Deciphering the Maya hieroglyphs
of the most prominent Mayanists ever, Sir J. Eric. S. Thompson
(1998-1975), decided the image about the Maya for years. He was
convinced that the hieroglyphs where some kind of a rebus, just
like the hieroglyphic signs of the Aztecs. Nobody dared to doubt
him. There were some scholars in the past who believed in the
phonetic background of the script, like Cyrus Thomas at the end of
the nineteenth century and Benjamin Whorf around 1930, but none
was able to come with enough convincing evidence to sustain their
the battle of Berlin in 1945, the young Yuri Valentinovich
Knorosov (1922-1999) passed the national library that was partly
going up in flames. Because of the war, Yuri had to quit his study
in literature and was now looking for some interesting books that
he could take home. Between the flames he found a book from 1933
in which the Dresden, Madrid and Paris codex were published. This
became his trophy from the war. Back in the Sovjet Union he
continued his study. He graduated on a translation of Diego de
After his study he concentrated on the alfabet
Landa wrote in his account. Knorosov believed that the alfabet was
an important clue for the decipherment of the Maya script, but
because of a miscommunication between de Landa and his literary
Maya friend it would have contained a lot of errors.
De Landa was friends with Gaspar Antinio
Chi, a Maya of
noble birth. He tried to learn the Maya script from him so he
could translate the Bible in their hieroglyphic script. De Landa
named a letter from the albabet and asked his friend to write it
down in hieroglyphs. Chi did his best to write the right
hieroglyph but it was impossible to do this in a correct way.
study, Knorosov became convinced that the
alfabet de Landa wrote down was part of a syllabic script (words which are made from several
syllables). When the syllables are put
together they could be spelled phonetically. Knorosov knew that a
lot of words in the mordern Maya languages were made up of
consonant-vowel-consonant and that only few words ended with a
Knorosov considered that the first syllable of a word was
made from a consonant and a vowel and that the last syllable was
also made up from a consonant and a vowel, but that the last vowel
would not be pronounced because most words ended with a consonant.
He called this the synharmony principle.
To test his idea he used the codices he found in
assumed that the hieroglyphs were written in Yukatek Maya. Some
ancient dictionary’s from just after the Spanish conquest could
be of good assistence.
Next tot the hieroglyphs in the codices there were some
illustrations that accompanied it. The first illustration that
draw the attention of Knorosov was that of a turkey in the Madrid
codex. He searched for the Maya word for turkey in the old
dictionary and saw that it was written as ‘cutz’. In the
alfabet of de Landa he saw a sign that stands for ‘cu’. When
Knorosov looked at the Madrid codex again he saw that the first
half of a hieroglyph next to the illustration started with this
sign. He thought that this was the hieroglyph for the word cutz
and that the second half of the hieroglyph should than mean ‘tzu’.
His findings were published in 1952 and this is now seen as the beginning of the translations. After Knorosov many others contributed to the decipherment of the Maya script, like Tatiana Proskouriakoff which translated hieroglyphs by looking to clues the illustrations next to them gave.
next step in the translation process was to combine the work of
Knorosov and Proskouriakoff. One of the most important meetings
where the theories of both scholars were integrated for the
decipherment of the hieroglyphs took place in 1973 during the
first ‘Mesa Redonda’ in Palenque. The most important
participants were Floyd Lounsbury, Peter Mathews and Linda Schele.
In less then a week they translated many inscriptions and
wrote down the history of Palenque’s last twohundred years. They
could give the name ‘Shield’ to the most important ruler of
the city. Later he would seem to be the king that was burried in
the grave of the Temple of Inscriptions that Alberto Ruz Lhullier
discovered in 1949.
The next year it was the same group plus David Kelley in a
meeting in Dumbarton Oaks who translated the history of the first
twohundred years of Palenque. David Kelly also saw the possibility
to give king ‘Shield’ a phonetic name and called him King
Pakal. In the beginning of the decipherments they only knew little
hieroglyphs but still they succeeded to decipher almost the
complete history of Palenque in a short time. These
meetings are considered today as the beginning of modern
decipherments. In the future other great Mayanists , like David
Stuart, would continue on this knowledge to decipher new
hieroglyphs. Finally there could be started with recovering the
correct history of the Ancient Maya.
development of the script is one of the most intellectual
achievments of the ancient Maya’s, but it’s origin is unknown.
Evidence that the Olmecs had any writings is limited to three
hieroglyph-like signs. Although it isn’t possible to say this is
an actual writing system.
Evidence of an developed writing system dates from 400 BC
and is from Zapotec origin. In Monte Albán you can find the most
famous examples on some monuments known as the danzantes (the
dancers). These are portrays of prisoners accompanied by some
hieroglyphs that presumable contains their names. With some other
monuments there are dates from the Calendar Round, including the
bars and dots. The text is read from up to down and each column
should be fully read before you can go to the next column. It
doesn’t seem that the Maya script originated directly out of
this writing system, the true origin may probably be a mystery
Although we don’t know it’s
origin, we do know that the
Maya’s of the highlands used the writing system in the late
preclassic period. After the third century AD the highlands became
isolated and from that moment there were build no more
monuments with inscriptions. But by that time the script has
spread it’s way to the lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula.
The language that was used for the script is called
Great-Ch’ol, although Yukatek Maya also had a great influance on
the script. Nowadays there are 31 different Maya dialects of which
some look like complete different languages. These different
dialects only developped in the resent past. During the classic
period there were considerable less dialects. Although the script
was used by Maya’s with different dialects, Ch’ol was being
used as a writers language. It was the language of the elite to
communicate with each other despite of the different dialect.
There are about 800 signs
which the Maya used in their
script. Most of it (about 85%) can be read, while the meaning of
al lot of other signs can be suspected. The syllables are always made
out of consonant-vowel. Because Ch’ol contains 5 vowels and 22
consonants there should be 110 different syllables. But the
problem is that one syllable can be depicted by several signs,
moreover there are many logograms that depict a complete word.
These variations in the script were probably originated to express
the artists creativity.
There were a lot of objects on which the Maya artist could write. The object that are best preserved are the inscriptions on the stelas and lintels and only four of the many codices that once existed had survived the conquest by the Spaniards.
were different ranks among the writers. The one who kept the most
important books was called Ah k’u hun which means ‘he of
the holy books’. A normal writer was called ah ts’ib
of the writing). A writer was a very respected person and was
usually some one of an elite or royal family. There must have been
schools where writers were educated in the complicated script.
Bisides for men, these schools must also have been accessible for
woman, because some known texts refer to female writers.
The writers had their own patron
gods. This could defer per
region but the most common and important gods were Itzamná,
Pauahtún, Hunahpú, the Monkey Gods (Hunbatz and Hunchouén) and
became clear earlier, the Maya script was made up
from signs which represented complete words (so called logograms)
and from syllables that consisted out of consonants-vowel pairs.
There were also signs for loose vowels. By placing the syllables
on the right place in a hierogliphic block, the Maya could write
al the words they wanted. The signs in such a hieroglyphic block
are appointed by size. The lagest sign is known as the principal
glyph, the smaller signs around the principal glyph are affixes.
The affixes left and on top of the principal glyph are known as
prefixes, the affixes on the right and under the principal glyph
are called suffixes. It’s not necessary that a principal glyph
is accompanied by all different affixes.
In most cases words were wrote down according the
synharmony principle of Knorosov. This means that the vowel of the
second syllable was the same as the vowel of the first syllable.
For example, the word balam exists out of three syllables: BA, LA
and MA. You can see that the second vowel (an A) is the same as
the vowel in the first syllable. When these syllables are placed
in an hierogliphic block they are read from left to right and from
up to down. The last A of the syllable MA is not pronounced.
synharmony principle is easy to apply in the above examples. But
one of the most important reasons why scholars doubted
Knorosov’s theory is because this principle could not always be
used. At the end of the twentieth century, David Stuart, Steve
Houston and John Robertson discovered that the Maya knew a
difference between short vowels and long vowels. The synharmony
principle is relevant with short vowels (like in tzu-l(u) or dog),
but for long vowels they introduced their disharmony principle (like
in ba-c(i) or bone).
Syllables could also be joined together (infixes) and thus form a syllable combination which can be read like one word. Beside using syllables like this, they could also be used like phonetic supplement. Some signs were polyvalent, this means that a certain sign can have several phonetic meanings or represent a complete logogram. By adding a phonetic complement it could be made clear which word was meant.
See also the Mayaweb Specials:
Write your name in Maya Hieroglyphs!
A Brief Note on The Maya Writing System