The term “Maya,” while describing the Maya people as a larger cultural unit, also refers to the Mayan language family. The Maya don’t actually speak Mayan. Rather, they speak Tsotsil, Mam, K’iche’ or any of the various languages in the Mayan language family. Linguists who specialize in the study of Mayan languages represent these languages in a branching structure that shows how they are related to one another. These languages are related in much the same way that English and German or Spanish and Italian are related. There will be cognates, or words that are recognizable to speakers of other languages in the language family, but on the whole these languages are mutually unintelligible.
This dendritic tree model of the Mayan language family demonstrates how the Mayan language evolved over time into more and more language groups. This model also shows that groups of languages are more closely related to each other than to other languages. For example, Tseltal and Tsotsil are closely related in terms of language, as are Kaqchikel and K’iche’. These language groups are more closely related in terms of cultural traits as well.
Another way to think about the Mayan language family is geographically, rather than relationally. These languages are distributed all over the Maya regions, and while some language groups, like Ch’ol, are quite small, others, like K’iche’, are very large. In many cases, cultural differences will be much more pronounced between groups rather than within groups.