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Illustration by Jorge Luna

Maya is still spoken throughout the Mundo Maya, just as it was 3,000 years ago. Large parts of the indigenous communities in Belize, parts of Honduras and Guatemala, and the Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo speak Maya dialects.

    Maya is a linguistic family that can be roughly divided into two major language groups: the proto-Guatemala-Yucatan group, heard in the southern highlands of Guatemala and part of the Yucatan Peninsula; and the proto-Chiapas group, spoken in the highlands of Chiapas, the lowlands of Tabasco, and in regions ranging from southeastern Chiapas, to the Peten in Guatemala and to western Honduras.

    Maya adheres to modes of expression common to the majority of native American tongues. It is polysynthetic, meaning that the subject of the verb is always expressed as a pronoun. In terms of vocabulary it differs from all other native Mexican and Central American languages, and so far is not known to be linked to any other language in the region.

    Linguists believe that during the Classic Period (A.D. 250-900) the Maya spoke a single tongue. That from the highlands to the lowlands and throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, one language was spoken by all of the people with a few, if any, regional variations.

    From A.D. 900-1519, when the northern Yucatan peninsula was invaded by Nahuatl-speaking Indian groups from central Mexico, the Maya language underwent considerable change. However, these alterations had more of an effect on vocabulary than on syntax or grammar.

    The Spaniards imposed their language on the Yucatecan Maya over 500 years ago, yet Maya has influenced Spanish more than it has been effected by it. Not only do Maya words crop up in Spanish vocabulary, but also Maya has altered the syntax, phonetics and etymology of Spanish, whereas Spanish has altered Maya only in small ways. The Spanish cultural influence has caused Mayas to adopt Spanish words for things unknown to them before the arrival of the Europeans.

    And what is now happening in the Yucatan is also occurring elsewhere in the Mundo Maya in places like the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala, where Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, Poconchíi Mam, Pocoman, Tzutuhil, Chorti, Tzetzal and Tzotzil Maya is spoken.

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