Deciphering the Maya hieroglyphs


Lintel 8 of YaxchilánOne 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 thoughts.

After 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 Landa’s account.

After his study he concentrated on the alfabet which de 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.

During his 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 vowel.

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 Berlin. He 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.

The 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.  


The Maya-script

The 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 forever.

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.

There 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 (he 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 the maizegod.  


Explanation of the script

As 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.

Two ways of writing the word Balam (jaguar)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.

The 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