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Hieroglyphs of the Maya

About the hieroglyphic inscriptions of the Maya


The people of Mesoamerica were unique in the Americas in that they developed a system of (hieroglyphic) writing before their conquest by Europeans. This is a major accomplishment. Only a small number of other ancient peoples invented writing:
  1. Mesopotamia (cuneiform),
  2. Egypt (hieroglyphs),
  3. Syro-Palestine (alphabet),
  4. the Indus valley, and
  5. China.

Hieroglyphic writing in Mesoamerica did not come from accounting, as was common elsewhere, but appears to be related to a preoccupation with calculations of the calendar.

Hieroglyphs and Logosyllabic Writing

Mesoamerican graphics are referred to as hieroglyphs because the writing is pictorial, like the Egyptians' hieroglyphs. Scribes drew pictures or geometric designs of people, gods, abstracts, or objects. They wrote using:

  • logograms (whole words to express meaning) and
  • syllabograms (syllables to denote sounds).

This particular type of compound writing is technically called logosyllabic. All their words could be expressed, in written form, logosyllabically, but among the Maya, only 2 or 3 (Ch'olan, for sure, Tzeltalan, likely, and Yucatec, possibly) of their many languages were written.

Historical Record of Maya Writing

The earliest writing of the Maya comes from the Late Pre-Classic period (300 B.C. - A.D. 300). Of documents written between then and the Spanish conquest, there are perhaps 10,000, mostly stone or ceramic, that have been found by archaeologists or are located in collections. Most of the monuments record historical events. The codices contain more esoteric information, including, astronomy, calendars, and prophecies.

Problems Translating Mayan Hieroglyphs

There were more than 1000 different signs used in the writing of the Maya, although at one time, there were probably no more than 500. Two hundred of the signs are syllables or phonetic. Of these, more than half are homophones. Problems in translating the language of the Maya persisted into the 1950s because would-be translators thought the language was entirely alphabetic/phonetic. When a logographic component was recognized, progress could finally be made towards deciphering the language, although one remaining obstacle had to be overcome: Scholars had yet to recognize that the ancient languages are related to the 30 modern Mayan languages.

Reading Mayan Hieroglyphs

The Mayan written language system looks remarkably square, with each symbol divided from the others by a grid. It is read starting at the top left, but doesn't proceed from left to right. Instead, the first square and the one to its right are read, then the two beneath them are read, first the one on the left and then its partner to its right, followed by the two beneath them. When the first pair of columns is finished, the reader proceeds to the next pair to the right, starting, again, at the top.

To visualize, imagine a series of columns: ABCDEF. You have 6 rows, numbered 1-6. You start at the upper left reading A1B1, then down to A2B2, then you continue until the end at A6B6. Then you read C1D1, followed by C2D2, then continue to C6B6. Then you start again at the top of the third pair of columns.

Writing and the Maya Syllable Structure

The syllable structure of the languages of the Maya is Consonant-Vowel-Consonant (CVC), so when a syllabary form of writing is used, the vowel sound at the end of the second consonant is ignored in reading. This means that the second syllable symbol could conceivably be any syllable with the right onset.

Hypothetically, you want to write "pad". You have a syllable for "pa" and syllables for "da" and "do". It doesn't matter whether you use "da" or "do", because your syllable ends with the "d". The word you write, either "pada" or "pado" will be read "pad". The terminal vowel will be ignored.

Combining the flexibility of the second syllable symbol with both homophones and the ability to use logographic writing means Mayan words could be written in a variety of ways.

Source: Ancient Scripts: Maya

Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs, by Harri Kettunen and Christophe Helmke. 2008.

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