Figure 3. Distribution of current Mayan languages by name within Guatemala and neighboring regions in Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras.

The term K'eqchi' today

There is and has been speculation towards the usage and spelling of the word - k'eqchi' - to refer to the language, people, land, etc.

The term has been written in various ways which greatly differ in spelling and meaning from the original writing. Scholars today use either Q'eqchi' or K'ekchi' in their current papers, research, studies, etc. regardless whether it is the correct spelling or not.

To my judgement, criteria and observations and to what concerns the term's pronunciation, the correct writing of the language's name is K'eqchi'.  As outlined on the right, the composite word requires that the adjective k'eq (black color) be written with "k" as has been iniatilly written and because it adapts better to pronunciation in the alphabet in current use.

K'eqchi' language status

All current Mayan languages can be traced back to a main language which has been called proto-Mayan. Each one of them has only been preserved and maintained orally through hundreds of years and generations. Regarding the K'eqchi' language, despite the imposition of the Spanish language by the Spaniards, it has experienced minor changes through time. However, the lack of a written language (as well as subsequent socio-political changes in the general population) has led to several regional variations in pronunciation coupled by no teaching in schools to allow for better development and standarization of the language.  As with the majority of the other Mayan languages, K'eqchi' has had little support from the country's government; only very significant contributions from outsiders can be accounted who have become interested in the language and speakers.

Studies from the past and today by scholars show that the language lacks a great deal of interpretation, characterization and translation for its proper representation with the International Phonetic Alphabet.  Only very recently have K'eqchi' speakers become interested in the written form of their own language.  The result of this interest and concern is some contributions by K'eqchi' speakers/linguistis at the Mayan Languages Academy (see Resources page). However, not all has been accomplished and there are goals to be meet regarding the grammar, structurization and characterization of the K'eqchi' language.

Written by George Max, Early April 2010.


K'eqchi' is a Mayan language spoken by the native inhabitants of central and northern Guatemala and southern Belize (See Figure 3 on the left). The indigenous people who inherited this language a long time ago are called The K'eqchi'.  The language constitutes a main part of the people�s culture, beliefs, tradition and so called cosmovision. Wikipedia Info

Theory of the origin of the language's name
The author suggests that the usage of the word K'eqchi' originated sometime in Petén, a region in northern Guatemala where their Mayan ancestors once lived (e.g. Tikal, Wikipedia Info).  The term is composed of two words and it is auto-suggestive of its own origin: k'eq = black, and chi' = a small piece, adjective and noun respectively (compared to saying black berry or blue berry in English). Today the word chi' is not commonly or widely used as a noun to refer to small items; instead it is used to name a yellow fruit (with a hard rounded seed, see Figure 1 below) the size of a berry and which in Spanish is named "nance" or "nanche".

Figure 1. Nance or nanche fruit named in Spanish.  Chi (chi') in K'eqchi language.

The author's inference is that the word K'eqchi' was originally used to describe a small black fruit (k'eq chi') that grows from a tall tree (15 m high, 50 cm in diameter) and which in Spanish is called "aguacatillo".  These trees [Persea caerulea (Ruiz & Pav.) Mez] were known by the ancient Mayas who may have grown them and consumed their fruits.  Thus, an inference can be made of the origin of the term K'eqchi' and its subsequent use by the Mayan descendant inhabitants who lived and still live in that region and acquired that name at their location.

Figure 2.  Persea borbonia foliage and fruit (source Wikipedia)

The above theory is only a supposition and inference of the origin of the word K'eqchi' without much scientific, geographic or archeological support other than the author�s knowledge as a native K'eqchi' speaker, translator and linguist.

The same inference can be applied to the word Ki'che' - another major Mayan language spoken by the Ki'che' indigenous people towards the southwest of Alta Verapaz. In K'eqchi' language, Ki'che' (c'iche') means a mountain, jungle, forest, or any large area covered by trees and vegetation. However, the term Ki'che' is composed of two words as well, ki' - sweet and che' - tree. Thus, the word describes a tree which is sweet in nature. It is worth to note that in K'ekchi' language the word che' (noun) refers to all kinds of wood, from small sticks to trees. The author is not certain of what specific tree the ancient Maya Ki'che' inhabitants may have referred to but it may have been relevant to their every day life. Today, for example, a tree called "Palo Dulce" in Spanish is described as having healing properties.

In conclusion, at least to what concerns these two languages, K'eqchi and Kiche', their names were acquIred from elements related to nature at their locations.  I suspect that other Mayan languages, Kaqchikel for example, have also acquired their names to the surroundings and environment; in this case to volcanoes, eruptions, lava, etc.

Written and researched by George Max, Middle September, 2009.  Last date modified: June 19, 2011.