is the % of Guatemalans who speak this Mayan language):
2.2% - Achi
0.9% - Akateko
0.3% - Awakateko
0.5% - Chalchiteko
1.0% - Ch'orti'
1.4% - Chuj
0.1% - Garifuna
0.05% - Itza'
2.2% - Ixil
18.3% - Kaqchikel
28.6% - K'iche' - What they speak where I live! Disclaimer: there seem to be many sub-dialects within languages so even if two people speak K'iche', if they are from different towns they may not be able to communicate fully or even understand each other
13.3% - Mam
0.1% - Mopan
1.0% - Popti'
0.9% - Poqomam
2.6% - Poqomchi'
3.5% - Q'anjob'al
20.1% - Q'eqchi'
0.2% - Sakapulteko
0.2% - Sipakapense
0.05% - Tektiteko
1.4% Tz'utujil
0.2% - Uspanteko
0.2% - Xinka

Guatemala truly is a multilingual country!


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  2. At least Spanish helps tie the country together with a second language that the various Mayan dialects can use. Given our brief lesson in K'iche' I think you are wise in focusing on mastering Spanish. If I recall correctly, I think our instructor said it took her three years to learn the language, and she was married to a native speaker.

  3. My goodness - how complicated. I had no idea.