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Why Should You Study Kaqchikel

Studying Kaqchikel is both exciting and challenging!

Learning an indigenous language, such as Kaqchikel, first and foremost will expose you to the important field of language revitalization. Although there are more than 6,000 spoken languages in the world right now, it is projected that at least half of those will disappear over the next 100 years if something is not done. Languages disappear when they are no longer valued by their speakers or when external pressures by a dominant language lead to language shift. Language revitalization is the field of linguistics that studies these minority languages and develops strategies to ensure their continued survival.

Second, learning a non-Western language like Kaqchikel will stretch your understanding of the diversity of human language! The Mayan languages, including Kaqchikel, have several very interesting features which most speakers of European languages have never encountered. These include unique pronoun and verb systems, complex ways of counting and numbering, and unusual ways of ordering verbs and nouns within a sentence.

Finally, for those of you who are considering conducting research or traveling in Latin America, learning Kaqchikel will open many doors! In many parts of rural Guatemala where Kaqchikel is spoken, inhabitants have very limited fluency in Spanish. Having some ability to speak Kaqchikel will allow you to interact with these people, giving you unique insights into their customs and culture that a non-speaker would not have access to.

Among all the Mayan languages, Kaqchikel has the advantage of being one of the best studied. This means that, although challenging to learn, it is not impossible to do so! There are many resources available to you, including various grammars and dictionaries in both English and Spanish, as well as numerous video and audio recordings. Most of these resources are available to you at the University of Kansas which means that, even though you will begin your study of the language here, you will still be able to be exposed to the accents and particularities of individual native speakers.

Good luck!


Harrison, K.D. (2008). When languages die: The extinction of the world’s languages and the erosion of human knowledge. Oxford University Press.

Crystal, D. (2002). Language death. Cambridge University Press.

OKMA. (2001). Maya’ Chii’: Los idiomas Mayas de Guatemala. Cholsamaj.

*All text about Kaqchikel Maya was written and compiled by Peter Rohloff and Emily Tummons, unless otherwise indicated.


    Pre-conquest History of the Kaqchikel People

    The Maya civilization is one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world. Archeological evidence from settlements such as Chocolá, Takalik Ab’aj, and Kaminaljuyu from the Preclassic period (2000 B.C. to 300 A.D.) demonstrate how even at that time sophisticated mathematics, astronomy, and agricultural technologies were being developed. Subsequently, the Classical period, from about 300 to 900 A.D. saw the emergence of large city states in the tropical lowlands of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. Many of these, such as Tikal, are now some of the most popular tourist destinations in Central America. Finally the Postclassical period from about 900 A.D. up until the time of Spanish contact showed the gradual decline of these lowland city states and the emergence of Maya settlements to the West, in the highlands of Guatemala.

    Archeological evidence suggests that ancestors of the Kaqchikel and other related Maya from the K’iche’an language branch (to which Kaqchikel belongs) were present in the highlands of Guatemala as early as 300-600 A.D. In the late Postclassic period, the seat of the Kaqchikel empire was founded at Iximche’, located near present-day Tecpán Guatemala. The ruins of Iximche’ are easily accessible to students and tourists alike.

    Much of what we know about the settlement of Iximche’ and Kaqchikel politics in the period right before and after the conquest comes from The Kaqchikel Chronicles, a collections of documents written in Kaqchikel that both detail early Kaqchikel lineages and mythology as well as the arrival of the Spanish and subsequent events. As such, the document is an important one in helping us to understand what transpired during the time of Spanish contact. The document, which dates from the seventeenth century, is also important for helping us to understand the ways in which ancient Kaqchikel has evolved into the modern Kaqchikel that is currently spoken in the highlands. Several excellent translations of the Chronicles are available.

    Post-conquest History of the Kaqchikel People

    In 1523, Pedro de Alvarado, who had previously served under Hernán Cortés, led an expeditionary force out of Mexico City towards Guatemala. The first military conquests were in 1524, when Alvarado’s army defeated K’ichee’ forces under the command of the famed leader Tecúm-Umán. From the K’ichee’ capital of Utatlán, Alvarado moved his forces south to the Kaqchikel capital at Iximché, establishing nearby the first Spanish capital in Guatemala. Although the Kaqchikeles at first allied with Alvarado, seeing the alliance as an opportunity to propagate their internecine wars against their neighbor’s the Tz’utujiles, Alvarado soon betrayed them, burning Iximché and launching a brutal rural campaign of extermination.

    Successful conquest of Guatemala led to a series of subjugating labor practices. In the first few decades after the conquest, outright enslavement of the Maya was common practice. Although slavery as an institution was outlawed in the 1550s, it was succeeded by the encomienda system, in which titular land holders were given specified rights to forced indigenous labor. The encomienda system persisted until the eighteenth century, when it was replaced by the repartimiento system, in which indigenous men were required to give monthly quotas of work to both public and private entities. Repartimiento was remarkably persistent in rural Guatemala, but gradually gave way to a system of debt peonage which was to be the most common form of labor exploitation after the Guatemalan independence from Spain in 1821 and, indeed, well into the twentieth century.

    Persistent endogenous racism and various anti-indigenous policies characterized the Guatemalan government’s policies toward the Kaqchikel and other Maya after independence and through the twentieth century. In 1944, the dictator Jorge Ubico was forced to resign following a populist groundswell, which lead to Guatemala’s “Period of Spring,” characterized by nascent democracy and educational and land reform. Unfortunately, this period was brought to an end forcefully by a military coup in 1954, aided in part by the Central Intelligence Agency.

    The decades that followed saw the emergence of armed guerrilla resistance, first in urban areas and then increasing in rural areas inhabited by Maya. The government responded with increasingly repressive tactics, culminated in the mass genocide and “scorched earth” policies of the early 1980s. The protracted violence ended in a peace deal brokered between army forces and guerrilla forces in 1996.

    Since the signing of the Peace Accords, Guatemala has been increasingly characterized by neoliberal policy. The Central American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2005. Starting in the late 1990s, the Ministry of Health began moves to privatize large swathes of its rural health infrastructure. Rising gang violence and police corruption are now common themes.

    However, at the same time, the last 10 years has seen a resurgence of interest in Mayan languages, the rise of an educated Maya elite, and important gains in bilingual education. Kaqchikel speakers are at the forefront of leading many of these advances.


    Love, M and Kaplan J. (2011). The Southern Maya in the Late Preclassic: The Rise and Fall of an Early Mesoamerican Civilization. University Press of Colorado.

    Jones, O.L. (1994). Guatemala in the Spanish colonial period. University of Oklahoma Press.

    Maxwell, J.M. and Hill, R.M. III (2006). Kaqchikel chronicles: The definitive edition. University of Texas Press.

    Recinos, A. (1953). Annals of the Cakchiquels and Title of the Lords of Totonicapán. University of Oklahoma Press.

    Carey, D. (2006). Engendering Mayan history: Kaqchikel women as agents and conduits of the past, 1875-1970. Routledge.

    *All text about Kaqchikel Maya was written and compiled by Peter Rohloff and Emily Tummons, unless otherwise indicated.


      Culture of the Kaqchikel People

      The Kaqchikel speaking region of Guatemala encompasses the central portion of the country extending from Guatemala City on the east to Lake Atitlán on the west and the Pacific piedmont to the south. It is the Mayan language group most likely to be encountered by tourists and travelers, in part because Antigua, the largest tourist destination in Guatemala, lies in the heart of Kaqchikel territory.

      In certain ways, the Kaqchikel have benefited from their close association with these seats of governmental power and tourist trade. Although the Kaqchikel were affected by the violence of the civil war, they were less so than other more rural Maya. Currently, many are actively involved in the marketing of traditional weavings and other handicrafts both locally and internationally. Levels of educational attainment, particularly university education, are higher among the Kaqchikel than any other Mayan language group in Guatemala. Many Kaqchikel have found employment in government, education, linguistics, and the development industry, all industries centered in the economic powerhouses of Guatemala City, Antigua, Chimaltenango, and Panajachel. The Kaqchikel branch of the Academy of Mayan Languages is the most vital of branch of the organization, actively involved in the promotion of Kaqchikel language and culture through research and education.

      Although there is a large emerging Kaqchikel middle class, most Kaqchikeles still maintain a close connection to their agricultural roots, farming part-time on small parcels of land passed down through their families. Traditional Maya spiritual practices have continued since pre-Columbian times, and there is currently a resurgence of these practices among the modern Kaqchikel, although both charismatic Catholicism and Pentecostalism are also vibrant religious practices in many communities.

      In more remote hamlets in the Kaqchikel region, many still practice traditional subsistence agricultural, supplementing their income by selling in local or regional markets for local consumption or producing weavings and other handicrafts which are generally marketed by middlemen (who are often Kaqchikel as well) to tourists in Antigua and the Lake Atitlán region.

      Agricultural Practices of the Kaqchikel People

      For thousands of years, the traditional system of farming throughout Maya communities, including the Kaqchikeles, is the milpa system. Milpa is a loan word from the Mexican Nahuatl language; the corresponding word in Kaqchikel is awän. Milpa agriculture involves the cultivation of staple crops, principally corn, with intercropping of beans and squash. Successful milpa agriculture requires relatively large land allotments so that, at any one time, most land can be allowed to lay fallow. Milpa agriculture in Guatemala has been challenged by the historically large-scale expropriation of indigenous communal lands by ruling elites, with the result that, currently, most milpa plots are no longer large enough to allow for land to regenerate through sufficiently long fallow periods. The wide-scale introduction of chemical fertilizers in the twentieth century has allowed the continuation of milpa agriculture, although not without the realization by many indigenous farmers that this violates milpa philosophy and is a necessary evil.

      Guatemala is a large producer of traditional cash crops, such as bananas, coffee, and sugar cane. Most of this agricultural production, historically and to the present day, is concentrated in the hands of a few rich landed elite. Under the repartimiento and debt peonage systems, many Maya, including Kaqchikeles, found themselves forced to participate in the harvesting of these cash crops. Seasonal migrations to costal plantations to work under brutal conditions were a common experience for many Kaqchikel families throughout the twentieth century, although revision of labor laws and economic diversification have now permitted most highland Kaqchikeles to abandon this practice.

      Decades of investment and development work by major international funders, such as USAID, as well as the government’s own Ministry of Agriculture, has focused on crop diversification and the development of an agro-export economy for nontraditional crops, such as broccoli and snow peas. Kaqchikel farmers, especially in the department of Chimaltenango, are at the forefront of this agricultural movement, and although the practice is not without significant risk, many have achieved economic stability through the production of nontraditional export crops.

      Traditional Dress of the Kaqchikel People

      The use of traditional clothing (traje) is a distinctive feature of modern Maya cultural expression. Traditional clothing are highly valued, well constructed, and extremely durable. Historically, traje was worn by both men and women; however, due to external pressures and discrimination, most Kaqchikel men no longer wear traditional clothing (a few exceptions include the towns of Santa Catarina Palopó, Sololá, and San Antonio Palopó). Most Kaqchikel women, however, continue to wear traditional clothing on a daily basis.

      The traditional women’s outfit consists of several pieces. The first is a blouse (po’t), consisting of two or three panels of cloth woven by hand on a back-strap loom and sewn together with neck and arm holes. The color schemes and figurative designs of the po’t, as well as the individual weaving techniques to produce them, are highly individualized and particular to specific Kaqchikel towns. Consequently, it is usually possible to tell where a woman is from based on the design of her po’t. With the emergence of a Maya middle class, however, many women now also wear designs from other towns. The po’t is tucked into a wrap around skirt (uq’), held in place by a colorful belt (pas). The pas is also traditionally woven on the back-strap loom; however the uq’ is generally constructed from reams of cloth woven on a treadle loom. The traditional men’s attire includes a pair of woven pants (wexaj), again held in place by a belt (pas). This may be supplemented by a colorful jacket or a utility cloth (xerka) belted over the pants.

      Woven and hand-made Kaqchikel traje are some of the most highly sought after in Guatemala. Therefore, in addition to their daily use, they also constitute a robust tourist trade. Kaqchikel weavings are prominently featured in many museum textile collections around the world.

      Maya Cosmology

      Maya cosmology is closely tied to Maya conceptions of time. The ancient Maya had one of the most sophisticated calendrical systems ever developed. 52-year Calendar Rounds were calculated based on a combination of a 365 day solar calendar and a 260-day sacred calendar. Periods of time longer than 52 years were recorded using the Long Count, which forms the basis for many of the detailed inscriptions found on stelae in archeological sites like Tikal and Copan.

      Of these three calendrical units, only the 260-day sacred calendar is still in daily use among contemporary Maya. Known as the Cholq’ij in Kaqchikel, the 260 day calendar is composed by 20 day signs and the numbers 1-13 (13 x 20 = 260). Each day sign has special significance which is modified by its associated number. The day on which a person is borne dictates their path in life and their special responsibility (toj) in the world. Among modern Kaqchikeles, there has been a resurgence in use of Cholq’ij; for example, many have adopted their day sign as their name, a practice common in ancient times.

      Contemporary Kaqchikel day keepers (ajq’ija’) continue the ancient practice of “keeping count” by providing spiritual and practical advice to practitioners derived from interpretation of the Cholq’ij. Maya ceremonies, facilitated by ajq’ija’, involve the construction of ceremonial fires, through which offerings are given to the days and to the ancestors. During a typical ceremony, sacred history and geography are recounted, and the entire Cholq’ij is counted, pausing to give offerings and prayers for each of the twenty days.

      Recently, there has also been a resurgence in interest in the Long Count. This is largely due to the fact that on December 21, 2012, the Long Count will “turn over” with the completion of 13 x 144,000 day cycles. According to the sacred mythology of the K’ichee’an Popul Wuj, this will signify the end of the fourth age of the world. Although this notion has been picked up by many New Age practitioners around the world, with various apocalyptic prediction, among Kaqchikel ajq’ija’ the most common interpretation is that the completion of the count will signify a new era of resurgence for Maya people.

      Health and Poverty

      Guatemala is one of the most impoverished countries in the world. Despite a wealth of natural resources, corruption and political instability have relegated most of the rural population to extreme poverty. Disparities in health outcomes between rural Maya populations and urban non-indigenous populations are wide. Health care services in rural areas are severely lacking; more than 90% of medical resources are concentrated in urban centers, and a disproportionate percentage of the Ministry of Health’s budget is spent on urban populations.

      Particularly discouraging are rates of chronic child malnutrition, which are among the highest in the world (and the worst in Latin America and the Caribbean). In many rural Kaqchikel communities, rates of child malnutrition are greater than 70%. In these communities, there is also a lack of health services for women. Most births occur in the home, attended by traditional midwives, and due to lack of emergency medical transportation, many women suffer complications from bleeding and infection during and after birth. There is also a lack of contraception for women, with well over half of all rural women having no access to family planning services.

      Beginning in the 1990s, the Ministry of Health began to contract with nongovernmental organizations to deliver health services in rural communities. This program has been successful in improving access to prenatal care and providing vaccinations to children. However, quality of care is still a pressing issue, and there are few options for individuals in need of care for chronic medical conditions.

      Kaqchikel and other Maya communities have a rich tradition of health care provision by lay midwives, who are often middle-aged or elderly women who receive “on the job” training passed on from one woman to another. In addition to speaking the language of their patients, something which few Guatemalan physicians do, Kaqchikel midwives are also sensitive to the religious and cultural needs of their patients, and they integrate Western medical practices effectively with traditional healing practices, including the use of massage and medicinal plants.


      Little, W.E. (2004). Mayas in the marketplace: Tourism, globalization, and cultural identity. University of Texas Press.

      Fischer, E.F. and Benson, P. (2006). Broccoli & desire: Global connections and Maya struggles in postwar Guatemala. Stanford University Press.

      Rowe, A.P. (1981). A century of change in Guatemalan textiles. Center for Inter-American Relations.

      Tedlock, D. (1996). Popol Vuh: The definitive edition of the Mayan book of the dawn of life and the glories of the gods and kings. Touchstone.

      Eder, K. (2002). Modelo de la medicina indigena maya en Guatemala. ASECSA.

      *All text about Kaqchikel Maya was written and compiled by Peter Rohloff and Emily Tummons, unless otherwise indicated.


        Mayan Languages

        The Mayan languages are a large family of languages spoken primarily in Mexico and Guatemala but also Belize and Honduras. There are 8 official Mayan languages in Mexico and 21 in Guatemala. In Guatemala, the four largest Mayan languages are Kaqchikel, K’ichee’, Mam, and Q’eqchi’, all with more than 500,000 speakers each. All the Mayan languages are derived from proto-Mayan, which is thought to have arisen some 5000 years ago in the Western highlands of Guatemalan.

        The ancient lowland Maya developed a hieroglyphic syllabary writing system which is famous throughout the world for its complexity and beauty. This writing system is best known to casual tourists and travelers when they encounter it in archeological sites throughout Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Modern Mayan languages, especially in Guatemala, are now written using a Latin alphabet which was first standardized by the Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages in 1986.

        Although the Mayan languages are quite diverse and largely mutually unintelligible, they all share some common features that distinguish them from other language groups. By far, the most interesting feature of Mayan language is that they are ergative languages. Ergative languages constitute a minority of world languages, and they are characterized by complex verb systems treat the subjects of intransitive verbs differently from the subjects of transitive verbs.

        Another interesting feature of Mayan languages is that they employ large classes of relational nouns to express concepts that in English and most European languages are accomplished using prepositions or pronouns.

        Word order in Mayan languages is also unique. For example, the sentence “Sue pet the dog” in English would be “Pet the dog Sue” in most Mayan languages, although this has been changing somewhat due to outside influence from Spanish.

        In terms of sounds, Mayan languages have several ejective consonants, and they make distinctions between tense and relaxed vowels; these sound features are often one of the most difficult things for new learners of the languages to pick up!

        Kaqchikel Maya

        Kaqchikel Maya is one of several languages in the K’ichee’an branch of Mayan languages. Several other K’ichee’an branch languages, to which Kaqchikel has some similarity, include K’ichee’, Tz’utujil, and Q’eqchi’. Because Kaqchikel communities are geographically close to the K’ichee’ and Tz’utujil communities, many Kaqchikel speakers can also speak or understand K’ichee’ or Tz’utujil.

        Kaqchikel is spoken today by more than 500,000 speakers in dozens of municipalities throughout central Guatemala, mostly in the departments of Guatemala, Sacatepéquez, Chimaltenango, Sololá, Escuintla, and Suchitepéquez. Kaqchikel is the Mayan language most commonly encountered by travelers to Guatemala, since it is the language spoken in the most popular tourist destinations, such as Antigua and Panajachel.

        Like all Mayan languages, Kaqchikel is highly synthetic and logical. Many words can be built from consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) roots that have semantic content. Therefore, once the new learner acquires the meaning of several of these roots as well as the rules for making words, they can easily begin to speak!

        For example, the CVC root kos means tired. From this root, many words can be built:

        Xikosir means “He became tired.”

        Xukosirsaj Sue Peter means “Peter made Sue tired.”

        Xkosirsäx Sue roma Peter means “Sue was tired out because of Peter”

        And so on!

        Kaqchikel also has a very interesting set of words known as positionals. These are words used to describe states of being for people, animals, and natural objects. There are hundreds of positionals in Kaqchikel, and they represent they heart of Kaqchikel jokes, story telling, and punning because they allow for very precise layers of meaning. 

        For example, the positional word ch’upül means “off” – as in “ch’upül ri q’aq’” – “the light is off”. The word can be slightly modified – “ch’upuchïk” meaning “blinking on and off.” Therefore, “ch’upuchïk ri q’aq’” means “the light is blinking on and off” (like Christmas tree lights!) You can easily see how interesting this system for describing the world is, and how much fun it can be as you become more comfortable with it.

        Kaqchikel Today

        Kaqchikel is one of the best studied of all the Mayan languages. Several excellent dictionaries are available in Spanish to aid the student. Importantly, an introductory Kaqchikel textbook for students was recently published in English! Therefore, the study of Kaqchikel is relatively easy for the student, even for those who are studying at the university level without direct access to native speakers in Guatemala.

        Kaqchikel Cholchi’, which is the Kaqchikel language branch of the Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages, is extremely active in Guatemala, holding courses on Kaqchikel language for both native and non-native speakers. One of the main goals of these courses is to teach speakers of Kaqchikel how to read and write in their language, something which until recently was not commonly done. Together with Kaqchikel Cholchi’, many other governmental and nongovernmental organizations have worked to advance literacy in Kaqchikel. As a result, numerous books on diverse themes are now published in Kaqchikel each year. Kaqchikel Cholchi’ also has an important ongoing project to develop neologisms (new words) to fill gaps in the Kaqchikel vocabulary in areas such as technology, information science, and medicine. This contributes to the vitality of the language by lessening reliance on loan words from Spanish and English.

        Arguments about how vital the Kaqchikel language is continue to circulate. For example, in towns close to major non-indigenous centers of power like Antigua, there has always been some evidence that economic and social pressure on children and their parents has had a negative impact on the transmission of the language. However, even in these towns, the last decade has seen a major resurgence in “relearning” of the language, in literacy classes, and in the general prestige of the language. Therefore, more now than ever, Kaqchikel languages remains an important part of the cultural identity of the Kaqchikel Maya and the preferred from of communication for hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans.


        OKMA. (2001). Maya’ Chii’: Los idiomas Mayas de Guatemala. Cholsamaj.

        Maxwell, J.M. (2010). Bilingual bicultural education: Best intentions across a cultural divide. In Mayas in postwar Guatemala: Harvest of violence revisited (Little, W.E. and Smith, T.J., eds). University of Alabama Press.

        Patal Majzul, F. (2007). Rusoltzij ri Kaqchikel. OKMA.

        McKenna Brown, R., Maxwell, J.M., and Little, W.E. (2006). La ütz awäch? Introduction to Kaqchikel Maya language. University of Texas Press.

        Garzon, S., McKenna Brown, R., Richards, J.B., and Ajpub’, W. (1998). The life of our language: Kaqchikel Maya maintenance, shift, and revitalization. University of Texas Press.

        Maddox, M. (2010). Chwa'q chik iwonojel: Language affect, ideology, and intergenerational language use patterns in the Quinizilapa Valley of highland Guatemala. Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University.

        *All text about Kaqchikel Maya was written and compiled by Peter Rohloff and Emily Tummons, unless otherwise indicated.

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