Details collected by UNICEF
Data on Kaqchikel
Alternative names: Cakchiquel
Where it is spoken: Guatemala. Most Kaqchikel speakers live in the volcanic region of the department of Chimaltenango, near Lake Atitlán, as well as in the neighbouring departments of Sacatepéquez, Sololá, Suchitepéquez and in the capital, Guatemala City.
There are also some Kaqchikel speakers in Mexico, who migrated there in the 1980s to flee the “violencia” of the Guatemalan Civil War, which affected Mayan populations in particular.
Classification: The Mayan language family, K’iche’ branch.
Among the 30 Mayan languages which are still spoken, Kaqchikel is close to K’iche’ and to Tz’utujil.
Main dialects: There are a great number of Kaqchikel dialects, but there is no agreement on exactly how many. Ethnologue.com counts a dozen. Central and Eastern variants are those which have the largest number of speakers.
Number of speakers: Generally estimates of Kaqchikel speakers in Guatemala are around 500,000. The Guatemalan census of 2002 gives the figure of 444,954 speakers.
According to the 2000 Mexican census, the number of speakers there is no higher than thirty people.
Status of the language: According to the Linguamón website:
“The language is legally recognised in Guatemala. According to the Constitution, Spanish is considered the official language of the country, while “vernacular languages” are part of the nation’s heritage. During the last few years, many initiatives have been implemented (like the Ley de Idiomas Nacionales or “Law on National Languages” of 2003) which aims to defend and promote the use of the languages of the Mayan, Garifuna and Xinca peoples.”
Kaqchikel is a standardised language, protected and promoted by the Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages, an autonomous state organisation created in 1990.
Vitality and transmission: Kaqchikel is one of Guatemala’s most spoken Mayan languages (along with K’iche’, Mam and Q’eqchi’). However, this relatively large number of speakers is deceptive – in fact, the situation is not great. Kaqchikel speakers are almost all bilingual (Kaqchikel/Spanish) and use of the ancestral language is becoming rarer, particularly among young people, who favour Spanish. People fear that younger generations will no longer transmit Kaqchikel to their children, which could see the number of speakers decrease very rapidly, and with it, entire branches of the culture and knowledge of Mayan people could disappear forever.
Kaqchikel is featured on the series on endangered languages put together by Sorosoro. Shooting took place in 2009, in collaboration with the linguist Nikte Sis Iboy.
See videos in Kaqchikel on Sorosoro’s website
History and ethnography of the language
We don’t know much from pre-colonial times about the Kaqchikel people. When the region was conquered, the town of Iximche, whose ruins are very popular among tourists today, was the major political centre of the Kaqchikel.
The region where the Kaqchikel people live is volcanic and poor, and is where cultivation of maize has long played an important role in the local economy.
For a few years now, economic pressures have threatened this way of life, forcing the population to look for other ways to survive (arts and crafts linked the development of tourism), but in particular this has encouraged migration towards urban centres to look for work. This economic migration often results in people abandoning the Kaqchikel culture, knowledge and language.
Verdugo, Lucía. 2010. « Guatemala ». In Atlas sociolingüístico de pueblos indígenas en América Latina, UNICEF. Tome 2, Pp 852- 888
Page dedicated to Kaqchikel on Linguamón
Cojtí Macario, Narciso et al. 2001. Diccionario Kaqchikel. Cholsamaj Fundacion, Guatemala.
Garzon, Susan. 1998. The life of our language: Kaqchikel Maya maintenance, shift, and revitalization. Univesity of Texas Press.
Grinevald, C. 2007 «Endangered Languages of Mexico and Central America», in Brenzinger, M. (éd.), Language Diversity Endangered, Trends in Linguistics, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin-New York.
McKenna Brown, R. et al. 2006. La ütz awäch?: introduction to Kaqchikel Maya language. University of Texas Press
Please see the Atlas sociolingüístico de pueblos indígenas en América Latina for a more complete bibliography.
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