Publication Date

Summer 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Linguistics and Language Development


Hahn Koo


Dialects, Mam, Mutual Intelligibility, Phonetic Distance

Subject Areas



Mam, an indigenous Mayan language spoken primarily in Guatemala, has considerable internal diversity among its regional dialects. The purpose of this thesis is to estimate their varying degrees of intelligibility and to present groups of dialects whose speakers can be reasonably expected to understand one another. The analysis consists of two parts, the computation of a phonetic distance network and a series of sociocultural interviews. Phonetic distance was measured by Levenshtein distance between cognates in word lists and analyzed with a Neighbor-Net network. Interviews with Mam speakers focused on subjective judgments of intelligibility, contact, and social attitudes. Four main dialect groups were found: Western, Southern, Todos Santos, and Seleguá. Intelligibility is projected to be high within groups and reduced across groups. With the recent wave of immigration from Guatemala to the United States, many monolingual speakers of Mam are interacting with US court, school, and hospital systems by way of an interpreter, but interpreters and clients from different regions do not always understand one another well. Dialect groupings based on intelligibility can inform the interpreter matching process, especially in high-stakes and time-sensitive environments such as the court system.