What Is Mayan writing

The Maya writing , also commonly called hieroglyphics Mayan , was the writing system of the Maya civilization of Mesoamerica pre-Columbian and presently the only Mesoamerican writing system already deciphered. The oldest inscriptions identified as Maya date from the 3rd century BC [1] and this writing system was continuously used until shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquerors during the 16th century (and even later in isolated areas like Tayasal ). Mayan script uses logogramscomplemented by a set of syllabic glyphs , with a similar function to current Japanese writing . Mayan writing was called hieroglyphic by European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries who, despite not understanding it, saw in their appearance reminiscences of Egyptian hieroglyphics , with which Mayan writing has no relation.


  • 1Languages
  • 2Structure
  • 3Emblem glyphs
  • 4History
  • 5Decryption
  • 6Notes
  • 7Bibliography

Languages edit edit source code ]

Currently, codices and other classical texts are thought to have been written in a literary form of the cholti language . It is possible that the Mayan elite spoke this language as a lingua franca of the entire Mayan speaking area, but it is also possible that the texts were written in other Mayan languages in the Petén basin and the Yucatan peninsula , especially in Yucatan . There is also some evidence that this writing system was used to write Mayan languages ​​in the Guatemalan highlands . [ 1 ] However, if other languages ​​have been written, they may have beencholtis scribes and therefore contain choltis elements.

Structure edit edit source code ]

Inscription in Mayan script on the Naranjo site , concerning the reign of King Itzamnaaj K’awil , 784 – 810 .

Mayan writing consisted of a set of highly elaborated glyphs that were laboriously painted on ceramics, walls or paper codices, engraved on wood or stone, or even molded in stucco . Molded and engraved glyphs were painted, but in most cases the painting has not reached our day.

About three quarters or more of the Mayan writings can now be read with varying degrees of certainty, enough to have a comprehensive idea of ​​its structure.

Mayan writing was a logosyllabic system . Individual symbols ( glyphs ) could represent either a word (more exactly a morpheme ) or a syllable ; in fact, the same glyph could often be used in both ways. For example, the calendar glyph MANIK ‘ was also used to represent the syllable chi . (It is customary to write logographic readings in capital letters and phonetic readings in italics). It is possible, but not proven, that these conflicting readings have arisen as writing has been adapted to new languages, such as what happened with kanjiJapanese. Ambiguity also existed in reverse. For example, half a dozen apparently unrelated glyphs were used to write the very common third-person pronoun u- .

In Maya it was generally written in blocks grouped in columns with two blocks wide, read as follows:

Mayan inscriptions were most often written in columns two glyphs wide, with each column being read from left to right and, from top to bottom.

Within each block the glyphs were arranged from top to bottom and from left to right, a little like what happens with the syllabic blocks of the Korean hangul . However, in the Mayan case, each block tended to correspond to a substantive or verbal phrase like its green ribbon . In addition, glyphs were sometimes fused into ligatures, with an element of a glyph replacing part of a second. Ligatures occur in different scripts: for example in medieval Castilian the word of era was sometimes written Ð. Another example is & , ligature derived from the Latin term et (the conjunction and). Instead of the standard block configuration, the Maya was sometimes written in a single row or column, and in ‘L’ or ‘T’ shapes. These variations appear most frequently when they are the ones that best fit the surface on which they were inscribed.

Mayan glyphs were primarily logographic. In general, the glyphs used as phonetic elements were originally logograms that represented words that were in themselves individual syllables, ending in a vowel or a weak consonant such as y, w, h or even a glottal stop . For example, the logotype for fish fin (in Mayan, [kah] – found in two forms, as ‘fish fin’ and as ‘fish with prominent fins’), came to represent the syllable ka . These syllabic glyphs had two primary functions: they were used as phonetic complements to disambiguate logograms that had more than one possible reading, as also happened in the Egyptian glyphs, and were used to write grammatical elements such as verbal inflections that did not have their own logograms, as in modern Japanese. For example, b’alam ‘jaguar’ could be written as a simple BALAM logogram , phonetically complemented as ba- BALAM , or BALAM -ma, or ba- BALAM – ma, or phonetically written as ba-la-ma .

Phonetic glyphs represented simple consonant-vowel or simple vowel syllables. However, Mayan phonotactics are a little more complicated than this: most Mayan words end with a consonant, not a vowel, and there can also be sequences of two consonants within a word, as in xolte [? Olte?] ‘scepter’, which is of the CVCCVC type. When these final consonants were sonorous (l, m, n) or glottal (h, ‘) , they were sometimes ignored, but more often the final consonants were written, which meant that an additional vowel was also written. Typically, it was an echo vowelthat repeated the vowel of the previous syllable. That is, the word kah ‘fish fin’ would be written in its extensive ka-ha form . However, there are many cases where any other vowel was used, and the spelling rules for these situations are only partially understood. This is the current understanding:

  • A CVC syllable was written CV-CV, where the two vowels (V) were the same: yo-po [yop] ‘leaf’.
  • A syllable with a long vowel (CVVC) was written CV-Ci, unless the long vowel was [i], in which case it was written CiCa: ba-ki [baak] ‘captive’, yi-tzi-na [ yihtziin] ‘little brother’.
  • A syllable with a vowel glotalizada (CV’C or CV’VC) was written with theend of the vowel were e, o, u , or a u end to be vowel [a] or [I]: hu in [hu’n] ‘papel’, [ba’tz ‘]’ howling monkey ‘.

Emblem glyphs edit edit source code ]

An ’emblem glyph’ is a type of real title. It consists of a word, ajaw – a classic Mayan term meaning lord, whose etymology is still unknown but well attested in colonial sources [ 2 ] – and a place name that precedes the word ajaw and which works as an adjective. Sometimes the title is preceded by the adjective k’uhul , ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’. Of course, an emblem glyph is not at all a “glyph”: it can be written with any number of logographic or syllabic signs and several spellings for the words k’uhul and ajaw are known, which form the stable core of the title. The term “glyph-emblem” simply reflects the times when the Mayanists could not read the inscriptions in classic Mayan, having to invent designations to isolate certain recurrent structural components in the written narratives.

Glyph-emblem of Tikal or “Mutal”, stele in the museum of in Tikal.

This title was identified in 1958 by Heinrich Berlin , [ 3 ] who coined the term glyph-emblem. Berlin noticed that the emblem glyphs consisted of a major “main sign” and two minor signs currently read K’uhul Ahaw . Berlin further proposed that the main signs identified individual cities, their reigning dynasties, or the territories controlled by them. Subsequently, Marcus [ 4 ]proposed that the emblem glyphs referred to archaeological sites, divided hierarchically into five classes of asymmetric distribution. Marcus’s investigation assumed that the emblem glyphs were distributed according to a pattern of relative importance for each location, depending on the breadth of the distribution, approximately as follows:

Primary regional centers (capitals) – like Tikal , Calakmul , and other “superpowers”, were generally the first in their region to acquire a unique emblem glyph. Texts that refer to other primary regional centers occur in the texts of these “capitals”, and there are dependencies that use the glyph of the primary center.

Secondary regional centers – such as Altun Ha , Luubantuun, Xunantunich , and other medium-sized cities, had their own glyphs but are only rarely mentioned in texts found in the primary regional center, while they refer to it repeatedly in their own texts.

Tertiary centers – (villages) – did not have their own glyphs, but they do have texts that mention the primary regional centers and perhaps, sporadically, the secondary regional centers.

The tertiary centers were followed by villages, without emblem glyphs and without texts referring to the larger centers, and even villages with very little evidence of texts. [ 5 ] This model remained unchanged for more than a decade until Matthews and Justeson, [ 6 ] as well as Houston [ 7 ] again proposed that the ’emblem glyphs’ were the titles of the Mayan rulers with some geographical association.

The debate on the nature of the emblem glyphs received new impetus with the monograph by Stuart and Houston. [ 8 ] The authors convincingly demonstrated that there were many toponyms, some real, some mythological, mentioned in the hieroglyphic inscriptions. Some of these toponyms also appeared in the emblem glyphs, some were attested by “titles of origin” (various expressions of the type “a person from Lisbon”), but some were not at all incorporated into personal titles. Furthermore, the authors also underlined the cases where the “titles of origin” and the emblem glyphs did not match, based on an earlier work by Houston. [ 9 ]Houston noticed that the establishment and expansion of the dynasty initiated at Tikal in the Petexbatún region were accompanied by the proliferation of rulers who used the Tikal glyph emblem, placing their political and dynastic ancestry above their seats of government. [ 10 ]

History edit edit source code ]

Mayan glyphs in stucco at the Palenque museum , Mexico .

Until recently it was thought that the Maya had adopted the Olmec or Epiolmec writing system . However, recent discoveries have brought the origin of Mayan writing back several centuries, and it now seems possible that the Maya invented writing in Mesoamerica . [ 11 ]

Knowledge about the Mayan writing system continued to exist at the beginning of the colonial period and supposedly some Spanish priests who left for the Yucatan would have learned it. However, as part of his campaign to eradicate pagan rituals, Bishop Diego de Landa ordered the collection and destruction of works written in Mayan, and an appreciable number of Mayan codices were destroyed. Later, in an attempt to use his native language to convert the Mayans to Christianity , he built what he believed to be a Mayan “alphabet” (the so-called Landa alphabet). Although the Maya did not actually write alphabetically, Landa nonetheless recorded a glossary of Mayan sounds and related symbols, long considered nonsense but which would eventually become a key resource in deciphering Mayan writing, although it was not yet possible to decipher it. it in its entirety. The difficulty was that there is no simple correspondence between the two systems, and the names of the letters of the Spanish alphabet said nothing to Landa’s Mayan scribe.

Landa was also involved in the creation of a Latin spelling for Yucatec , that is, he created a system for writing Yucatec in the Latin alphabet .

Only four Mayan codices are known to have escaped the conquerors. Most of the surviving texts are found in ceramics found in Mayan tombs, or in monuments and stelae erected in places that were abandoned or buried before the arrival of the Spanish.

Knowledge about the Mayan writing system was probably lost in the late 16th century . A renewed interest arose as a result of reports published in the 19th century about the Mayan ruins .

Deciphering edit edit source code ]

National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico

Deciphering the Mayan script was a laborious and long process. Researchers in the 19th and early 20th centuries were able to decode the Maya numerals and portions of texts related to astronomy and the Mayan calendar , but the rest of the understanding eluded scholars. One of the main contributors to the deciphering of Maya writing was undoubtedly Yuri Knorozov . [ 12 ] In 1952 Knorozov published an article entitled Ancient Writing of Central America arguing that the so-called “Landa alphabet” contained in his manuscript Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán was actually composed of syllabic symbolsand not alphabetic symbols . In 1963 he further improved his deciphering technique in his monograph “The Writing of the Maya Indians” [ 13 ] and in 1975 he published translations of Mayan manuscripts in the work “Maya Hieroglyphic Manuscripts” . In the 1960s advances in deciphering revealed the dynastic records of Mayan rulers. Beginning in the early 1980s, it was demonstrated that most previously unknown symbols form a syllabary , and since then progress in reading Maya writing has progressed rapidly.

The Maya seem to have inherited some elements, if not the complete base, of their old Olmec writing system , [ 14 ] with significant modifications and expansion carried out by the Maya of the pre-classical period . Pre-classical texts are less numerous and less well understood by archaeologists than later texts of classical and post-classical texts. (However, it is now known that isthmic writing (or epiolmec)previously pointed out as a possible direct ancestor of Mayan writing is some centuries more recent than this, and may instead be its descendant.) Other Mesoamerican cultures close and related from that period also inherited the Olmec writing system and developed parallel systems that shared key attributes ( such as the vigesimal system written with a system of bars and points). However, it is believed that the Maya developed the only complete writing system in Mesoamerica , which means that it was the only civilization in this area capable of writing everything it said.


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