Most modern Mayan languages were first written in the Roman alphabet by Christian missionaries tasked with evangelizing the natives. With many different ‘tribes’ and languages in play, over the years different groups of missionaries developed a number of different writing systems with no attempt to unify all Mayan languages under a single writing system. This persisted for centuries until the formal approval of a unified Mayan alphabet in Guatemala in 1987, as described in the following passage:
Con relación a los Idiomas Mayas, no fue hasta en 1,984 en el Segundo Congreso Lingüístico realizado en Xelajuuj No’j (Cd. Quetzaltenango) que se decidió unificar la escritura en Idioma Maya. La necesidad surgió por la existencia de varias formas de escritura, mismo que causaba confusión entre la población (Ramirez & Mazariegos, 1993:71). El alfabeto unificado fue aprobado en 1,987 e incluye todos los fonemas y símbolos comunes a los Idiomas Mayas para una escritura más completa y efectiva.Source: Tensión entre idiomas: Situación Actual de los Idiomas Mayas y el Español en Guatemala. Ajb’ee, Odilio Jiménez. Latin American Studies Association. Guadalajara, México abril 17-19 de 1,997.
When I first studied Q’eqchi’ Mayan in the late 1980’s almost all of the available written materials were produced in the alphabet developed by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL International), an organization with evangelistic aims that has produced a wide variety of excellent linguistic resources. Some of their publications are still in print and there are a number of Q’eqchi’ speakers and evangelizing groups who still prefer this system (e.g., Mennonites and a few other protestant sects. In contrast, Mormons, Jehova’s Witnesses and Catholics have all switched over to the standard Mayan alphabet now).
I didn’t return to the study of Q’eqchi’ in serious for about 20 years. Imagine my surprise when I learned that almost all Q’eqchi’ materials are now written and produced in a new alphabet. Not only were all of my old materials ‘obsolete’, I also needed to learn a new writing system in which many of the letters now corresponded to different sounds than what I was used to. The phonetics of some letter pairs were reversed. Some letters disappeared altogether and other letters were assigned their former roles. The system of diacritical marks and written representation of long vowels was overhauled. Literate native speakers of Q’eqchi’ have told me that they had no problem in making the switch, it was literally something that they accomplished overnight. But as a non-native speaker, and one who was accustomed to ‘seeing’ the written words in my head, it took me a couple of years to get really comfortable with the new system.
Not all of the ‘standard’ letters are used in all of the Mayan languages, so in effect each language has its own official alphabet. The utility comes in the fact that each letter now corresponds to a single sound within the International Phonetic Alphabet. This means that a speaker of one Mayan language can now generally read and understand how to pronounce words in other Mayan languages even if they don’t speak those languages. (If you would like to see the official Guatemalan presidential decree from 1987 sanctioning the various approved alphabets for Mayan languages you can click here to download the document.) The following table is an example of the Kaqchikel alphabet and its corresponding IPA symbols.
Even though there remain some disputes about the official Mayan alphabet in its current form, the effort to standardize around a single modern writing system has been incredibly useful for language students, linguists, Mayanists, and Maya enthusiasts. Recently, however, there has been a diverging train of thought with regards to whether to represent transliterations of Classic Mayan glyphs in the modern Mayan alphabet or by using the conventions of epigraphers that pre-date the standardized writing system. In parts 2 and 3 of this post I will further explore how the modern Maya writing systems have evolved and summarize the current thinking on this topic.