Proto-Mayan is the hypothetical common ancestor of the 30 living Mayan languages
Mayan languages
The Mayan languages form a language family spoken in Mesoamerica and northern Central America. Mayan languages are spoken by at least 6 million indigenous Maya, primarily in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras...

, as well as the Classic Maya language
Classic Maya language
The Classic Maya language is the oldest historically attested member of the Mayan language family. It is the main language documented in the pre-Columbian inscriptions of the Classic Era Maya civilization.- Relationships :...

s documented in the Maya Hieroglyphical inscriptions
Maya script
The Maya script, also known as Maya glyphs or Maya hieroglyphs, is the writing system of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Mesoamerica, presently the only Mesoamerican writing system that has been substantially deciphered...



The Proto-Mayan language is reconstructed (Campbell and Kaufman 1985) as having the following sounds:

Five vowels: a, e, i, o and u.
Each of these occurring as short and long: aa, ee, ii, oo and uu,
  Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
  plain ejective plain ejective plain ejective plain ejective plain ejective plain
Stops p  [p] b'  [ɓ] t   [t] t'  [tʼ] ty  [tʲ] ty'  [tʲʼ] k  [k] k'  [kʼ] q  [q] q'  [qʼ]  '   [ʔ]
Affricate   ts  [tsʰ] ts'  [tsʼ] ch  [tʃʰ] ch'  [tʃʼ]          
Fricative   s  [s] x  [ʃ]   j  [χ] h  [h]
Nasal   m  [m]   n  [n]     nh  [ŋ]    
Liquids   l  [l]  r  [r]        
Glide       y  [j]   w  [w]    

Sound rules

The following set of sound changes from proto-Mayan to the modern languages are used as the basis of the classification of the Mayan languages. Each sound change may be shared by a number of languages; a grey background indicates no change.
Overview of soundrules from Proto-Mayan to modern Mayan language groups
Huastecan Yucatecan Cholan-Tzeltalan Q'anjob'alan-Chujean K'ichean-Mamean
Ch'olan Tzeltalan Q'anjob'alan Chujean K'ichean Mamean
Core K'iche' Kaqchikel-
Mam Ixil
*w > b
*h > w/_o,u
*q > k, *q' > k'
*ŋ > h *ŋ > n *ŋ > x
*e: > i, *o: > u
*a: > ɨ
*-t > -tʃ *t > tʃ
*-h > -j
*r > t
*r > j
*tʃ > tʂ
*-ɓ > -ʔ/VCV_#


The palatalized plosives [tʲʼ] and [tʲ] are not carried down into any of the modern families. Instead they are reflected differently in different branches allowing a reconstruction of these phonemes as palatalized plosives. In the eastern branch (Chujean-Q'anjob'alan and Cholan) they are reflected as [t] and [tʼ]. In Mamean they are reflected as [ts] and [tsʼ] and in Yukatek and K'ichean as [tʃʰ] and [tʃʼ].
reflexes of Proto-Mayan [tʲʼ] and [tʲ]
Proto-Mayan Q'anjob'al Mam K'iche' English
*tʲeːʔ teʔ tseʔ tʃeːʔ tree
*tʲaʔŋ tan tsaʔχ tʃaːχ ashes

The Proto-Mayan liquid [r] is reflected as [j] in the eastern languages (Chujean- Q'anjob'alan and Cholan), Huastecan and Yukatek but as [tʃʰ] in Mamean and [r] in K'ichean and Poqom.
reflexes of Proto-Mayan [r]
Proto-Mayan Yukatek Ixil K'iche' English
*raʔʃ jaʔʃ tʃaʔʃ raʃ green
*kar kaj tʃaj kar fish

Proto-Mayan velar nasal *[ŋ] is reflected as [x] in the western branches (K'ichean Mamean), as [n] in Q'anjob'alan, Cholan and Yukatekan, and only conserved as [ŋ] in Chuj and Poptí. In Huastecan *[ŋ] is reflected as [h].
reflexes of Proto-Mayan [ŋ]
Proto-Mayan Q'anjob'al Ixil Poptí English
*ŋeːh ne xeh ŋeh tail

The changes of Proto-Mayan glottal fricative [h] are many and it has different reflexes according to position. In some positions it has added length to the preceding vowel in languages that preserve a length distinction. In other languages it has the reflexes [w], [j], [ʔ], [x] or a zero-reflex.

Only K'ichean-Mamean and some Q'anjob'alan languages have retained Proto-Mayan uvular stops [q] and [qʼ] whereas all other branches have changed these into [k] and [kʼ] respectively.

In Mamean a chain shift took place changing *[r] into [t], *[t] into [tʃ], *[tʃ] into [tʂ] and *[ʃ] into [ʂ]. These retroflex affricates and fricatives later diffused into Q'anjob'alan.

In polysyllabic words Kaqchikel and Tz'utujil have changed a final Proto-Mayan *[w] and *[ɓ] into [j] and *[ʔ] respectively.

Huastecan is the only branch to have changed Proto-Mayan *[w] into [b]. Wastek also is the only Mayan language to have a phonemic labialized velar phoneme [kʷ], but this is known to be a postcolonial development. Comparing colonial documents in Wastek to modern Wastek it can be seen that they were originally clusters of [k] and a rounded vowel followed by a glide. For example the word for "vulture" which in modern Wastek is pronounced [kʷiːʃ] was written in colonial Wastek and pronounced [kuwiːʃ].

The Yucatecan languages have all shifted Proto-Mayan *[t] into [tʃ] in wordfinal position.

Several languages particularly Cholan and Yucatecan have changed short [a] into [ɨ].

All Cholan languages have changed long proto-Mayan vowels [eː] and [oː] into [i] and [u] respectively.

Vowel length distinction has been lost in Q'anjob'alan-Chujean (except for Mocho' and Akateko), Kaqchikel and Cholan. Some languages have reduced the vowel length distinction into a tense lax distinction that was later lost for most vowels, Kaqchikel however retains a centralized lax schwa
In linguistics, specifically phonetics and phonology, schwa can mean the following:*An unstressed and toneless neutral vowel sound in some languages, often but not necessarily a mid-central vowel...

-like vowel as a reflex of Proto-Mayan [a]. Two languages, Yukatek and Uspantek and one dialect of Tzotzil have introduced a tone
Tone (linguistics)
Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning—that is, to distinguish or inflect words. All verbal languages use pitch to express emotional and other paralinguistic information, and to convey emphasis, contrast, and other such features in what is called...

distinction in vowels between high and low tones as reflexes of former vowel length and [h] and [ʔ].

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