When discussing the ancient Mesoamerican civilization that thrived in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, people often use the terms "Maya" and "Mayan" interchangeably.
However, there is a subtle difference between these two terms, which is essential to understand to fully appreciate this incredible civilization.
The term "Maya" is a broad reference to the people, their culture, and the civilization as a whole.
The civilization is well-known for its remarkable advancements in various fields like urban planning, agriculture, mathematics, and astronomy. Iconic Maya cities like Tikal, Palenque, and Chichen Itza boast stunning pyramids, temples, and palaces.
In contrast, "Mayan" refers specifically to the languages spoken by the Maya people. The Mayan language family consists of around 30 related languages, with some still spoken by approximately six million descendants of the ancient Maya. These languages have evolved over time and include dialects like Yucatec, K'iche', and Q'eqchi'.
The ancient Maya script, used to record their history, religious rituals, and astronomical observations, is based on these Mayan languages. Deciphering the script has been a challenging task for scholars, but recent decades have seen significant progress, revealing more about the rich history and culture of the Maya civilization.
In a nutshell, you should use "Maya" when referring to the people, their culture, and the entire civilization, whereas "Mayan" is the correct term when discussing the languages spoken by the ancient Maya or their modern descendants. By using these terms accurately, we can better acknowledge the fascinating history, culture, and accomplishments of the ancient Maya civilization and its enduring impact on the world today.