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K'iche' language


K'iche' language

Native to Guatemala
Region Central highlands
Ethnicity K'iche'
Native speakers
unknown (undated figure of 2.3 million)[1]
  • Eastern (Quichean–Mamean)
Early forms
Classical K'iche'
  • K’iche’
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Regulated by Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (ALMG)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 quc
Glottolog kich1262[3]

K’iche’ or Quiché [4] (K'iche' , also Qatzijob'al "our language" to its speakers) is a Mayan language of Guatemala, spoken by the K'iche' people of the central highlands. With over a million speakers (some 7% of Guatemala's population), K'iche' is the second-most widely spoken language in the country after Spanish. Most speakers of K'iche' languages also have at least a working knowledge of Spanish.

The Central dialect is the most commonly used in the media and education. The literacy rate is low, but K'iche' is increasingly taught in schools and used on radio. The most famous work in the Classical K'iche' language is the Popol Vuh (Popol Wu'uj in modern spelling).


  • Dialects 1
  • Phonology 2
    • Vowels 2.1
    • Consonants 2.2
    • Syllabic structure 2.3
  • Orthography 3
  • Morphology 4
    • Nouns 4.1
    • Pronouns 4.2
    • Verbs 4.3
      • Voice and derivation 4.3.1
  • Syntax 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Kaufman (1970) divides the K'iche' complex into the following five dialects, with the representative municipalities given as well (quoted in Par Sapón 2000:17).

The Nahualá dialect of K'iche' shows some differences from other K'iche' lects: Nahualá preserves an ancient Proto-Mayan distinction between five long vowels (aa, ee, ii, oo, uu) and five short vowels (a, e, i, o, u). It is for this conservative linguistic feature that Guatemalan and foreign linguists have actively sought to have the language called "K'ichee'," rather than K'iche' or Quiché.



K'iche' dialects differ in their vowel systems. Historically, K'iche' had a ten-vowel system: five short and five long. Some dialects (for instance, Nahualá and Totonicapán) retain the ten-vowel system. Others (for instance, Cantel) have reduced it to a six-vowel system with no length distinctions: short /a/ has become /ə/ in these dialects, and the other short vowels have merged with their long counterparts.[5] Different conventions for spelling the vowels have been proposed, including by the Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín, the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala. The table below shows the two vowel systems, and several of the spelling systems that have been proposed.

Phonemes Spelling
Ten-vowel Six-vowel PLFM SIL ALMG
/a/ /ə/ a ä a
/aː/ /a/ aa a
/e/ /e/ e ë e
/eː/ ee e
/i/ /i/ i ï i
/iː/ ii i
/oː/ /o/ o ö o
/o/ oo o
/uː/ /u/ u ü u
/u/ uu u

Vowels typically undergo syncope in penultimate syllables, allowing for a wide array of complex onsets. Diphthongs are found in recent loanwords.


K'iche' has both pulmonic stops and affricates, p /p/, t /t/, tz /ts/, ch /tʃ/, k /k/, and q /q/, and glottalized counterparts b’ /ɓ/, t’ /t’/, tz’ /ts’/, ch’ /tʃ’/, k’ /k’/, and q’ /q’/. The glottalized /ɓ/ is a weak implosive, while the other glottalized consonants are ejectives. The pulmonic stops and affricates are typically aspirated.

Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Retroflex Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasals m [m] n [n]
Glottalized plosive b' [ɓ] t' [tʼ] k' [kʼ] q' [qʼ]
Aspirated plosive p [pʰ] t [tʰ] k [kʰ] q [qʰ] ' [ʔ]
Glottalized affricate tz' [tsʼ] ch' [tʃʼ]
Aspirated affricate tz [tsʰ] ch [tʃʰ]
Fricative s [s] x [ʃ] j [χ] h [h]
Approximant w [ʋ] l [l] r [ɻ] y [j]

In West Quiche, the approximants l /l/, r /ɻ/, y /j/, and w /w/ devoice and fricate to [ɬ], [ʂ], [ç], and [ʍ] word-finally and often before voiceless consonants.

Syllabic structure

Complex onsets are very common in K'iche', partially due to the active process of penultimate syncope. Complex codas are rare, except when the first member of the complex coda is a phonemic glottal stop, written with an apostrophe. The sonorants /m, n, l, r/ may be syllabic.


Historically, different orthographies have been used to transliterate the K'iche' languages. The classic orthography of Father Ximénez who wrote down the Popol Vuh is based on the Spanish orthography and has been replaced by a new standardized orthography defined by the ALMG (Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala). Ethnohistorian and Mayanist Dennis Tedlock uses his own transliteration system which is completely different from any of the established orthographies, but this system will not be given here.

The first line of Popol Wuj in different orthographies:
Ximénez's classical orthography Are v xe oher tzíh varal Quíche ubí.
ALMG orthography Are’ uxe’ ojer tzij waral K’iche’ ub’i’.
(Ximénez's Spanish translation) Este es el principio de las Antiguas historias aquí en el Quiché.
(Tedlock's English translation) "This is the beginning of the ancient word, here in the place called Quiché."


Like other Mayan languages, K'iche' uses two sets of agreement markers — known to Mayanists as "Set A" and "Set B" markers — which can appear on both nouns and verbs. "Set A" markers are used on nouns to mark possessor agreement, and on verbs to agree with the transitive subject (ergative case). "Set B" markers are used on verbs to agree with the transitive object or the intransitive subject (absolutive case).

Set A markers
Before a consonant Before a vowel
First person singular nu- or in- w- or inw-
Second person singular a- aw-
Third person singular u- r-
First person plural qa- q-
Second person plural i- iw-
Third person plural ki- k-
Set B markers
First person singular in-
Second person singular at-
Third person singular Ø-
First person plural oj- (uj- in some varieties)
Second person plural ix-
Third person plural e- (eb'- in some varieties)


Nouns are not inflected for case. Their role in the sentence is indicated by word order, and by agreement marking on the grammatical head which they depend on.

Only a few nouns — most of them referring to humans — are inflected for number. On nouns which do show number, the most common plural suffixes are ab' and ib' : e.g. ixoq "woman", ixoq-ib' "women"; ak'al "child", ak'al-ab' "children."

A few common nouns have irregular plurals: achi "man", achi-jab' "men"; ali "girl", ali-tomab' "girls."

Nouns agree with their possessors, using the Set A agreement markers: nu-wuj "my book," a-wuj "your book," u-wuj "his book," etc.

Nouns may be used as predicates. When they are, they agree with their subject using the Set B agreement markers: in achi "I am a man," at achi "you are a man," achi "he is a man," etc.


K'iche' distinguishes six pronouns, classified by person and number. Gender and case are not marked on pronouns. Pronouns are often omitted, as subject and object agreement are obligatorily marked on the verb.

Subject and object pronouns
In orthography In IPA
First person singular in /in/
Second person singular at /at/
Third person singular are' /aɾeʔ/
First person plural uj /uχ/
Second person plural ix /iʃ/
Third person plural iyare' /ijaɾeʔ/


Verbs are highly morphologically complex, and can take numerous prefixes and suffixes serving both inflectional and derivational purposes.

The table below shows the inflectional template of a K'iche' verb. Agreement follows an ergative/absolutive pattern. Subjects of transitive verbs are indexed using Set A markers. Intransitive subjects and transitive objects are indexed using Set B markers. Aspect and mood are also indicated, as is movement: the prefix ul- in the movement slot indicates movement towards the speaker, while the prefix e- (or b'e- in some varieties) indicates movement away.

Verb inflection
Aspect/mood Set B (absolutive) Movement Set A (ergative) Stem Status suffix
k- at- b'in -ik katb'inik "You walk."
x- at- inw- il -o xatinwilo "I saw you."
ch- Ø- a- k'am -a' chak'ama' "Carry it!"
k- Ø- ul- wa' -oq kulwa'oq "S/he comes and eats."

The last morpheme on a verb, the so-called "status suffix," is a portmanteau morph whose form determined by a rather complicated set of rules. Relevant factors include:

  • whether the verb is transitive or intransitive
  • whether the verb's mood is indicative or imperative
  • whether or not the verb contains a movement marker
  • whether or not the verb falls at the end of an intonational phrase

Voice and derivation

The examples above involve verbs with simple stems. Verb stems may also be morphologically complex. Complex stems may involve voice suffixes

  • Causative: -isa (-kam- "die," -kam-isa- "kill (someone)")
  • Passive: -x (-kuna- "cure (someone)," -kuna-x- "be cured")
  • Completive passive: -taj (-kuna- "cure (someone)," -kuna-taj- "be completely cured; recover")
  • Antipassive: -n, -on or -un (-mes- "sweep (something) clean," -mes-on- "sweep up")

or derivational suffixes, many of which form verb stems from other parts of speech. For instance, the versive suffix -ir or -ar forms verb stems from adjectives: utz "good," -utz-ir- "get good"; nim "big," -nim-ar- "get big." Multiple suffixes can appear within a single stem: -nim-ar- "get big," -nim-ar-isa- "enlarge (something)," -nim-ar-isa-x- "be enlarged."


As with all Mayan languages, K'iche' has an ergative pattern of verb agreement, and often uses verb-object-subject (VOS) word order. Most modern speakers use SOV, SVO, and VSO word orders interchangeably. Language purists have tried to preserve the traditional verb-initial word order, while influence from Spanish (an SVO language) promotes a subject-initial order.


  1. ^ K’iche’ at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Congreso de la República de Guatemala. "Decreto Número 19-2003. Ley de Idiomas Nacionales". Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "'"K'iche. Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  5. ^ Larsen, Thomas (1988). Manifestations of Ergativity in Quiché Grammar. University of California, Berkeley: Ph.D. thesis. 


External links

  • A K‘iche‘-English Dictionary
  • A reversal of Christenson's K'iche'-English Dictionary into an English-K'iche' Dictionary
  • Decree 19-2003 of Guatemala
  • Brief K'iche' tutorial in English and Spanish
  • Some basics of Quiché on Spanish-language Wikibooks (in Spanish)
  • Arte de Lengua Kiché, Anleo, Bartholomé de, ca. 1630-1694
  • Zaccicoxol, ó Baile de Cortés en kiché y castellano, Berendt, C. Hermann
  • Calendario de los indios de Guatemala, 1722, Kiché, Berendt, C. Hermann
  • Einführung in das kolonialzeitliche K’iche’ (Quiché) by Michael Dürr - an introduction to Classical K'iche', in German
  • Morphologie, Syntax und Textstrukturen des Maya-Quiche des Popol Vuh by Michael Dürr - a description of the grammar of the Classical K'iche' of Popol Vuh, in German
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