Mam language

Mam is a Mayan language spoken by about half a million Mam people in the Guatemalan departments of Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Retalhuleu, and the Mexican state of Chiapas. Thousands more make up a Mam diaspora throughout the United States and Mexico, with notable populations living in Oakland, California[3][4] and Washington, D.C.

Qyool Mam
Native toGuatemala, Mexico
RegionQuetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Retalhuleu, Guatemala;
Chiapas, Mexico
Native speakers
478,000 (2003)[1]
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3mam


Mam is closely related to the Tektitek language, and the two languages together form the Mamean sub-branch of the Mayan language family. Along with the Ixilan languages, Awakatek and Ixil, these make up the Greater Mamean sub-branch, one of the two branches of the Eastern Mayan languages (the other being the Greater Quichean sub-branch, which consists of 10 Mayan languages, including Kʼicheʼ).


Because contact between members of different Mam communities is somewhat limited, the language varies considerably even from village to village. Nevertheless, mutual intelligibility, though difficult, is possible through practice.[5]

Mam varieties within Guatemala are divided into four dialect groups:[6]

In addition to these, the dialects of Chiapas, Mexico may form a fifth dialect group, characterised by significant grammatical as well as lexical differences from the Guatemalan varieties.[7]


Mam is spoken in 64 communities in four Guatemalan departments[8] and 18 communities in Chiapas, Mexico.[7] Neighboring languages include Jakaltek and Qʼanjobʼal to the north, Tektitek to the west, and Ixil, Awakatek, Sipacapense, and Kʼicheʼ to the east.



Mam has 10 vowels, 5 short and 5 long:[9]

Short Front Central Back
Close ii /iː/ u /ʉ/ uu /u͍ː/
Near-Close i /ɪ/
Mid ee /eː/ oo /o͍ː/
Mid-low e /ɛ/ o /ɔ/
Open a /ä/ aa /ɑ͍ː/
  • The Mid-central vowel is an allophone of short a, e and u that can occur in the syllable following a stressed long vowel.

Like in many other Mayan languages, vowel length is contrastive, and short and long vowels have different phonemic values and are treated as separate vowels. The long versions of the back vowels, /o/, /u/, /ɑ/ vowels, transcribed as [oo], [uu], and [aa] are slightly compressed and pronounced as /o͍ː/, /u͍ː/, and /ɑ͍ː/ respectively, being partially rounded.

In the Todos Santos dialect the vowel structure is somewhat different. While /o/, /a/, and /u/ remain the same as in other varieties, short /e/ has become the diphthong /ɛi/, an audio example of this can be heard here:[10]

In the Todos Santos dialect, the long vowels (distinguished by the doubling of the letter) have evolved into separate sounds altogether. Long /aː/ has become /ɒ/, long /oː/ has become /øː/ and long /uː/ has become /yː/.

In some dialects vowels interrupted by stop have evolved into individual phonemes themselves, for example in Todos Santos dialect /oʔ/ (spelled oʼ) has evolved into /ɵʏˀ/ and /oʔo/ (spelled oʼo) has evolved into /ɵʼʉ/.


Mam has 27 consonants, including the glottal stop:

Bilabial Alveolar Postalveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Plain Palatalized
Plosive Plain p /p̪ʰ~ɸʰ/ t /tʰ/ k /kʰ/ ky /kʲ~kɕʰ/ q /qʰ/ ' /ʲʔ/
Ejective /tʼ~ɗ/ /kʼ/ kyʼ/kʲʼ~kɕʼ/
Implosive /ɓ/ /ʛ/^
Nasal m /m/ n /n/ ny/ɲ/ n /ŋ/
Fricative w /v/ s /s/ xh /ʃ/ x /ʂ~ʐ/ j /χ/
Affricate Plain b /β/ tz /t͡sʰ/ ch /t͡ʃʰ/ tx /ʈ͡ʂʰ/
Ejective tzʼ /t͡sʼ~dt͡sʼ/ chʼ /t͡ʃʼ~dt͡ʃʼ/ txʼ /ʈ͡ʂʼ~ɖʈ͡ʂʼ/
Flap r /ɾ/
Approximant w /ʋ/ l /l~ɺ/ y /j/ w /w/

/ɓ/ is realized as [βʼ] word-finally and when part of a consonant cluster in many dialects. In the Todos Santos dialect it is pronounced as [v] as part of a consonant cluster and as [βv̻] word finally.

Examples: tzebʼ [tsɛβʼ] goat, kbon [kβʼɤŋ] small table. In the Todos Santos dialect, tsebʼ is [tsɛiβv̻] and kbon is [kvoŋ] small table.

/p/ is realized as [pʰ] word-finally and word initially, [p] elsewhere, [ɸ] in a consonant cluster and before short i, o, and u. It is pronounced as [ɸʰ] word finally in certain dialects. [f] is an interchangeable pronunciation of [ɸ].

Examples: piich [pʰiːt͡ʃ] bird, txkup [ʈ͡ʂkʰɯpʰ] or [ʈ͡ʂkʰɯɸʰ] animal , ptzʼan [pʰt͡sʼaŋ] or [ɸʰt͡sʼaŋ] sugarcane.

/ch/ has evolved from /tʃ/ to /sʃ/ in most Mexican dialects and some northern Guatemalan dialects. Sometimes the /t/ sound is still lightly pronounced before the stressed /sʃ/ sound.

Example: choot [tʃʰoːtʰ] weeds has evolved into [sʃøːtʰ] or [tsʃoːtʰ]

/t/ is realized as [tʰ] word-finally and before another consonant, [t] elsewhere.

Examples: taʼl [taʔl̥] juice, soup, chʼit [t͡ʃʼɪtʰ] bird, qʼootj [ʛoːtʰχ] dough

/k/ is realized as [kʰ] word-finally and before another consonant, [k] elsewhere.

Examples: paakiʼl [pɑːkɪʔl̥] butterfly, xtook [ʂtʰoːkʰ] staff, kjoʼn [kʰχɤʔŋ] cornfield

/w/ can be pronounced [ʋ], [v], [v̥] or [β] word initially, [w], [ʍ] [ʋ] following a consonant, and [ʋ], [v], [v̻ʰ] or [fʰ] word finally. It is freely variable between [w] [v] [ʋ] [v̥] in all other positions with [ʋ] being the most common pronunciation. In the Todos Santos dialect, /w/ is realized as either [v] or [ʋ] word-initially or between vowels and before another consonant, as [ʍ] following a consonant and as [v̥] word finally.

Examples: waaj [ʋɑːχ], [vɑːχ], [v̥ɑːχ], or [βɑːχ]tortilla, twon [twɤŋ], [tʍɤŋ], [tʋɤŋ] introversion, lew [lɛʋ], [lɛv] [lɛv̥ʰ] [lɛfʰ] care.

/q/ is realized as [qʰ] word-finally and before another consonant, [q] elsewhere.

Examples: muuqin [muːqɪŋ] tortilla, aaq [ɑːqʰ] honeycomb, qloolj [qʰɺoːlχ] obscurity

/tʼ/ is realized interchangeably as [tʼ] and [ɗ] word-initially and -finally, after a vowel or before [l].

Examples: tʼrikpuul [tʼɾɪkʰɸuːl̥] ~ [ɗɾɪkʰpuːl̥] to jump, chʼuut [t͡ʃʼuːtʼ] ~ [t͡ʃʼuːɗ] something sharp-pointed
Examples: tʼutʼan [tʼɯtʼaŋ] ~ [ɗɯɗaŋ] wet, witʼli [vɪtʼli] ~ [vɪɗli] seated squatting

/n/ is realized as [ŋ] before velar- and uvular consonants and word-finally,
as [ɲ] before [j] and as [m] before /ɓ/ and /p/, [n] elsewhere.

Examples: nim [nɪm] much, juun [χuːŋ] one, qʼankyoq [ʛaŋkʲɤqʰ] thunder
Examples: saajel [sɑːŋχel̥] sent, nyuxh [ɲɯʃ] my godfather
Examples: qanbʼax [qamɓaʂ] foot, npwaaqe [mpwɑːqɛ] my money

/l/ is realized as [l̥] word-finally, [ɺ] before short vowels and after plosives, bilabial, aveolar and retroflex consonants and [l] elsewhere.

Examples: luux [luːʂ] cricket, loʼl [ɺoʔl̥] to eat fruits, wlat [vɺatʰ] stiff.

/ky/ is realized as [kɕʲ] in front of another consonant and kɕʰ word finally. It is pronounced as kʲ in all other instances.

Examples: kyjaʼtzan [kɕʲχaʲʔtsʰaŋ], kyokleen [kʲɤkleːŋ]

/ ʼ / is realized as [ʲʔ] following /a/, /aa/, /e/, /ee/, /i/, /u/, /uu/ and /oo/. The standard pronunciation is simply [ʔ] after all vowels however in spoken speech [ʲʔ] is the common pronunciation. A similar trend can be seen in other Eastern Mayan languages. After /o/ it is pronounced as [ʉʔ] and after /ii/ it is pronounced simply as [ʔ]. Following consonants / ʼ / modifies each individual consonant differently as explained in the section above. In the Mam language every word must start with a consonant. In the current orthography initial / ʼ / is not written but if a word ever begins with a vowel, the word is treated as if it begin with a / ʼ /. The initial / ʼ / may be pronounced as either [ʔ] or [ʡ] in free variation.


The most extensive Mam grammar is that of Nora C. England's A grammar of Mam, a Mayan language (1983), which is based on the San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán dialect of Huehuetenango Department.

The basic word order of Mam is VSO (Verb-Subject-Object, Verb-Ergative-Absolutive, or Verb-Agent-Patient). Most roots take the morphological shape CVC (England 1983:93). The only possible root final consonant cluster is -nC.


Mam has no independent pronouns (England 1983:155). Rather, pronouns in Mam always exist as bound morphemes.

Below is a table of Set A (ergative) and Set B (absolutive) prefixes from England (1983:56). (Note: The terms "Set A" and "Set B" are frequently used by Mayanists to describe the ergative systems typical of Mayan languages.)

Mam Set A and Set B Pronominal Markers
Person Set A Set B Enclitics
1s n- ~ w- chin- -a ~ -ya
2s t- Ø ~ tz- ~ tzʼ- ~ k- -a ~ -ya
3s t- Ø ~ tz- ~ tzʼ- ~ k- -
1p (excl.) q- qo- -a ~ -ya
1p (incl.) q- qo- -
2p ky- chi- -a ~ -ya
3p ky- chi- -

Phonologically conditioned allomorphs are as follows.

  • n- ~ w-
    • n- /__C
    • w- /__V
  • Ø ~ tz- ~ tzʼ- ~ k-
    • k- /potential
    • tzʼ- /__V initial root, non-potential
    • tz- /__uul 'arrive here', iky' 'pass by', non-potential
    • Ø- /__C, non-potential
  • -a ~ -ya
    • -ya /V__ ; In the first person in post-vowel environments, -ya varies freely with -kyʼa and -y'.
    • -a /C__

When Set A prefixes can also be used with nouns. In this context, the Set A prefixes become possessives.

  • n- 'my'
  • t- 'your (sg.)'
  • t- 'his, her, its'
  • q- 'our (exclusive)'
  • q- 'our (inclusive)'
  • ky- 'your (pl.)'
  • ky- 'their'

Some paradigmatic examples from England (1983) are given below. Note that "Ø-" designates a null prefix. Additionally, ma is an aspectual word meaning 'recent past'.

Set A markers + NOUN
jaa 'house'
n-jaa-ya 'my house'
t-jaa-ya 'your house'
t-jaa 'his/her house'
q-jaa-ya 'our (not your) house'
q-jaa 'our (everyone's) house'
ky-jaa-ya 'you (pl)'s house'
ky-jaa 'their house'
Set B markers + VERB
bʼeet- to walk
ma chin bʼeet-a 'I walked.'
ma Ø-bʼeet-a 'You walked.'
ma Ø-bʼeet 'He/she walked.'
ma qo bʼeet-a 'We (not you) walked.'
ma qo bʼeet 'We all walked'
ma chi bʼeet-a 'You all walked.'
ma chi bʼeet 'They walked.'

The following Set B person markers are used for non-verbal predicates (i.e., nouns, adjectives). Also, in statives, aa can be omitted when the rest of the stative is a non-enclitic (in other words, a separate, independent word).

Mam Set B Pronominal Markers
(non-verbal predicates)
Person Stative[11] Locative / Existental[12]
1s (aa) qiin-a (a)t-iin-a
2s aa-ya (a)t-(aʼ-y)a
3s aa (a)t-(aʼ)
1p (excl.) (aa) qoʼ-ya (a)t-oʼ-ya
1p (incl.) (aa) qoʼ (a)t-oʼ
2p aa-qa-ya (a)t-eʼ-ya
3p aa-qa (a)t-eʼ

Paradigmatic examples from England (1983:76) are given below.

NOUN + Set B markers
xjaal person
xjaal qiin-a 'I am a person.'
xjaal-a 'You are a person.'
xjaal 'He/she is a person.'
xjaal qoʼ-ya 'We (excl.) are persons.'
xjaal qo- 'We (incl.) are persons.'
xjaal qa-ya 'You all are persons.'
xjaal qa 'They are persons.'
ADJECTIVE + Set B markers
sikynaj tired
sikynaj qiin-a 'I am tired.'
sikynaj-a 'You are tired.'
sikynaj 'He/she is tired.'
sikynaj qoʼ-ya 'We (excl.) are tired.'
sikynaj qoʼ 'We (incl.) are tired.'
sikynaj qa-ya 'You all are tired.'
sikynaj qa 'They are tired.'


The Mam language displays inalienable possession. Certain Mam nouns cannot be possessed, such as kya7j 'sky' and che7w 'star' (England 1983:69). On the other hand, some Mam nouns are always possessed, such as t-lokʼ 'its root' and t-bʼaqʼ 'its seed'.

Noun phrase structure can be summarized into the following template (England 1983:140).

Demonstrative Number Measure Plural Possessive affixes NOUN
Possessor Adjective Relative clause

The plural clitic is qa.


San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán Mam numbers are as follows (England 1983:84). Numbers above twenty are rarely used in Ixtahuacán and are usually only known by elderly speakers. Although the number system would have originally been vigesimal (i.e., base 20), the present-day number system of Ixtahuacán is now decimal.

1. juun
2. kabʼ
3. oox
4. kyaaj
5. jwe7
6. qaq
7. wuuq
8. wajxaq
9. bʼelaj
10. laaj
20. wiinqan
40. kya7wnaq
60. oxkʼaal
80.. junmutxʼ


Like all other Mayan languages, Mam is an ergative language.

Further reading

  • Bʼaayil, Eduardo Pérez, et al. Variación dialectal en mam = Txʼixpubʼente tiibʼ qyool / Proyecto de Investigación Lingüística de Oxlajuuj Keej Mayaʼ Ajtzʼiibʼ. Guatemala, Guatemala: Cholsamaj, 2000.
  • England, Nora C. A grammar of Mam, a Mayan language. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.
  • Pujbʼil yol mam / Kʼulbʼil Yol Twitz Paxil; Kʼulbʼil Yol Mam = Vocabulario mam / Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala; Comunidad Lingüística Mam. Guatemala, Guatemala: Kʼulbʼil Yol Twitz Paxil, 2003.
  • Rojas Ramírez, Maximiliano. Gramática del idioma Mam. La Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala: Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín, 1993.



  1. Mam at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Mam". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Carcamo, Cindy. "Ancient Mayan languages are creating problems for today's immigration courts". Retrieved 2018-11-24.
  4. Farida Jhabvala Romero (August 19, 2019). "Growth of Oakland's Guatemalan community sparks interest in Mam". PRI's The World. PRI. Retrieved August 22, 2019.
  5. England, Nora C. (1983). A grammar of Mam, a Mayan language. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0292729278. OCLC 748935484.
  6. Pérez Vail, Eduardo Gustavo (2004). Gramática Pedagógica Mam. Guatemala: Instituto de Lingüística y Educación, Universidad Rafael Landívar.
  7. Ramos Ortíz, Nicacio, Juan Rolando Morales de León, Juan Rodriguez Pérez (2013). Gramática Didáctica Mam: Segundo Ciclo. Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas.
  8. Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (2003). Pujbʼil Yol Mam: Vocabulario Mam.
  9. A Grammar of Mam, A Mayan Language, Nora C. England, University of Texas Press, page 33
  10. Speaking in MAM (streaming video). Todos Santos, Guatemala: YouTube. 2009.
  11. Means 'This is X.'
  12. Means 'X is in a place.'


  • Pérez, Eduardo & Jiménez, Odilio (1997). Ttxoolil Qyool Mam - Gramática Mam. Cholsamaj.
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