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HandWiki. Itza’ Language. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 13 June 2024).
HandWiki. Itza’ Language. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 13, 2024.
HandWiki. "Itza’ Language" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 13, 2024).
HandWiki. (2022, November 03). Itza’ Language. In Encyclopedia.
HandWiki. "Itza’ Language." Encyclopedia. Web. 03 November, 2022.
Itza’ Language

Itza' (also known as Itza or Itzaj) is a critically endangered Mayan language spoken by the Itza people near Lake Peten Itza in north-central Guatemala. The language has only 25 fluent speakers and 60 nonfluent speakers. Itza' was the language of administration across much of the Yucatán Peninsula prior to 1697, when the Itza people controlled the last significant Mayan nation in Mesoamerica. During this time, the Itza people resettled their ancestral home in the Petén Basin. The subjugation of the Itza capital by the Spanish forced the Itza people to flee or live amongst the Spaniards, such as in San Jose, Guatemala, where the only modern speakers of the language live. The modern Itza people are the last of the Lowland Maya to be able to directly trace their heritage back to the pre-Columbian era. The Itza' language reflects this history in its nomenclature for the natural world: Itza' words referring to agriculture and agricultural practices remain unchanged since first being recorded. Additionally, Itza' possesses a rich vocabulary for crops and animals that encodes specific information about different varietals and individuals of the species.

agricultural practices agriculture itza'

1. Classification

Itza' belongs to the Yucatecan branch of Mayan Languages. The other languages in the Yucatecan branch are Yucatec, Lacandon, and Mopan. All Yucatecan languages are closely linked with each other. However, people speaking Itza' and those speaking Yucatec have difficulties understanding each other. There are 12 different branches of Mayan language, all with sub families like Itza'.

2. History

The government banned the speaking of Itzá in the 1930s and two generations of Itzá Maya have grown up learning only Spanish. The late 1980s brought an increase in interest among Maya people, including the Itzá, in preserving their cultural heritage. The Guatemalan government has set up an institution, the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala, to help develop and preserve various Mayan languages, including Itza'.[1]

3. Geographic Distribution

Itza' is spoken on the north shore of Lake Petén Itzá in San José, Petén Department, Guatemala. Among the ethnic population of 2,000, there are only 12 fluent speakers and 60 non-fluent, Spanish-Itza' bilingual speakers.[2]

4. Phonology

4.1. Consonants

The following chart shows the consonant phonemes of Itza:[3] Where the orthography differs from the IPA notation, the orthography used by the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala is noted in bold.

  Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
plain ejective implosive plain ejective plain ejective plain ejective
Stop p b' [ɓ] t     k ' [ʔ]
Affricate       tz [t͡s] tz' [t͡sʼ] ch [t͡ʃ] ch' [t͡ʃʼ]      
Fricative       s   x [ʃ]       h
Nasal m     n            
Approximant       l   j   w    

The phonemes /d, g, f, v, r, ɲ/ have been adopted from Spanish and are present only in loanwords.[3]

4.2. Vowels

The following chart shows the vowel phonemes of Itza. All vowels except /ə/ have long equivalent, and vowel length is contrastive.

  Front Central Back
High i   u
Mid e ə o
Low   a  

The Itza language does not contain tone nor pitch.[4]

5. Grammar

5.1. Nouns

Possession is marked with the same ergative particle as is used in verbal constructions.[5] Possession constructions are marked differently based on whether the possession is inherent or non-inherent. Body parts, family members, and personal property are marked as being possessed differently than are parts of a whole. Additional possession constructions exist and are used generally where the possessor is inanimate.[5]

All nouns in Itza' possess grammatical gender. The masculine and feminine genders are overtly marked by a prefix, while the neutral gender is unmarked.[6] Gender is not marked on all nouns: typically, proper nouns and professions have marked gender, while other categories do not. The gender markers of Itza' also play the role of rigid designators: specific individuals across all possible worlds will have overtly marked gender, while references to classes of objects will not.[6]

5.2. Verbs

Itza' is an ergative-absolutive language demonstrating split ergativity. Ergative person markers indicate intransitive subjects in the imperfective aspect and all transitive subjects, while absolutive person markers indicate intransitive subjects in the perfective aspect and in dependent clauses and all objects.[7]

Itza' employs the Irrealis grammatical mood to mark the future tense: the mood is coupled with a temporal adjective to form a future construction. The past tense is similarly constructed by using the Perfect tense and temporal adjectives. Similarities in the Irrealis and Perfect constructions may suggest that the Itza' consider the past and future to be similar, which reflects the Itza' worldview that time is cyclical.[8]

5.3. Sentence Structure

Itza' has VOS word order, although VSO is also common and all word orders are possible.[7] Topicalization is marked by the addition of a suffix and the movement of the topicalized word to the sentence initial position.[7]

Generally, modifiers precede the words they modify: adjectives, numerals, determiners, and negation all follow this pattern. Possessives, demonstratives, and relative clauses all typically follow the words they modify; adjectives can also occur in this position.[7]

6. Vocabulary

Itza' possess a rich vocabulary of agriculture and taxonomy. Itza has specific words to encode various properties of different varietals and individuals within a species. Plants and animals of different size, color, and taste are referred to with different terms.[9] Additionally, agricultural terms in Itza' have been virtually uninfluenced by contact with the Spanish, allowing some insight into the commonplace vocabulary of pre-contact Itza.[9]

7. Discourse

Discourse in Itza' is marked by its heavy use of repetition and linguistic parallelism. Words and linguistic constructions are often repeated throughout a sentence order to draw emphasis to what is being spoken.[7] The resulting sentences are thus composed of several, complete phrases such as in the sentence:

The repetition of the pronoun in-ten and the verb k-im-b'el, as well as the near-repetition of the pronoun eech/tech, is typical of Itza' discourse.[7] Such literary style is comparable to parataxis in English, a style of discourse where simple, coordinating sentences are preferred over long, subordinating sentences.

Discourse, both common and mythological, often employs framing particles—particles placed before and after a phrase in order to frame the phrase within the discourse as a whole. These particles convey the spatial and temporal relationships between new and old pieces of information in the discourse, creating larger discourse units.[10]

The categories tense, aspect, and mood are interwoven in Itzaj Maya verbal and adverbial morphosyntax. Itzaj narrative discourse suggests a division between what a person knows from personal experience centered in one's home and town (the actual), and what is less known, but imaginable, further away in space-time.[8]


  1. "Language: Itza, Guatemala." Discovery Channel, 2004. Web. 02 May 2016.
  2. Lewis, M. Paul (2009). "Itza'". SIL International. 
  3. Hofling, Charles Andrew (1991). "Itzá Maya Texts, with a Grammatical Overview". 
  4. Bricker, Victoria (January 1994). "Reviewed Work(s): Itzá Maya Texts with a Grammatical Overview by Charles Andrew Hofling". International Journal of American Linguistics 60: 87–92. doi:10.1086/466222.
  5. Hofling, Charles A. (1990). "Possession and Ergativity in Itzá Maya". International Journal of American Linguistics 56: 542–560. doi:10.1086/466174.
  6. Lois, Ximena (1998). "Gender Markers as "Rigid Determiners" of the Itzaj Maya World". International Journal of American Linguistics 64: 224–282. doi:10.1086/466358.
  7. Hofling, Charles Andrew (2000). Itzaj Maya Grammar. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. ISBN 0-87480-666-6. 
  8. Hofling, Charles Andrew (1998). "Irrealis and Perfect in Itzaj Maya". Anthropological Linguistics 40: 214–227. 
  9. Atran, Chase, Fedick, Knapp, McKillop, Marcus, Schwartz., Webb, Scott, Arlen F., Scott L., Gregory, Heather, Joyce, Norman B., Malcolm C. (1993). "Itza Maya Tropical Agro-Forestry". Current Anthropology 34: 633–700. doi:10.1086/204212.
  10. Hofling, Charles A. (1987). "Discourse Framing in Itzá Maya Narrative". Anthropological Linguistics 29: 478–488. 
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