Summary of Correct and Incorrect Uses
1. Maya is an umbrella term of self-identification of a linguistically diverse Indigenous people. There are between 4 and 8 million speakers of Mayan languages. They continue to live in their ancestral homeland which is today occupied by Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador, and southern Mexico (the state of Chiapas and the Yucatán Peninsula), as well as in diaspora communities in the USA, Canada, and Europe. Although never unified under a single political state, empire, or kingdom, their shared cultural traditions constitutes a civilization that extends back to at least 2000 BCE.
2. The different Maya peoples are culturally and linguistically diverse. At least since the 19th century, Maya people primarily identify by the Mayan language they speak (for example Jakaltec, Mam, and Lacandon) as well as by their nationality (for example, Mexican, Guatemalan, Belizean, Canadian, US, or other).
3. Although some Maya identify as Indigenous but not as Maya, others identify as Maya but not Indigenous. Maya is the proper name of self-identification and ascribed identity; not "Mayan."
4. Mayan is a term invented by linguists and should only be used in the same way that Indo-European is used. It refers to the Mayan language family, the languages of the Mayan language family, the proto-Mayan source language, and to speakers of a Mayan language. Mayan is not a social, cultural, or political identity. Mayans does not provide any information on the sociocultural identify of speakers, for example nationality..
5. One of the Mayan languages has as its proper name Maya. These Maya, who live throughout the Yucatán Peninsular, self-identify as Maya. In other words, Maya is their social or "ethnic" identity.
6. Linguists created the name "Yucatec Maya" which they sometimes abbreviate simply as "Yucatec" or "Yukatec" to refer to the language speakers call Maya. This scientific label is sometimes used as an ascribed social or ethnic name. The use of these terms is ethically and politically problematic. It is imperative that we use the names of self-identification of their language and "ethnicity" instead of imposing scientific jargon and ascribed identities.
7. The term "Yucatec" or "Yucatec Maya" to identify both the language spoken throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and the community of Maya speakers is not only ethically and politically wrong, it is also "bad"—that is to say faulty, inaccurate, and inadequate—linguistics and sociology. The speakers of Maya who live in the states of Quintana Roo or Campeche are not residents of the state of Yucatan and do not identify therefore as "Yucatec Maya" as their socio-ethnic identity. Further, there is no existing linguistic research (none has been conducted) to prove that there is a specific dialect of Maya for which the scientific label "Yucatec Maya" could have possible validity. The academic jargon terms "Yucatec" and "Yucatec Maya" should not ever be used as they are politically and ethically problematic as well as scientifically invalid—that is to say, it is unscientific.
8. The word Maya in its etymological origins is actually an adjective used to qualify all manner of cultural objects. For example, Maya culture, Maya civilization, Maya food, Maya houses, Maya kings, Maya calendar, Maya astronomy, and so on. The word "Mayan" is specifically an invented word by anglophone linguists to refer to specific things noted above as a scientific terminology. It was invented precisely with the knowledge that Maya is already—in origins and contemporary use—an adjective. It is therefore not correctly used as an adjective and should not be used with all due respect for the rights of Maya self-determination.
9. The word "Yucatecan" is a word similar to "Mayan" since it as well was invented by anglophone linguists precisely to contrast the specific meaning they created with the common language adjective that already existed, Yucatec. Specifically, Yucatecan was coined by linguists to name the branch of the Mayan language family that they had analyzed as consisting of four specific Mayan languages (Itzá, Lacandon, Maya, and Mopan). It is at this point that they invented, as previously discussed, the scientific jargon term "Yucatec Maya" to refer to the language known by its speakers as Maya. The term Yucatecan is therefore an adjective that can only properly be used in English to refer to the Yucatecan branch of the Mayan language family.
Click here for a short excerpt from a published article that details the widespread misuse of the word Mayan as the ethnonym or proper ethnic name of the Maya people
Click here for full text article, Quetzil E. Castaneda, "Spiritually Seeking the Maya" published 2021 vol. 23 Ciencias Sociales y Religion. Direct link to online article in pdf browser.
Examples of Misue of the word "Mayan"...
Explanation of the Misuse of the word "Mayan" as an Adjective:
Maya Civilization, Maya Calendars, Maya Hieroglyphs ...
The word "Mayan" is often misused in English, especially in popular media. However even professional anthropologists are unclear on the correct name of identity and use this word, Mayan, erroneously without knowing why or how. The fact is that there are indeed significant complications to the correct usage that even well informed scholars can trip up on. It is easy to find websites or scholarly publications that use both Maya and Mayan correctly and incorrectly. It is in fact typical to find an author (academic or not) using the incorrect word in a sentence directly following the correct usage. This confusion points to the definitive need for greater clarity.
The word "Mayan" is not correctly used as an adjective for anything other than in reference to Mayan languages. It is a word that does not exist in the language Maya but was invented by anglophone linguists to use as a scientific label to refer to Mayan language family, any of the 32 Maya languages that comprise the Mayan language family, the proto-Mayan lsource or origin language from which are descended all the Mayan languages of the Mayan language family, and speakers of a Mayan language regardless of their specific ethnic or national identity. These are the only four correct uses of Mayan.
It is never correct to use "Mayan" as an adjective or name-adjective to identify "things" associated with Maya people, society, history, culture, or civiliations. Thus, the use of "Mayan" in front of words such as calendar, hieroglyphs, civilization, society, peoples, houses, cities, kings, and so on, is always incorrect. Further this incorrect use is based on and perpetuates an anglophone and scientific imperialism that should be avoided. The word Maya is a noun but it also in the first instance an adjective, that is, it used to name things that belong to the Maya, to Maya culture, to Maya people, to Maya civilization.
Maya is the correct word to use as the adjective in noun phrases such as: Maya culture, Maya Civilization, Maya calendar(s), Maya hieroglyphs, Maya glyphs, Maya astronomy, Maya pyramids, Maya religion, Maya ritual, Maya warfare, Maya food, Maya hairstyle, Maya clothing, Maya folklore, Maya heritage, Maya secret handshakes, Maya humor, and so on. The simple reason for this is the fact that the etymology of the word Maya is originally an adjective. Maya is an adjective in its origins and continues to be correctly used in this way amongst Maya speakers.
This is the first complication: Mayan is (mostly) always used (instead of Maya) to refer to the languages that Maya and Mayans speak or spoke. Mayan language is the most generally correct form to refer to these languages in a linguistic sense -- meaning in the same manner that one uses words such as "Indo-European" and "Germanic."
However, Maya language has a very specific meaning as the proper name of one the thirty-two Mayan languages that comprise the Mayan language family. Each of these languages has their own name. One of the thirty-two has the proper name Maya! Thus, not all Mayan languages are Maya but one specific Mayan language is Maya (more on this complication below).
Maya or Mayan Language?
"Mayan" has four primary, correct uses. First, it is the proper name of a language family -- the Mayan language family. The Mayan language family is completely separate linguistic family from other languages in Mexico and the Americas. The languages that comprise the Mayan language family are all related based on the linguistic analyses derived from glottochronology.
Second, Mayan is the technical name given by linguists to identity the 28-32 or so languages that comprise this grouping of sociohistorically and genetically related languages. The exact number of languages is a question due to linguistic debates and the politics of how minority languages are defined by nation states and by their speakers. These number of languages is what I learned as graduate student in the 1980s from Lyle Campbell, a linguist who is among the top three or four scholars that the most responsible for creating and understanding Mayan language glottochronology and relationships. I believe this continues to be accepted academic concensus. Thus Mayan is the category name of the languages that form the Mayan language family. Each of these Mayan languages however has their own unique, individual name.
The third correct use of Mayan is to reference the proper name of the "ur-language" or origin/source language from which all those other languages are historically derived. This source language is called Proto-Mayan. This is a "reconstructed" language that linguists seek to establish based on phonological, lexical, and other criteria.
Fourth, Mayan is used as an ascribed term of identitification by which outsiders reference speakers of a Mayan language. Similarly, English speakers can be identified as Germanic speakers and as Indo-Europeans because the language they speak, English, is part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. For the most part English — or Slavic, or Romanian, or French, or ...— speakers do not identify as Indo-European because this is not a sociocultural, ethnic, racial, or national identity. It is only accurately a linguistic identity of belonging to broad inclusive category of humans whose languages share some deep history. Thus, no one self-identifies in normal contexts as a "Germanic" or as an "Indo-European." In those case where such occurs, this is rather in an explicitly racial meaning of a racial identity, which has no real referent or reality in bio-genetic understandings of race.
The implication of this is that the word Mayan is not the correct way to refer to the people who are Mayan speakers if you are discussing some other sociopolitical, cultural, ethnic, racial, or historical form of identity or identification. For example, some or all of the people in the USA, Mexico, Indonesia, India, and Australia speak English, but not all of these speakers of English are English by ethnicity, race, nationality, upbringing, or self-identification. Not even all English speaking citizens of the UK are English.
In these four instances, the word Mayan is an ascribed label, that is, it is a name given by linguists to refer to languages or speakers of these languages. These uses of Mayan are not terms of self-identity for the most part of the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a major sociohistorical exception to this point that began to emerge in the aftermath of the Guatemalan Civil War (1960 to 1996) that is discussed below.
There are however even more complications to use of the words Maya and Mayan. There is one Mayan language whose proper name is "Maya"! The native speakers of a language that linguists identify as Yucatec Maya call their language Maya. Maya is the correct proper name of the language that they speak. It is not Yucatec Maya. This name is invented by linguists so that they can disambiguate what they refer to in their scholarly texts. Unfortunately, their disambiguation is the muddying of everyone else's thinking.
Maya is commonly and erroneously called "Yucatec Maya" by linguists (especially North Americans but not by Mexican or Guatemalan linguists) to distinguish it from the other 32 or so Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. These other Mayan languages each have their own distinct proper name. Just as languages that comprise the European language family are known by their proper names; for example, German, English, Dutch. Similarly, Tzotzil and Tzeltal are two Mayan languages spoken in highland Chiapas. In Guatemala, Mayan languages include Q’eqchi’, K’iche’, Kaqchikel, Mam, Poqomchi’ (or Poqomam), and Jakaltek (or Popti’). The language called Maya is spoken primarily in Mexico, in the states of Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo; these three states comprise the geographic region known as the Yucatan Peninsula and, thus, provide the inaccurate labeling of Maya from this region as "Yucatec Maya."
These MAYAN languages have their own individual name. For example, Q’eqchi’, Poqomchi’ (or Poqomam), Jakaltek, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Mam, Huastec are all Mayan languages. Thus to refer to these languages as Mayan is like calling the French language a "European" or a "Romance" language: It does not indicate any social, historical, cultural, class, ethnic, racial, or religious identity. Similarly to call a Maya "Mayan" is not incorrect or technically wrong. Rather it is inappropriate way to speak unless one is in fact referring to the facts about this language belonging to the Mayan language family or that the person is a speaker of a Mayan language.
Here is one scholarly website where the word Mayan is incorrectly used to refer to the one Mayan language that is correctly identified by its proper name as Maya. This has an added glitch of using the anglicized "Yucatecan" instead of "Yucatec."
Maya or Yucatec Maya?
The Maya are called Maya.
The speakers of the language called Maya are Maya. This is their proper name. To call them the "Yucatec Maya" is not appropriate despite more than a century of anthropological conventions of calling them by this name. To use "Yucatec Maya" to refer to the Maya is to use the scientific-technical name of the language spoken by that people as the name of the ethnic group itself. It is not a little denigrative to use this term as it effectively puts a people in a museum display case as a lab microscope.
"Yucatec Maya" is not equivalent to labels such as, Italian American, Texan American, or African American, which are terms of identity, even self-identity. To use Yucatec Maya in this way would be to ascribe this identity to the those people who call themselves simply Maya. Thus it actually would be equivalent to calling African Americans "Ebonic Americans" because such people speak a linguistic dialect of English ("Black English"). In both cases, this would be inappropriate.
Further, "Yucatec Maya" is therefore not equivalent to phrases such as "Texan American" if it is used identify a group of people by their shared geographic location in a place, in this case a place called Texas. It seems like it is the same kind of label if Texan American is used as a racial-ethnic label to refer to the ethnic group derived from the white-German descended immigrants that came from the Mid-East states like Ohio to colonize Texas in the mid-19th century; and therefore to use this label as a means to distinguish from the African Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans who are ALSO Texan Americans in the geographic, as well as social, political, and historical senses. But, actually neither Texan American nor Yucatec Maya are very appropriate terms to use in this sense.
The Word Maya is an Adjective and is Singular and Plural Noun
Maya is singular and plural when refering to people or persons who are Maya speakers. In other words, do not add an "s" to make the plural: *"Mayas" is incorrect.
Thus: "Juan is Maya." And: "Those Maya over there are waiting in line to see Apocalypto."
Note, however, that "Mayan" which is an English word must have an "s" added to make the plural. Thus, Mayan speakers of languages such as K'iche, Mam, Tzotzil, etc. are Mayans. More on this below, however.
The use of Maya in singular and plural had been the established tradition in the US for most of the 20th century. However, some time in the 1980s or 90s, a new generation of US authors and editors at university presses began to use *"Mayas" to form the plural in written academic publications. This most likely resulted from proofreaders who adhered to English grammar rules without having any knowledge of the history of words and accepted usage. This may also be a borrowing of conventions that are found in Spanish and in Maya. In both of these languages, Maya can take the plural marker as a way to emphasize the plurality of the peoples who are identified as Maya: "los mayas" "le maya'o'obo".
Doña Pil is Maya vs Don Eraclio is a Maya
Both of these sentences are correct usage but they mean different things. Whats the difference? The first sentence references Doña Pil by a proper name of identity, "Maya." This sentence presupposes an unquestioned shared assumption of who and what are Maya; thereby implies that the identity is a (cultural or social) identification. To say, "Juan is Maya" is therefore to highlight that "Maya" is his identity (self-recognized or ascribed by outsiders).
The second case is a bit more complicated. Here, "Maya" is a qualifier that identifies a specific class or type of a broader category that remains unstated and implicit. This is most likely "Indian" (a racial-ethnic category) and less often "speaker" (a linguistic category). In other words, to say "Juan is a Maya" means either: "Juan is a Maya (Indian)" or "Juan is a Maya (speaker)."
What is the proper spelling, Yukatan or Yucatán? Yucatec or Yukatek?
In Mexico Yucatan is spelled Yucatan, Yucatec is spelled Yucatec. The "c" in these words is sometimes changed to "k" according to the orthography established by the ALMG, Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala.
In Guatemala the Mayan linguists of the ALMG created a standardized orthography by which to write the Mayan languages of Guatemala. The Maya did not participate in this process of creating a standard set of rules for writing Mayan languages and do not subscribe to its norms. Remember, the Maya afterall are not Guatemalans nor do they live in Guatemala! The Mayans who are from Chiapas and Belize also did not participate in establishing this convention. As one might imagine, the non-Guatemalan Mayans have not subscribed to this convention except as an individual choice. Nonetheless, there are US academics,
especially among archaeologists, who have adopted the ALMG to write any and all words in any Mayan language, including Proto-Mayan and Maya (i.e., Yucatec Maya).
Although this seems like a politically correct and respectful adoption of a norm that was defined by an Indigenous group, others might view this as a continuation of neocolonial imposition. While it is respectful of the Guatemalan Mayans, it is overtly disrespectful of the Mayans in other nations who use their own orthographies. For example, to spell Yucatán "Yukatan" and Yucatec "Yukatek" is blatantly respectful of the established and accepted Mexican conventions of spelling the proper names of places and languages in Mexico.
Further, the Maya -- that is, to be redundant, Maya from Yucatán Peninsula -- have not agreed upon a single standard orthography for writing Maya, including the orthography established by Mayans of Guatemala. There have been attempts to create a single standard, however, not everyone has adopted these different proposals for a standardized orthography. Publishers, Maya intellectuals from different regions, and government educational authorities do not agree on a standard or agree an then do not conform to its use. There are instead about 2 or 3 different orthographies currently in use and another 3 or so that have been used within the last 20 years. While there is no single standard there are many agreed upon conventions. Not only are there differences in the orthographies used by Maya linguists today, but one is likely to find variation in the way a Maya linguist currently writes Maya today and how she or he wrote Maya 3 years ago.