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Kaqchikel language

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Kaqchikel language

Kaqchikel Ch'ab'äl
Native to Guatemala
Region Central Highlands
Ethnicity Kaqchikel
Native speakers
unknown (450,000 cited 1990–1998)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 cak
Glottolog kaqc1270[2]

The Kaqchikel, or Kaqchiquel, language (in modern orthography; formerly also spelled Cakchiquel or Cakchiquiel) is an indigenous Mesoamerican language and a member of the Quichean–Mamean branch of the Mayan languages family. It is spoken by the indigenous Kaqchikel people in central Guatemala. It is closely related to the K'iche' (Quiché) and Tz'utujil languages.


The Kaqchikel language is spoken in the following municipalities (Variación Dialectal en Kaqchikel, 2000).


External classification

Kaqchikel is a member of the Mayan language family.

In Joseph Greenberg's Amerind hypothesis, Kaqchikel is classified as a member of the Penutian stock, in the Mayan branch of the Mexican family within that stock. However, this hypothesis has been largely discounted by modern linguists.

Greenberg's hypothesis has received significant amounts of negative criticism from many important linguists ever since it was first published in 1987. In Greenberg's etymological dictionary of Amerind, Kaqchikel words are found in 5 entries. Four of the entries are unremarkable; but the fifth uses two words, a-ĉin and iŝ-tan, as examples of a protophoneme *t'ina / t'ana / t'una, meaning "son/child/daughter" despite the fact that a-ĉin was already used in the dictionary to mean "elder". This is an example of a commonly cited flaw in the work, which is that Greenberg reaches too far in search of evidence. In general, the documentation of Kaqchikel in the Amerind etymological dictionary serves to highlight the problems with the hypothesis more than it helps Greenberg's cause.


In the charts below, each of the Kaqchikel phonemes is represented by the character or set of characters that denote it in the standard orthography developed by the Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages (ALMG) and sanctioned by the Guatemalan government. Where different, the corresponding symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet appears in brackets. The dialect used in this example is that of Xenacoj.


Kaqchikel dialects differ somewhat in their vowels. Each dialect has a set of five tense vowels and either one, two, four, or five lax vowels.[3] The chart below shows all the possible vowels that can occur in dialects of Kaqchikel. Although the dialect of Sololá uses the maximal ten-vowel system with all the vowels except schwa /ə/, the dialects of San Juan Sacatepéquez and San Andrés Semetabaj only use the five tense vowels and schwa.

There is a variance in the pronunciation of the lax vowels across the dialects. Some dialects lower the given vowel, others center the vowel but do not lower it. The Xenacoj dialect used here both centers and lowers the vowels with a tendency to more strongly lower close vowels and more strongly center back vowels.

Front Central Back
Close tense i [i] ü [ʉ̞]–[ʊ̈] u [ɯ][u]
lax ï [ɪ]
Mid tense e [e] ö [ɵ̞]–[ɔ̜] o [ɤ][o]
lax ë [ɛ] ä [ə̞]
Open tense a [a]

The pronunciation of the letters o and u varies between [ɤ] and [o] for o, and [ɯ] and [u] for u. This roundness ambiguity for the letters o and u is a trait found in many Mayan languages such as Tzotzil and Mam. The letters may be pronounced as either rounded or unrounded depending on the speakers preference and both are considered correct.

  • The letter "ü" has a pronunciation between the "ʉ" and "ʊ" sounds. It is farther back and lower than the standard "ʉ" but it is not as low or back as standard "ʊ".
  • The letter "ö" has similar traits. It is typically pronounced as either a lower "ɵ", though not as low as "ɘ" but may also be pronounced as "ɔ". It may fall anywhere between those sounds, but only lowered "ɵ" and centered "ɔ" are considered to be correct.


Like other Mayan languages, Kaqchikel does not distinguish voiced and voiceless stops and affricates but instead distinguishes plain and glottalized stops and affricates. The plain stops and affricates (technically "pulmonic egressive") are usually voiceless and are aspirated at the ends of words and unaspirated elsewhere. The glottalized stops and affricates are usually ejective in the case of t' , k' , ch' , and tz' and implosive in the case of b' and q' .[4]

  Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
  plain glottalized plain glottalized plain glottalized plain glottalized plain glottalized plain
Stops p [pʰ] - [ɸʰ] b' [ɓ] t [tʰ] t' [tʼ] k [kʰ] k' [kʼ] q [qʰ] q' [ʠ] ' [ʔ] - [ɪʔ]
Affricates w [β] tz [tsʰ] tz' [tsʼ] ch [tʃʰ] ch' [tʃʼ]      
Fricatives w [v] - [f] s [s] x [ʃ]   j [χ]  
Nasals m [m] n [n] - [ŋ]        
Liquids   l [l]
r [ɾ]
Glides     y [j] w [w]-[ʍ]    

Allophones and phonological processes

Several of the consonants in Kaqchikel have variant forms that occur in certain positions within a word.

  • The plain stops /p t k/ are aspirated internally before the prefix -b'äl and in word-final position.
    • Examples:
      • /tsʼetɓɨl/ viewpoint is realized as [tsʼetʰɓɨl]
      • /pop/ knapsack is realized as [popʰ]
      • /tat/ dad is realized as [tatʰ]
      • /kuk/ squirrel is realized as [kukʰ]
  • Before /e/ and /i/, /k/ is palatalized to become [kʲ]. In the same position, the ejective /kʼ/ palatalizes to become [kʼʲ].
    • Examples:
      • /keχ/ horse is realized as [kʲeχ]
      • /kiʔ/ sweet is realized as [kʲiʔ]
      • /kʼekʼ/ stingy is realized as [kʼʲekʼ]
      • /kʼim/ straw is realized as [kʼʲim]
  • The voiceless uvular stop has an affricated release in final position. It is realized as the affricate [qx] in this position only, and is not contrastive.
    • Examples:
      • /ɓaq/ bone realized as [ɓaqx]
      • /winɨq/ person realized as [vinɨqx]
  • The glottal stop /ʔ/ plays an important role in Kaqchikel; since words may not begin with a vowel and diphthongs do not exist in the language, this consonant often serves to separate vowels, and is found at the beginning of words that would otherwise begin with a vowel. It can also occur syllable- and word-finally.
    • Examples:
      • /aʠaʔ/ your hand is realized as [ʔaʠaʔ]
      • /iwir/ yesterday is realized as [ʔiwir]
  • The implosive consonants in Kaqchikel are usually voiceless, which is unusual for implosives.
    • The voiceless bilabial [p] has a tendency to be fricatized to [ɸ] word finally, before [u] and when in consonant clusters. In many dialects /ɸ/ has become the standard pronunciation in all situations while in others it has become /f/.
    • The voiceless bilabial ejective [pʼ] is an allophone of the bilabial implosive [ɓ]; there is free variation between the two in word-final position. Elsewhere, only [p'] is found. For example, the word sɪɓ/ "smoke" can be realized as [sɪɓ] or [sɪpʼ] with no change in meaning; but /ɓaqx/ bone can never be realized as [pʼaqx] because the implosive occurs word-initially rather than word-finally.
    • The uvular implosive [ʠ] and its allophone, the voiceless uvular ejective [qʼ], experience free variation in the same position. For example, /aʠ/tongue can be realized as [ʔaʠ] or [ʔaqʼ]; but /ʠiχ/ can only ever be realized as [ʠiχ] because the implosive occurs word-initially.
  • The sonorants /l ɾ j/ are devoiced in word-final position and before another consonant.
  • The distribution of the phoneme represented by the letter w is quite varied across Kaqchikel dialects. It has a total of seven allophones: /β x pʰ f v ʍ w/. The labiovelar approximant /w/ is the historical standard pronunciation, and this spelling has been maintained in order to have a single standard for all the various dialects of Kaqchikel. There is too much variation to list here, but these are some generalizations:
    • At the beginning of a word, /w/ can be realized in speech as [β] (only before back vowels /o u/), as [v] (only before front vowels /e i/), or another vowel which is itself followed by a uvular), or as just [w] (before any vowel), depending on the dialect. [v ~ w] can also occur internally in the same vowel environments.
      • Examples:
        • /wonon/ bumblebee can be realized as [βonon] or [wonon]
        • wïy /wɨj/ tortilla can be realized as [vɨj] or [wɨj]
        • /wuquʔ/ seven can be realized as [βuquʔ] or [vuquʔ] or [wuquʔ]
        • /iwir/ yesterday can be realized as [ʔivir] or [ʔiwir]
    • At the end of a word, the /w/ phoneme can be realized in one of four ways: [pʰ f ʍ] can be found in all environments, and [x] can occur after /o u/, depending on the dialect.
      • Examples:
        • /tew/ cold can be realized as [tepʰ], [tef] or [teʍ].
        • /kow/ hard can be realized as [kopʰ], [kof], [koʍ] or [kox].

Syllable structure

Kaqchikel has several constraints on syllable structure. The most common syllable types are CV (consonant-vowel) and CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant). V (vowel only) or VC (vowel-consonant) syllables are not allowed phonetically; a syllable that is conceived of as beginning with a vowel will begin in pronunciation with a glottal stop, although this is not always reflected in standard orthography or in the phonological realization of a word. While two CVC syllables often occur next to each other in the same word, true consonant clusters are relatively uncommon. When these do occur they are normally at word boundaries and consist of either two continuants, a sonorant and a stop, or a fricative and a stop, with the stop always to the inside of its partner.

Morphology and syntax

Kaqchikel is a moderately synthetic language with fusional affixes. It has a strong system of affixation, including both suffixes and prefixes. These attach to both nouns and verbs; prefixes are exclusively inflective, whereas suffixes can be inflective or derivational. Inflective prefixes are quite short, often composed of a single sound and never consisting of more than three; suffixes can be longer than this. Because of the synthetic-fusional nature of Kaqchikel, it is difficult to discuss the language's morphology and syntax as two separate entities; they are very robustly intertwined.

Word classes

Kaqchikel has 6 major word classes and several minor classes, referred to collectively as "particles." The major word classes are groups of bases or roots that can take affixes. These classes are nouns, adjectives, adverbs, intransitive verbs, transitive verbs, and positionals. Positionals in this language are a group of roots which cannot function as words on their own; in combination with affixes they are used to describe relationships of position and location. In English, these words would fall into other categories, namely adjectives, adverbs, and verbs, both transitive and intransitive.

The minor classes or particles are words that do not take affixes; they mostly function in adverbial roles, and include such things as interrogative particles, affirmative/negative words, markers of time and location, conjunctions, prepositions and demonstratives. In addition to these officially recognized classes, there are a few other groups of words which do not fall neatly into any of the above categories. These groups are articles, pronouns, numbers, affectives, and words used for measurement. All of these types of words function differently in Kaqchikel, and so they are considered to belong to different word classes.


Kaqchikel shows agreement with the subject and object of a verb. Nouns also show agreement with their possessors. The agreement pattern of Kaqchikel follows an ergative-absolutive pattern. This affects both nouns and verbs. The functions of the ergative agreement include marking not only subjects of transitive verbs, but also possessors of nouns. There are two main sets of allomorphs for the ergative agreement markers, which are prefixed to the noun or verb they modify. One set is used before roots beginning in a consonant, and the other before those beginning with a vowel. These forms below are found when the ergative marks the possessor of nouns.

Before a consonant, these forms occur:
  Singular Plural
1st person nu- qa-
2nd person a- i-
3rd person ru- ki-
And before a vowel, these are found:
  Singular Plural
1st person w- q-
2nd person aw- iw-
3rd person r- k-

When the ergative forms are being used to denote the subject of a transitive verb, some of the forms differ. Before consonants, first person singular nu- becomes in- and third person singular ru- becomes u-. Before vowels, first person singular w- becomes inw-, third person singular u- becomes ur-, first person plural qa- becomes w-, and third person plural ki- becomes kiw-.

The third person singular of the ergative is variable in its phonology, and the initial /r/ is often omitted, with variability among the different dialects of Kaqchikel. Absolutive agreement has three functions: its marks the subject of an intransitive verb, the subject of a non-verbal predicate, and the object of a transitive verb. Unlike ergative agreement, it has only one set of forms, which are used before both consonants and vowels.

  Singular Plural
1st person in- oj-
2nd person at- ix-
3rd person - e-

Note that the third person singular is unmarked. In some dialects, an epenthetic vowel is inserted between a marker of the incompletive or potential states and the base, in the space which would be occupied by the absolutive prefix. However, this is not an allophone of the absolutive third person singular marker, but rather a phonetic addition which is not related to the case marking system.

Also, it is important to note that marking of subjects and objects occurs only on the verb, not on any nouns which may fill those roles as constituents. Agreement can take the place of pronouns, thus the language has pro-drop.

Word order

Kaqchikel has a word order in which the head of a phrase usually comes before any other element of the phrase. The following sentences show examples of the order of sentences, determiner phrases (DP), noun phrases (NP), prepositional phrases (PP), and quantifier phrases (QP):

  • 1) X-u-pax-ij ri achin ri b’ojoy com-3sE-break-tr the man the pot
    ‘The man broke the pot’
  • 2) [DP Ru-tz’e’ [NP a Xwan] x-u-k’ux ri ak’wal. 3sErg-dog cl Juan com-3sErg-bite the child
    ‘Juan’s dog bit the child.’
  • 3) K’o jun ch’oy [PP chrij ri chak’at]. exist a mouse behind:3sErg the chair
    ‘ There is a mouse behind the chair.’
  • 4) A Xwan x-u-tij [QP r-onojel ri kinäq]. cl Juan com-3sErg-eat 3sErg-all the bean
    ‘Juan ate all the beans.’

Sentences show considerable variability in their word order. The syntactic function of words is determined not only by their position at the beginning, middle or end of a sentence, but also by their definiteness, level of animation and potency, and a logical analysis of what role each word can play in the sentence. (For example, the verb to throw with the nouns child and stone can only have one logical ordering, regardless of the position of the nouns with respect to the verb. For this reason, an inanimate constituent cannot be the subject if the other constituent is animate.). Due to these conditions, Kaqchikel word order is relatively free and various orderings can be seen without there being any confusion or lack of understanding.

Possible word orders that can occur in Kaqchikel are verb-first orders (VSO, VOS) and subject-first orders (SVO, SOV). (V: verb, S: subject, O: object)

  • Verb-first orders (VSO, VOS). When the verb occurs first and only one constituent is definite, then that constituent functions as the subject. If both constituents are definite, then the one closest to the verb (the first constituent) is the subject; if both constituents are indefinite, then the subject is the latter of the two.
  • Subject-first orders (SVO, SOV). The subject can come first only if it is animate and the object is not. In this case, the definiteness of the two constituents does not matter; that is to say, the subject can be either definite or indefinite, so long as it is animate and occurs first. The order of the verb and object is unimportant.

Other constituents of a sentence, such as dative, comitative, agentive, and adverbial phrases, tend to come first in the sentence. However, they can also come after the nucleus of the sentence, the predicate.


An interesting morphological process occurs in Kaqchikel to make up for the lack of a word meaning very. For example, the Kaqchikel word for large is /nim/; to say that something is very large, the adjectival form is reduplicated as /nim nim/. This form is not a single word but two separate words which, when combined, add the meaning of very to the reduplicated adjective.



1 jun
2 ka'i'
3 oxi'
4 kaji'
5 wo'o'
6 waqi'
7 wuqu'
8 waqxaqi'
9 b'eleje'
10 lajuj
11 julajuj
12 kab'lajuj
13 oxlajuj
14 kajlajuj
15 wolajuj
16 waqlajuj
17 wuqlajuj
18 waqxaqlajuj
19 b'elejlajuj
20 juk'al

Common words

winaq, person
achin, man
ixöq, woman
ixim, corn
kotz'i'j, flower
q'ïj, sun/day
ak'wal, child
te'ej, mother
tata'aj, father
wäy, tortilla
mes, cat
tz'i', dog
ulew, earth/land
ch'umil, star
juyu', mountain
che', tree
ik', moon/month
tlinche', marimba
ya', water
jay, house


  1. ^ Kaqchikel at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Kaqchikel". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Patal Majzul et al., 2000, pp. 34ff.
  4. ^ Patal Majzul et al., 2000, pp. 24ff.


Further reading

External links

  • University of Kansas Kaqchikel Mayan Resource Center

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