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The orthography used here is based on the alphabet developed by Bruce (1976:151) for the Lacandones. It corresponds to Mayanist conventions except for the use of h instead of j for the glottal fricative. It corresponds to the IPA and the Americanist systems as follows:

Phonetic Alphabet
Phonetic Alphabet
ts ts c
ch ʧ č
x ʃ š
y j y
ä ə ə
Consonants Labial Alveolar Alveopalatal Palatal Velar Glottal
Voiceless stops p t     k 7
Voiced stops b          
Glottalized stops p' t'     k'  
Voiceless affricates   ts ch      
Glottalized affricates   ts' ch'      
Voiceless fricatives   s x     h
Nasals m n        
Laterals   l        
Approximants       y w  
Consonant Examples
Segment Sample Word English Gloss
p tup 'earring'
p' tup' 'saliva'
b bähe7 'today'
t tul 'full, complete'
t' t'u7ul 'rabbit'
k kik 'older sister'
k' k'ik' 'rubber'
ts tsik 'respect'
ts' ts'ah 'give'
ch chich 'strong, hard'
ch' ch'iich' 'bird'
m muk 'bury'
n nuk 'old woman; big (in reference to animals)'
s saman 'tomorrow'
x xik' 'wing'
l lub 'fall'
y yah 'pain'
w wah 'tortilla'
h nah 'house, ceiling, stomach'
7 na7 'mother'
Vowels Front Central Back
High i ii   u uu
Mid e ee ä ää o oo
Low   a aa  
Vowel Samples
Segment Sample Word English Gloss
i mis 'cat'
ii miis 'dirt'
e ne 'very'
ee neeh 'tail'
a 7al 'heavy'
aa 7aal 'offspring'
o box 'jícara'
oo boox 'banana'
u 7u 'he, she, it'
uu 7uuh 'necklace'
ä näh 'catch, collect'
ää bääb 'toad'

Vowel length is contrastive, but it is often difficult to hear the contrast. Northern Lacandones who have learned to write their language typically do not indicate vowel length (Bruce 1976:12-13). Examples of non-contrastive vowel length are: baat [bat] 'axe,' yaab [yap] 'a lot,' looch [loch] 'scorpion'. Long schwa is rare.

Phonetic and Phonological Processes

These processes are seen in the course of word formation where morphemes are juxtaposed and when words appear in different positions in sentences.

Firm vs Soft glottal-initial roots

The basic shape of the Mayan word is CVC. No phonological words begin with a vowel. Hofling (2000:11-12) distinguishes 'firm' glottal onsets, which do not delete when preceded by Set A person markers, from other ('soft') glottal onsets, which appear as glides w or y when they occur with Set A person markers. When these roots occur without a Set A person marker they are preceded by a glottal onset.

Adopting this terminology, in Lacandón, the initial glottal onsets are soft in some words, e.g., 7im 'breast,' 7ich 'eye,' 7och 'food,' 7okót 'dance,' 7ok'úr 'drink,' 7áak'a7 'night.' The glottal onsets are hard in 7ulum 'turkey,' and 7ek' 'black.'

Loss and alternation of h and 7

7 and h are frequently lost word medially.

toan ~ towan /to7an/ donde
baik ~ bayik /ba7ik/ cómo (Bruce 1968:35)

Morphemes that end in glottal stop like -a7 passive may show the following alternations in word final position: -a7 ~ -ah ~ a. These shapes can be seen in the following examples:

bäha7 'split' (bäh 'split')
häxah 'twisted' (häx 'twist')
kucha 'carried' (kuch 'carry')

l~r alternation

In this analysis, l is treated as basic, with [l] and [r] as allophones, because historically proto-Maya *r went to y in the languages of the western branch and was not replaced. Proto-Maya *l did not change (Campbell 1979:933.) In Lacandón, l occurs word-initially, e.g., lek 'plate,' looch 'scorpion.' When it occurs word-finally it is often lost or becomes [r], e.g., /in tsikbal/ [in tsikba, tsikbar] 'I speak, my talk/my recounting,' or is replaced by glottal fricative, e.g., u tal [u tah] 's/he/it comes.' When it occurs word-medially, it becomes a tap, /wilik/ [wiDik], e.g., 'to see it,' tolok [toDok] 'lizard,' xila [xiDa] 'man.'

l~n alternation

l may becomes n word-initally, e.g., le7 'leaf' becomes [ne7]

l~d alternation

l may become d word-initally, e.g., lek 'plate' becomes [dek]


t, k, k' are strongly aspirated when they occur word-finally, e.g., 7awat [7awath] 'screech, scream,' ch'ik [ch'ikh] 'thumb,' lak' [lak'h] 'spouse.'


Velar stops are often labialized when they precede and follow rounded vowels, e.g. ne nuk [ne nukw] 'very big', yuk [yukw] 'goat deer,' tolok [to.Dokw] 'lizard' Labialization may also occur when u follows velars, e.g., kuk [kwukw] 'squirrel.'


k, k' are often palatalized when they follow i, e.g., ik' [ik'y] 'wind,' xik' [xik'y] 'wing.'

Nasal Assimilation

n becomes ŋ when it occurs immediately before a velar, e.g., in k'ak' [iŋ q'ak'] 'my fire.' The sequence nw becomes [ŋgw], as in tsoy in wol [tsoy iŋ gwor] 'I am content,' and in wak [7iŋ gwak] 'my tongue.'

m becomes n before s: in kim-s-ik [in kin-s-ik] 'I am killing it'.

n becomes m before b, p, p': chan pek' [cham pek'] 'little dog'.


p', t', k' occurring intervocalically (between vowels) often lose their ejective quality and become voiced: k'ak'-il [k'agi] 'fire' xok'-ol [xogo] 'close'.

Changes involving ch

ch becomes x before t, t', k, k': hach tuhahil [hax tohäy] 'it's true'; ich kol [ix kor] 'in the milpa'; and kin bin ich k'aax [kin bin ix k'ax] 'I will go into the forest'.

ch becomes t before x: hach xok'ol [hat xok'ol] 'very near'.

Spanish influences

b is often pronounced β when it occurs intervocalically, e.g., k'aba7 [k'aβa7] 'name,' /chibal/ [chiβa] 'mosquito.'

j is often pronounced dz, e.g., jan u nalil [dzan u naDi] 'there is corn.'

f in Alfredo is pronounced as p , since it is the closest approximation to f, which is not in the Lacandón consonantal inventory. Alfredo 'a man's name' would be pronounced [7aD.pDé.Do].


Primary stress may fall on either the ultimate or penultimate syllable of a root. The alternation appears to be stylistic rather than phonemic: [péta7] 'lake,' [7uDún] 'turkey,' [tóDok] 'lizard,' [äkná7] 'moon,' [áak'a7] 'night.' In compounds, main stress tends to fall on the root of the second word, but it may also fall on both words: [hach.wínik] 'true person,' [lé.lóbi] 'leaf of a weed, bush,' [lé.ché7] 'leaf (of a) tree.' In compounds that include the abstract suffix -il/-in, which conveys possession of a quality (Bruce 1968:65), both roots are stressed equally, e.g., pék-i(l)-k'áash Lit. 'dog of the jungle,' kán-i(l)-há7 Lit. 'snake of the water.'


Fisher (1973) and Fox (1978) discuss tone in Yucatecan languages. Both conclude that Lacandón does not have the pitch contours found in Yucatec proper. However, it appears that tone does occur in some Lacandón dialects. A southern dialect spoken in San Quintín has tone (Canger 1995); another southern dialect spoken in Lacanhá may have tone (Hofling personal communication). Tone does not seem to be contrastive in the northern dialect spoken in Naha. Rather, its presence serves stylistic rather than grammatical ends (Bruce 1968). Itzáj, a closely related Yucatecan language, does not have tone (Hofling 1998, 2000).

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Like other Yucatecan languages, Lacandón is mildly agglutinative, with person, number, transitivity, causation, reflexivity, and other word building elements affixed to the verb root. The majority of the inflectional and derivational affixes are suffixes, but tense, aspect, and mood also occur as preverbal elements. Roots, which carry the core meaning of words, are classified mostly on distributional grounds, but also on semantics, as: (T) transitive, (I) intransitive, (Af) affective, (P) positional, (N) nominal, (A) adjectival, (Pt) particle, (E) exclamatory, (O) onomatopoetic, and (X) unclassified. Some roots are polyvalent, meaning that they belong to more than one class. Stem-building uses roots to create new words through affixation. Compounding is an active process, involving verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. Verb-noun combinations are considered examples of noun incorporation. There are also many particle combinations. Roots and derived stems take inflectional affixes to indicate person, number, tense, aspect, mood, and transitivity.

The canonical root shape is CVC. Others are CVVC, CV7VC, and CVCVC. Suffixes are typically -VC, -C, -CVC, and -VCVC. Prefixes are CV- or C-. CVC suffixes, may reflect earlier compounding (See Bruce 1968: Pp. 72-4). The common stem formatives are C suffixes, such as -s causative and -t transitive. Some C prefixes are reduced forms of particles, such as t- < ti7 'general referent' (Bruce, 1968:63). Reduplication patterns are CVC- and CV-. They are used to convey a range of meanings including repetition and increased intensity.


Lacandón displays a split-ergative person-marking system, that is, it displays both nominative-accusative and ergative-absolutive systems, with the split determined by the aspect of the verb (See Dixon 1979:95). Person is marked by the Set A (ergative) proclitic pronouns and the Set B (absolutive) person suffix pronouns. Transitive forms indicate agents with Set A pronouns and objects with Set B pronouns. In the intransitive incompletive, the system is nominative-accusative, where the nominative case is marked by Set A pronouns. In the intransitive completive and dependent (subordinate), the system is ergative-absolutive, where the absolutive case is marked by Set B pronouns. (For a discussion of the split-ergative system in Mayan languages, see Bricker, 1981a; Ayres, 1982). A set of independent pronouns also mark personal reference.

Tense, Aspect, Mood, And Transitivity

Tense refers to the time of an event, for example, whether it took place in the past or will take place in the future. Aspect refers to the time phases of an event, for example, whether it is underway (incompletive) or completed (completive). Mood refers to the psychological reality of an event, for example, whether it is an established fact, or a possibility (depending on certain factors), or an imperative. Transitivity refers to verbs and their ability to take objects. Transitive verbs have a subject and an object. Intransitive verbs have only a subject.

In Lacandón a set of morphemes precede the verb to indicate tense, aspect, and mood (TAMs). A set of suffixes also encode these categories and indicate transitivity as well. They are referred to as status suffixes (see Hofling 1998:214; 2000:44). Kaufmann (1990) introduced this terminology as a special feature of Mayan morphosyntax. Together, the TAMs and the status suffixes frame the verb, establishing four categories: incompletive, completive, dependent (subordinate), and imperative.

Word Classes

There are four word classes: Verbs, Nouns, Adjectives, Adverbs


Verb roots are divided into two root classes: transitive and intransitive. Transitive roots form verbs that have both a subject and an object. Intransitive roots form verbs that have subjects only. The transitive-intransitive distinction is based on the status suffixes taken by a stem form.

Affixation can derive transitive stems from intransitive roots; Transitive roots and stems can be detransitivized. Transitive and intransitive stems may also be formed from roots that belong to the other word classes.


Whereas transitivity is concerned with the number of arguments a verb can have, voice is concerned with the role of the grammatical subject of the verb. Lacandón has active, passive, agentless passive, antipassive, mediopassive, celeritive, and reflexive voice stem forms. A verb is 'active' if the subject is an agent. Active transitive verbs indicate subjects/agents with Set A pronouns and objects/goals with Set B pronouns. They occur with transitive suffixes. Active intransitive verbs indicate subjects with Set A pronouns in the incompletive, and Set B pronouns in the completive and dependent statuses. They occur with intransitive suffixes.

The subject in a passive event is the semantic patient or goal. These are indicated with Set A pronouns in the incompletive status, and with Set B pronouns in the completive and dependent statuses. Lacandón makes use of two passive stem suffixes, -b and -a7. Their distribution in the verbal system is not yet clear. The agentless passive, marked with the suffix -p, is used when the agent is unknown.

In the antipassive the subject is the agent, but an object or goal is either omitted or is incorporated, thus creating an intransitive verb. Antipassive stems occur with intransitive status suffixes. A suffix -n appears in the completive and dependent forms. The subject is indicated with Set A pronouns in the incompletive status, and with Set B pronouns in the completive and dependent status forms.

In the mediopassive, transitive roots are used intransitively. They follow the inflectional pattern of intransitive verbs and typically indicate a change of state that affects a subject. Unlike Itzaj and Yucatec, Lacandón does not make use of tone, vowel changes, or other morphological marking to indicate the mediopassive stem.

Celeritive verbs, marked with a suffix -k', signal sudden or unexpected events that happen to a subject without indicating an outside agent. Reflexive constructions, where the subject acts upon itself, is marked with the suffix -bäh.

Verbs Classes: Positional, Affective, and Inchoative

Positional Verbs

Positional roots form a smaller, semantic class that refers to physical states, or positions. They form intransitive stems with the suffixes -tal (incompletive) and -l (completive and dependent).

Affective Verbs

Affective roots form affective verb stems with the suffixes -bal and -ankäl. They often refer to texture, sound, and visual sensations. See Hofling (2000:60) for a discussion on affective verbs. Often cited is Robert Laughlin's (1975:26) semantic characterization, "...they have dash."

Inchoative Verbs

Inchoative verbs are based on adjective and noun roots, and mark the transition into a state. In Lacandón they take the stem suffixes -tal or -chal in the incompletive.


Nouns form a distinct class. Root nouns are objects, states, facts, and processes. In Mayan in general, there are noun classes based on the distribution of noun roots with possessive inflectional suffixes (See Hofling 2000:90). Nouns are inflected for number and person and most nouns may be possessed and pluralized by adding the suffixes -ob or -al. There are two different kinds of person marking used with nouns: Set A pronominal clitics, indicating possession: im pek', a pek', u pek' 'my, your, his/her dog', and Set B pronominal suffixes, indicating stative expressions: winik-en 'I am a person'. There are different types of possessive expressions, including personal possession, associative possession, and inalienable possession.

Nouns can be derived from other nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Nouns also result from compounding. Some nouns take 7äh, 7äx ~ x-, which mark masculine and feminine respectively. They are also used with some species of flora and fauna, certain deities, and proper names, e.g., 7äh Juan 'John.' They can also derive agentive and adjectival nouns (Hofling 2000:103-4).

In Lacandón (and other Yucatecan languages) nouns may refer to either an object or a state, e.g., winik can mean 'person' or 'He is a person.'

Numeral Classifiers

Numeral classifiers are noun roots which follow number words to specify the category of the item that is counted, forming adjective-noun compounds The most common are: =p'eel. inanimate, and =tuul animate, =ts'it 'long object' and =buh 'body extremity'

Active Verbal Nouns

Active verbal nouns or gerunds, are formed from some noun roots and may also be derived from other stem classes (See Hofling 2000:60; 91-2; 105-7). They typically refer to actions and may form active intransitive verbs with an antipassive voice value. They can form transitive verb stems with further derivation, such as with the transitivizing suffix -t. For example:

looch'    N. 'cradling in arms'
in looch'    'my cradling in my arms'
kin looch'    'I cradle (something) in my arms.'

Adjectives and Participles

Adjectives are differentiated from verbs and nouns by their inability to be inflected for aspect or possession. Adjectives typically modify nouns. They can also serve as stative verbs in equational clauses, appearing with the Set B pronominal suffixes, e.g., wih -en 'I am hungry', 7ah-en 'I'm awake.'

The adjective root class includes: chich 'hard', k'a7 'strong (flavor)', k'alax 'dirty', sak 'white', wi7ih 'hungry', and baach 'skinny'. They may also be derived, from both transitive and intransitive verbs, affect verbs, celeritive verbs, positional verbs, nouns, and other adjectives (Hofling 2000:372). Adjectives may be pluralized by the addition of -tak. Participles, like those formed from transitive and intransitive verb stems with -a7an, are also pluralized with -tak and, as statives, can take the Set B pronominal suffixes.


Adverbs are not considered to be one of the root classes, but are defined by their function as modifiers. Adverbial modifiers come from a number of sources. Particle roots, such as locative, temporal and manner particles are the primary source of adverbial modifiers, but adverbs may also be derived from adjectival and nominal roots. Adverbs, such as kachik 'before', typically occur in final position but may occur initially in focus constructions or initially and finally, creating a frame around the verb.

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Word Order

Basic word order in Lacandón is VOS, where S refers to the subject and O, the direct object, in an active declarative clause. However, sentences with two nominal arguments are not common. More typically, sentences are VO or VS, with person markers indicating an object or subject argument that is already established in context as in:

tu tusahen äh t'uur 'The rabbit lied to me'
t-u tus-ah-en äh t'u7ul completive-he lie-completive(transitive)-me masculine rabbit

When two nominal arguments do occur, it is not always easy to disambiguate the subject and the object. Subjects may be marked with the nominal particles äh masculine and äx feminine and the topical suffix -eh. Word orders other than VOS are marked, usually signalling discourse highlighting. SVO is a common alternant. See Hofling (2000:190-6) for a discussion of word order in Itzaj.

Lacandón displays modifier-modified word order, typical of VO languages and possessed noun-possessor order. The article ti7 ~ t- 'to, at, in, from, on' is the most common preposition and heads prepositional (and infinitival) phrases.

Interrogation and Negation

Interrogative sentences are marked with special intonation, the interrogative particle wah, or interrogative words. The two most common negative markers are the particles ma7 'not' and mix 'neither, nor'. mäna7 (<ma7-a7an) 'nothing, there is nothing', is common as well. It is used as a simple negative marker in many contexts.

Complex Sentences

Coordination may be indicated by juxtaposing main clauses or linking them with coordinating particles like ka7 'then'. Conditional clauses typically begin with wah. Relative clauses, which serve a number of functions, are signaled by a final topic marker, -eh. Relative pronouns, like maax 'who' and ba7ax 'what' or tu 'where' may mark the beginning of the subordinate clause. Relative clauses may serve in a range of case roles including, commonly, subject and direct object. Embedded clauses are also headed by the particle ti7 '(in order) to'. i 'and' is another commonly used coordinator.


Ayres, Glenn. 1982. La conjugaciãn de verbos en maya Yucateco moderno. Ms.
Bricker, Victoria R. 1981. Grammatical Introduction. In Yucatec Maya Verbs (Hocaba Dialect), by Eleuterio Po'ot Yah and Victoria R. Bricker. Latin American Studies Curriculum Aids, Centre for Latin American Studies. New Orleans: Tulane University.
Bricker, Victoria R., Eleuterio Po'ot Yah, and Ofelia Dzul de Po'ot. 1998. A Dictionary of the Maya Language As Spoken in Hocabá, Yucatán. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Bruce, Roberto. D. 1979. Lacandón Dream Symbolism. Vol. 2. Ediciones Euroamericanas. México: Klaus Thiele.
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_______________ 1968. Gramática del Lacandón. México: Instituto Nacionál de Antropologia e Historia.
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Fox, James Allan. 1978. Proto-Mayan Accent, Morpheme Structure Conditions, and Velar Innovations. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Chicago.
Hofling, Charles Andrew (with Félix Fernando Tesucún). 1998. Itzaj Maya-Spanish- English Dictionary. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Hofling, Charles Andrew (with Félix Fernando Tesucún.). 2000. Itzaj Maya Grammar. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Kaufmann, Terrence. 1990. Algunos rasgos estructurales de los idiomas mayances con referencia especial al k'iche'. Lecturas Sobre la Lingüística Maya. Nora C. England and Stephen R. Elliott, eds. Pp. 9-114. Guatemala: Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica.
Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zincantán. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Contributions to Anthropology 19.
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University of Victoria | Department of Linguistics