It is generally believed that the ancient Maya developed the only complete writing system in Mesoamerica, meaning that they were the only civilization that could write everything they could say (citation). Much of what survives from what they wrote has been deciphered, and this remains an active field of scholarship with new discoveries being made. Both archaeologists and linguists have tools at their disposal to interpret and even reconstruct elements of ancient Mayan languages with regards to vocabulary (lexis), grammar (syntax), and sometimes even how they sounded when spoken (phonology and phonetics). Referring to Proto-Mayan and the natural process of language evolution, Michael Coe has noted that:

There are some 30 Mayan languages spoken today, some a closely related to each other as, say, Dutch is to English, and some as far apart from each other as English is from French. Just as languages scattered from Europe to Persia and India can be traced back to a common Proto-Indo-European ancestor, so can linguists reach back into the shadowy past  to look for a common parent.

Source: Breaking the Maya Code (Third Edition). Michael D. Coe, Thames & Hudson, Feb 27, 2012. p 48.

The following is a visual approximation of the family tree of Mayan languages as they descended from ‘Proto-Mayan’:

Mayan Language Tree

Mayan Language Tree

Only recently, as previously noted, have most of the languages of the Proto-Mayan linguistic diaspora adopted a standard modern format for writing. This has been useful especially for non-native speakers, for as Coe also noted:

Only a born optimist might tell you that the Mayan languages are easy to learn; they may be so for a Maya toddler, but for those of us that were brought up with the languages of Europe (including even Russian), these are tough for foreigners… In the first place, these languages sound like nothing we have heard before… As if the phonology weren’t difficult enough, there is the grammar, which bears not the slightest resemblance to anything we contended with when we learned ancient Latin, Greek, or any of the modern European languages. We are in another world altogether, with a different mindset.

Source: Breaking the Maya Code (Third Edition). Michael D. Coe, Thames & Hudson, Feb 27, 2012. p 50.

So it is perhaps not surprising that the Europeans improvised as they sought to create written forms for these languages in their own alphabets derived from Latin. They used the letters and diacritical marks that they were familiar with, even if the results were imprecise in terms of a uniform and complete correspondence between the written forms and natural phonemes in the Mayan languages. Consider, for example, the usage of glottalization which is applied to many Mayan consonants. This type of utterance can involve a constriction of the throat and a stopping of the airflow using the lips, teeth, or palate, followed by a sudden release of air (referred to as a ‘plosive’ in linguistics). It is critical to convey these glottalizations in writing because they are phonemic-that is, they distinguish meaning (similar to the tones in some Asian languages, among words that might otherwise all appear to be written the same). Over the centuries, there has been significant variation in how to note glottalization. Sometimes it has been ignored altogether:

Something else which seems unfamiliar to us is the glottal stop, phonemically significant in Mayan although usually ignored in texts of the colonial period (I suppose because the natives knew when to use it, and the Spaniards didn’t care). This is just a constriction of the throat or glottis which English speakers use at the beginning of a word like ‘apple’ or in the exclamation ‘uh-oh!’. Linguists write it with an apostrophe or a dotless question mark.

Source: Breaking the Maya Code (Third Edition). Michael D. Coe, Thames & Hudson, Feb 27, 2012. p 50.

If you would like to see one version of how Q’eqchi’ was written by anthropologists more than 100 years ago, see this article by Burkitt, 1902.

Now that most modern Mayan languages are written using a standardized alphabet well-suited to the needs of the various languages you might think that it would also be applied ‘backward’. That is, the modern alphabet would be used in the process of deciphering and transcribing ancient Maya writing into modern translations of these texts. In some cases this is what happens. In others there are reasons to revert to earlier writing conventions. In part 3 of this post I will summarize the current thinking and practice regarding modern Maya orthography with respect to ancient Maya texts.