Modern Mayan Language Resources

Tag: Maya writing

Ajaw vs. Ahau: Notes on Modern Mayan Orthography (part 3)

The development and widespread adoption of a uniform alphabet across all modern Mayan languages has solved a number of problems. Written forms of communication have been enhanced through standardization. Accuracy in pronouncing Mayan words from a written text, even when using a Mayan language with which one has limited familiarity, is now much higher. Because of its utility it might also be assumed that the modern Maya writing system would be applied to transcriptions of ancient Maya glyphs found in parchment documents, in paintings on walls and ancient pottery, as well as stone carvings that survive to this day. In fact, initially there was a tendency to abandon the old colonial-era orthography in favor of the new system.

Beginning in the late 1980s and especially in the 1990s, epigraphers backed away from these old conventions. Refinements in comparative linguistics and the direct participation of indigenous Mayan linguists led to more precise orthographies and standards across Mayan languages. Naturally epigraphers came to adopt these practices, and names for the days and months soon came to be represented just like any other term in Classic Mayan.

Source: David Stuart, A Note on Spelling Days and Months, Maya Decipherment May 1, 2016.

However, not all epigraphers have followed suit. And in some cases, a single epigrapher may alternate systems based on a given circumstance. This inconsistency has actually increased in recent years leading to some confusion among students of Maya glyphs. There is, however, a method to this madness. Consider the following rationale advanced by David Stuart in a recent post on Maya Decipherment:

After many years of adopting what might seem a more accurate and linguistically sensitive orthography, I’ve now gone back to the old ways for writing dates, preferring for example to write “10 Chicchan 18 Uo” instead of “10 Chikchan 18 Woh.” The reason is quite simple. In most instances we have no direct evidence of how day names were pronounced in the Classic period. Was the first day Imix or Imox? Was the thirteenth day Ben, Been or something else? Ancient scribes wrote day names as logographs (word signs) and only rarely presented any phonetic indicators about pronunciation, thus leaving modern students with many questions, and employing the old Yukatek nomenclature should immediately make clear that these are not necessarily the ancient names for these time periods. I would never want a student to automatically assume that the fifth day was pronounced as Chikchan in eighth century Palenque; in fact it probably wasn’t.

Source: David Stuart, A Note on Spelling Days and Months, Maya Decipherment May 1, 2016.

He goes on to note that in some cases we have clear evidence of how to transcribe glyphs, such as with the names of months on the Maya calendar because the corresponding glyphs are often true spellings. Such is the case with Ajaw, for example, which is considered a solid reconstruction (thus favoring an abandonment of the former writing convention of Ahau). In practice, however, it is still seen both ways.

"8 Ajaw" and "8 Woh" Maya glyphs

Date record “8 Ahau 8 Uo” (traditional form) “8 Ajaw 8 Woh” (modern standard form) from La Corona, Element 56. Photo by D. Stuart. Source:

The points Stuart makes are good ones. Adopting the modern standard alphabet when transcribing ancient Maya glyphs might cause us to collapse or gloss over important regional and temporal variations in the ways those words were actually used and pronounced. Or it might imply that we know more than we actually do about how those ancient terms were vocalized. So a carefully considered approach to transcription, even if it is inconsistent, seems a sound and cautious approach. Far more tantalizing, however, is the prospect that further research into the ancient Maya culture and its writing system could indeed yield further breakthroughs in our understanding of their achievements in language. And Stuart, who of course knows this better than anyone, obliquely hints at this in the conclusion to his post that I have quoted extensively here:

It is still important to realize that we are still in a relatively early stage in the true decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic system, most of which took place only in the last three or so decades. It shouldn’t be surprising that Mayanists reassess and refine the standards we use for presenting epigraphic source material. It’s a continuous process.

Source: David Stuart, A Note on Spelling Days and Months, Maya Decipherment May 1, 2016.


Ajaw vs. Ahau: Notes on Modern Mayan Orthography (part 2)

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.

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