Identification. The Tz'utujil are a Mayan population inhabiting Guatemala's central highland region. The various Tz'utujil communities tend to be separated by high volcanoes, precipitous cliffs, and expansive lake surfaces. In part reflecting geographical obstacles to easy interaction, the primary linkage between the communities is linguistic rather than social. Tz'utujil refer to themselves as "Vinuk" (lit., twenty; named being), which can be glossed to mean "the people."
Location. The Tz'utujil communities are clustered along the south and west shores of Lake Atitlán, as well as just to the south of the Lake Atitlán basin in the town of Chicacao. In addition, Tz'utujil speakers constitute minority populations in several nearby non-Mayan coastal communities. Certainly the defining feature of the Tz'utujil territory is Lake Atitlán, which lies at an average elevation of 1,545 meters above sea level. The communities along the shore of the lake occupy a border zone between tropical and mesothermal environments. Rains are monsoonal, with the wet season running from May to November. In its natural state, the vegetation is primarily chaparral and oak-pine forest, although much of the arable land has been diverted to the cultivation of maize and coffee.
Demography. In 1994, following nearly a century of explosive population growth, there were approximately 70,000 Tz'utujil. In contrast, a post-Conquest demographic collapse triggered by the introduction of Old World diseases brought about a decline in population that did not bottom out until around 1780, when the number of Tz'utujil was about 10 percent of its pre-Conquest number. Although the Tz'utujil population would not regain its pre-Conquest level until the mid-1960s, since that time it has more than doubled.
Linguistic Affiliation. The name "Tz'utujil" means "flower of the maize plant." Tz'utujil is a language of the Greater Quichean Branch of the Eastern Division of Mayan languages and is most closely related to Kaqchikel, K'iche', Sakapulteko, and Sipakapense. Even among the various Tz'utujil communities, there is lexical, phonological, morphological, and syntactic variation in the use of the language. Exemplifying that variation, the people of Santiago Atitlán claim that only they speak the true form of the language, what they invariably refer to as "Ktz'oj'bal," the language. In contrast, they claim that the people of San Pedro la Laguna speak Pedrano, those of San Juan speak Juanero, and so on. In addition to the indigenous language, more than half of the Tz'utujil are at least conversant in Spanish.