Maya (Mayan languages)

Living, diverse and mobile societies, both rooted in tradition and exposed to globalization, steeped in a history of interculturation with both Spanish conquerors and neighboring Mayan and non-Maya Mesoamerican societies, Mayan communities are rooted in different ecological environments, with contrasting histories and diverse relationships to pre-Columbian Mayan cultures and modernity.

Discovering the language

The Maya currently live in southern Mexico, in Guatemala-where they form the majority of the population-as well as in Belize.

Mayan languages

Of the more than 30 Mayan languages known at the time of the conquest, only 29 are still spoken by nearly 6 million speakers, some of whom are monolingual. The vitality of these languages is highly contrasted: while almost 800,000 people speak maya yucatecan on a daily basis, and almost 400,000 speak maya tseltal, the languages taught at Inalco, other languages such as Itza' and Tz'utujil are in extremely fragile situations. There are many situations in between.

The languages of the Mayan family, which have been traced back some 4500 years, have diverged and evolved in their own way over the centuries. There is no intercomprehension between most of them, but they share the majority of their lexical roots and many common grammatical and phonological features. As a result, learning one of these languages, combined as it is in the Inalco curriculum with a comparative perspective, thanks to a language from a different branch and grammar comparative courses, offers real, practical and analytical access to all the languages in the family. The languages taught belong to two major branches of the family (Yucatecan and Tseltalan) and are representative of the geographical, linguistic and cultural opposition between the Mayan highlands and lowlands. Languages are considered from the point of view of communicative practices, daily, more formal, or ritual, and their learning are thus also an opportunity for a rich introduction to the culture.

The diversity of languages and dialects that characterizes the Maya family is rare considering the size and continuity of the Maya territory, concentrated on 340,000 m2 of highlands and lowlands, in the north of Central America. However, the location of Mayan groups in this area has never been stable. For centuries, the Maya have undergone major internal and external migrations, most often the result of dramatic events, but also factors in new contacts and influences between languages. Recently, hundreds of thousands of Mayans of various origins have fled from Guatemala to Mexico, left Chiapas for the Yucatan peninsula, migrated from rural areas to major urban and tourist centers, from Cancún to the USA (where there are currently almost 250,000 speakers of Mayan languages). Teaching in dialectology, sociolinguistics, natural environment and society archaeology, and anthropology, firmly rooted in the analysis of concrete cases, offers students a panorama of the mosaic of situations, and keys to understanding these cultural and linguistic dynamics.

The Maya civilization

The Maya civilization is known not only for its monumental sites, but also for having developed, from around 400 BC until the 17th century (when the Spaniards finally subdued the entire territory), a graphic system that is considered to be the most successful writing in pre-Columbian America, both for its sophisticated mode of language transcription and for the size of its corpus on a wide variety of media (monuments, objects, codex...).

Spectacular progress has recently been made in the deciphering of Mayan writing, which is still in progress, highlighting the complex combination of logograms ("sign-words/concepts") and phonograms (with syllabic value) found in this script. Of the thousand or so signs listed, just over 200 logograms and around 150 phonograms have now been seriously deciphered: transliteration and reading of many known inscriptions is now possible. The deciphering of glyphic texts has thus become an essential element of research into the ancient states of Mayan languages, now recognized by speakers as an essential root of their identity, as well as into the ancient history of their people.

Studying Maya at Inalco

The curriculum at Inalco combines the teaching essential for understanding Mayan writing: for its link with language, to the decoding proper are added courses in epigraphy and linguistics and those in languages and comparative grammar ; for the contextualization of inscriptions, archaeology courses where pre-Hispanic cities and societies are studied; for the understanding of written genres, courses in tradition oral and written and those of ethnohistory, where the formal characteristics, contents and functions of the genres of Maya literature and orality through the centuries and various languages are analyzed.

Teaching is closely linked to Mayanist research carried out within the Groupe d'enseignement et de recherche sur les Mayas et la Mésoamérique, where teachers and researchers from various CNRS laboratories and universities (LESC, ArchAm, SeDyl, ...), and advanced students collaborate. GERM is based at the Maison de l'archéologie et de l'ethnologie (MAE) at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, where the Fonds Maya (Eric de Dampierre library) is also located, a rich documentary source open to all Inalco students of Maya.

Training courses

Since the 2017/2018 academic year, the institutional diplomas in Maya and Nahuatl have been replaced by a state-recognized and accredited Diploma in Mesoamerican Language and Civilization. The latter is organized around a two-year course of study, focused on the acquisition of knowledge and skills relating to Mayan languages and cultures.

This diploma thus offers a unique interdisciplinary training program at European level, enabling students to understand linguistic and cultural phenomena in their evolution, based on a variety of disciplines: teaching of two in-depth Mayan languages,linguistics, epigraphy and archaeology, for the pre-colonial period, ethnohistory, anthropology and for the modern and contemporary periods. The relationship between natural environment and society is also an object of study.