Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

From cigarettes to hurricanes, words from the Mayas

The Mayas are one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known.  Spanning more than 3,000 years in Central America, archaeologists have now determined that the earliest Maya communities were established on the Pacific coast of Mexico around 1,800 BC.

Although the Mayas are known for many things, including a sophisticated agricultural systems that sustained crops, mathematics—including the concept of zero, extremely accurate astronomical observations, and the infamous calendar which ends this year, it is the Mayan writing system that some say is their greatest achievement.

The Mayan writing system resembles the Ancient Egyptian writing system with hieroglyphs, and it is the only known written language in the pre-Columbian Americas that corresponded directly with the spoken language of the people.  Between the five Central American countries where the Mayas predominantly lived and live (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize) there were close to 30 languages spoken; these languages were spoken up to the arrival of the Europeans.  Although many of the languages began to disappear with the decline of the civilization, neither did all the languages nor the people fully disappear, unlike some other ancient civilizations.

Today, there are approximately 6 million indigenous Mayas still speaking one of the Mayan languages. In Guatemala for example, there are 21 known Mayan languages, while there are eight others in Mexico.  Modern Mayan languages come from a 5000-year old language called Proto-Mayan, which the chart below shows as the starting point.  Here are some rough stats on the Mayan languages that still live:

  • Yucatec Maya: 740,000 people in Mexico and 5,000 in Belize
  • K’iche’: About 2.3 million people in Guatemala
  • Q’eqchi: 400,000 speakers in Guatemala, 12,000 speakers in El Salvador, and 9,000 speakers in Belize
  • Mocho’: Only spoken by about 170 people in Mexico while the
  • Lakantun: Only around 1,000 speakers in Mexico
  • The Chicomuceltec language is already extinct.


The Mayas impacted the world in great ways, and continue to, even today.  Remnants of the great civilization are still seen beyond the borders of Central America and beyond the calendar notification that the world awaits, because there are remnants of the Mayas in modern day languages… even English!

A “loan word” (préstamo in Spanish) is a word that is borrowed (taken really) from one language and incorporated into another language.  Sometimes loanwords carry the same meaning, like salsa or plaza in English, ‘borrowed’ from Spanish.  Other times their meaning changes slightly in the new language, such as macho or burrito—which literally mean male and little donkey in Spanish.  Other loanwords adopt new spellings but carry the same meaning, such as chocolate and coyote, which are both Aztec words from the language Nahuatl (originally spelled xocolatl and koyotl).

Some examples of loanwords from Mayan languages in modern Spanish include cigarro (from the Mayan word siyar) and the name of the country Belize from the Mayan word baliz for muddy waters.  Look here for Spanish words of Mayan origin listed in RAE’s dictionary.

Influence of the Mayas is also seen in English believe it or not, with words such as shark from the Yucatec word xoc/xook for “fish”; cigarette, which was already referenced above with the Spanish equivalent cigarro; cocoa for the Mayan word kakaw, and hurricane (which we hope doesn’t mysteriously appear tomorrow, on 12/21/2012.)  The word hurricane comes from the root of the Classic Maya deity Jun Raqan associated with storms and wind.  The word is said to have entered English indirectly, through Spanish and/or Carib.

So perhaps you reject any prophecy or opinion about December 21, 2012 and think that nothing will happen, or perhaps you hoarded food and water in preparation.  Whatever you believe about tomorrow, the Mayas are ever present; they left a permanent mark on the world for their great wisdom and knowledge.  Many of their descendants still live today and speak their words, like many of us–we just don’t know it.

One thing about tomorrow is most definitely true:

Mayan calendar - edited










Other sources used:

English/Mayan dictionary:

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