The range of languages in Guatemala reflects the country’s complicated history of migration and invasion, especially the influence of the Spanish and the Maya.
English is becoming more popular, and several immigrant communities keep their own native languages alive, while the Garifuna people have their own unique language and culture.
Guatemala’s official language is a variant of Spanish, thanks to the dominance of the Spanish Empire throughout Latin America from the late 1400s. Around 2 million Spaniards are estimated to have emigrated to Spain’s Latin American colonies before the rise of independence movements in the 1820s, with more continuing to arrive after that.
Six hundred years since that wave of immigration began, Guatemalan Spanish has evolved several differences compared with the way the language is spoken in Spain.
The main difference is a feature known as seseo. This means that speakers pronounce the letters “c” and “z” as an “s”. This is common to most of South and Central American Spanish speakers, but is unusual in mainland Spain.
Guatemalan Spanish has other subtle differences in pronunciation from traditional Spanish, and it has also adopted a number of words from local Mayan languages.
If you are visiting rural areas of Guatemala you are likely to hear one of the 21 recognised Mayan languages which are spoken by an estimated three million people in different parts of the country.
The Mayan languages of Guatemala are part of a wider group spoken in Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and southern Mexico. Emigration means some of these languages have also found their way to the United States and Canada.
The most common Mayan languages in Guatemala are K’iche, Mam and Kaqchikel in the central highlands, and Q’eqchi further north. Estimates vary on the number of native speakers, but more than two million people are believed to speak these four languages as their native tongue, although it is likely most would also speak Spanish as a second language.
A wide variety of other Mayan languages make up a patchwork across Guatemala. The rarest is Itza, which was the administrative language of the Peten department before Spanish conquest but is now spoken by only around 1,000 people.
K’iche is Guatemala’s second most common language
Of all these Mayan languages, by far the most common is K’iche, also known as Qiche. It is spoken by around 1 million people – representing 7 percent of the entire population – and is the second most commonly spoken language after Spanish.
Most K’iche speakers live in the central highlands, and it is widespread enough to have been divided into five different dialects. One of them, Nahuala, preserves some sounds which have been lost by the other forms.
The north-eastern corner of Guatemala, where it meets the Caribbean, is home to the Garifuna people. Their language and culture have been listed by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
The Garifuna originated on the island of St Vincent as Amerindian natives inter-married with African slaves who escaped from other Caribbean islands or survived ship wrecks.
The entire community was exiled from St Vincent by the British in the late 1700s, and ended up in what is now the coastal region running through Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
Their language is originally from Arawak, which now only exists in parts of South America, but is distinguished by its large number of loan words from Carib languages, Spanish, English, French and even some African languages.
Xincan: a special but almost extinct language
The Xincan language forms a curious part of languages of Guatemala, as it is believed to an isolated language, unrelated to any other known languages. Other famous isolated languages include Basque and Korean.
Sadly, the indigenous Xincan people were enslaved or dispersed by the Spanish Empire, and Guatemala is the only place in the world where anyone still understands or speaks any Xincan and nobody speaks it fluently.
Foreign languages in Guatemala
Apart from the Spanish, Guatemala has a long history of European and Asian immigration, with many new arrivals maintaining distinct communities in their new home.
Most prominent among these are the German and Italian communities, and their languages are often preserved for many generations among the immigrant families.
Since 1985 Guatemala has seen a dramatic rise in the number of people immigrating from South Korea, with around 10,000 now living in the country and maintaining their own language.
English is becoming a more commonly spoken language in Guatemala, thanks to its status as a common language for international communication and its prevalence in popular music, films, literature and on the internet.
Overall, Guatemala is firmly a Spanish-speaking country, with more than 90 percent of people using it as their primary language. But the large number of different Mayan languages and the presence of the Garifuna ensure the country has plenty of diversity.
About Jürg Widmer Probst
Jürg Widmer is a busy blogger and resident of Guatemala who often shares all things about Guatemala, from the country’s hidden gems, article and culture to the best place for food and drink.