Maya vs. Mayan – What Is The Most Accepted Term?

“Maya” or “Mayan”? “Maya” as noun and adjective describes the people and their culture, “Mayan” is the language – citation: Manolo Romero – Editor.

The adjective Mayan is sometimes incorrectly used to describe the indigenous peoples of southeastern Mexico and Central America, such as Belize, Honduras and Guatemala; their culture, language, and history. But formally, the use of “Mayan” refers to an aspect of their languages; “Maya” is the adjectival form preferred when referring to non-linguistic aspects, for example “The Maya of Belize”.

In traveling around my native Belize, and neighboring Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras, the word Mayan is not in use by the indigenous Maya. The Maya in these regions, including Belize, speak Maya of course, and if any second language is used, it is Spanish. And the word Mayan does not exist in the Mayan or Spanish languages. In Spanish, the Maya refer to themselves as “Nosotros los Maya”  (We the Maya), for example. Another form in Spanish is “Los Maya” (The Maya).  I have heard “Los Mayas” but this is usually used by non-Maya when referring to the Maya.

The Maya speak Mayan as their first language and often, Spanish second, with a few speaking English or Creole. The Maya are particularly proud of the fact that they were never enslaved by the English colonizers who took over their lands in Baliz – the Maya word for muddy waters that is believed to be the origin of the name for Belize. For these reasons as set out here, I use the term Maya, and not Mayan when referring to our Maya brothers and sisters.

The interest centering on the the 2012 date of the Maya Calendar and the discussions centering on whether it was meant to predict the end of the world or the dawn of a new era, we are frequently asked if the terminology is Maya or Mayan. What is the proper we should use when referring to to this ancient civilization and their modern-day descendants in the Yucatan and Central America? Read on to see the various arguments that have been made on the use of Maya vs. Mayan.

Origins Of The Words Maya And Mayan


An anthropomorphic effigy vessel found in the Maya Ruins of Belize. It features a modeled human face emerging from a crocodile’s mouth – probably used as an offering vessel.

What is the origin of the term “Maya,” and how did it come to be used to describe the ancient civilization, the modern people and their languages? Ultimately, the modern usage stems from the contact situation in the late sixteenth century. When a word was needed to describe the peoples of the newly conquered province of Yucatan, the Spanish chose “Maya”. This is so since a word like that was being used in reference to local places, individuals and language, as seen in these entries from the early colonial Motul dictionary (Martínez 1929:590):

máya: acento en la primera, nombre propio desta tierra, Yucatan (maya: accent on the first syllable, proper name of this land, Yucatan)

maya uinic: hombre de Yucatán, indio (maya winik: man of Yucatan, indian)

maya than: lengua assi de Yucatán (maya t’an: language like that of Yucatan)

More specifically, the term “Maya” also appears in “Mayapan,” the original name of the well-known archaeological site, which was recorded by the sixteenth century Spanish friar Diego de Landa (see Tozzer 1941), and likewise appears in the Motul dictionary (Martínez 1929:590):

Mayapán: una gran ciudad que uvo entre Mérida y Mani (Mayapan: a great city that they had between Merida and Mani)

The -pan (or -apan) ending of the word Mayapan probably comes from the Nahuatl language (see Martínez 1929:ibid), not from Mayan, and it is at least conceivable that the initial portion of the term is therefore Nahuatl too (Nahuatl being, of course, the language of the Aztecs and other groups from Highland Mexico). Such considerations add to the difficulty of analyzing the term “Maya” etymologically. Possibilities include Mayan may “tobacco,” “deer hoof” or “twenty” or even Nahuatl maya(tl) “beetle” or maya- “hunger,” though this far from exhausts the list of possibilities.

Christopher Columbus And The Origin Of The Word Maya

There is an historical incident concerning Christopher Columbus that highlights a geographical sense for the term “Maya”. According to the journal of Columbus’s son Bartolomeo (as reproduced in Brinton 1882:10, brought to our attention by Erik Boot, the great explorer encountered a large seaworthy canoe in the vicinity of the Bay Islands off British Honduras on his final voyage:

In questo loco pigliorono una Nave loro carica di mercantia et merce la quale dicevono veniva da una cierta provintia chiamata Maiam vel Iuncatam con molte veste di bambasio de le quale ne erono il forcio di sede di diversi colori. (In this place they [the Spanish] seized a ship of theirs [the natives] loaded with merchandise and wares which they say comes from a certain province called Maiam or Iuncatam with many garments of cotton-wool which some mistake for … silk of diverse colors).

As several scholars have pointed out, “Maiam” could well be a corruption for “Maya” or even “Mayapan,” but it is the words “vel Iuncatam” which lend force to that notion, since they are quite likely to mean “or Yucatan” (Brinton 1882:10; Lothrop 1927:354-355; Tozzer 1941:7, note 33). Interestingly, these were superscribed over the word “Maiam” in a different hand. The word “Yucatan,” itself a Spanish corruption of an obscure Mayan term or phrase, did not come into general use until about 1517, whereas this letter was written in 1505 or 1506 (Lothrop 1927:354-255). These considerations suggest that the “vel Iuncatam” gloss was added later, once the term “Yucatan” has begun to edge out “Maya” as the geographical reference par excellence for the northern Maya region.

It appears that a ship full of traders and wares was encountered somewhere off the coast of Honduras, and Bartolomeo Columbus recorded that the “merchants … came from a certain province called Maiam,” a place later equated with Yucatan proper. Conceivably these traders had coasted from up north and were indeed referring to the “proper name of the land of Yucatan,” as the Diccionario Motul would have it. Of course, it’s equally possible that Bartolomeo Columbus simply misheard them, and that a later editor compounded the error by adding the “vel Iuncatam” gloss. But it doesn’t really matter from the point of view of how the word “Maya” came to mean what it means today.

Conclusions On The Maya Versus Mayan Debate

The modern usage of the word “Maya” owes as much to linguistics as it does to geography for, as can be seen, “Yucatan” had already become the preferred term for this region by the early sixteenth century. But “Maya” lived on, and aside from its usage as a place name, the word was also applied (in the form Maya t’an mentioned above) to a language now known more generally as Yucatec, or Yucatec Maya, spoken across much of the Yucatan peninsula.

This was the area of initial Spanish settlement during the sixteenth century, and the first to become well-known to the western world. Scholars interested in this language began to employ the indigenous term “Maya” to refer to it, and once relatives of the language were discovered to the south, the term was broadened to encompass the whole family of languages.

When it became prudent to differentiate between Mayat’an proper (i.e., modern Yucatec Maya) and one of the languages  related to it, the term “Mayoid” was developed to refer to these other languages. Thankfully, this somewhat clumsy term was eventually replaced by the decidedly more elegant term “Mayan.” As Maya studies developed in complexity and number of practitioners, the term “Maya” was again broadened to refer to the speakers of these languages, and to the civilization of their ancestors, while “Mayan” continued to be reserved (more or less) as a reference to the languages themselves.

Thus we see that the word Maya has a very long history: from obscure geographical reference, to a language name (first for one specific language, and then for a group of related languages), and finally to the designation for a populous group of the Indigenous American Nation.

At we have standardized the use Maya for the people and their culture, and Mayan for the language.