The term “Mayan,” while describing the Mayan people as a larger cultural unit, also refers to the Mayan language family. Mayan people don’t actually speak Mayan. Rather, they speak Tzotzil, Mam, Quiche 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, Tzeltal and Tzotzil are closely related in terms of language, as are Kakchiquel and Quiche. 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 Mayan homeland, and while some language groups, like Chol, are quite small, others, like Quiche, are very large. In many cases, cultural differences will be much more pronounced between groups rather than within groups.
This map shows the location of the Yucatec, Chol, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Tojolabal languages in Mexico; the Mopan language of Belize and Guatemala; and the Itza, Chuj, Kekchi, Pocomchi, Pocomam, Ixil, Quiche, Mam, Tzutuhil and Kakchiquel language of Guatemala.