Modern Mayan Language Resources

Tag: Mayan Alphabet

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 1)

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.

Kaqchikel alphabet

Source: Kaqchikel alphabet accessed 05-05-2016 at

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.


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