Yaxchilán, Lintel 24 - K2887 ©Justin Kerr - Click to view high resolution MAYA HIEROGLYPH DICTIONARY
Peter Mathews and Péter Bíró
Drawings by John Montgomery

A Brief Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs

Maya hieroglyphs are one of the world's most iconic writing systems, as its individual signs are frequently drawn from elements of nature. This peculiar feature led a lot of early epigraphers to suggest that Maya hieroglyphic writing was a 'word-writing', that is each glyph corresponded to one word or concept. Nevertheless, in 1952 the Russian scholar Yuriy Valentinovich Knorozov proved without a doubt that the Maya writing system was a logo-syllabic script composed of both word signs and signs that represent a syllable. In this respect, Maya hieroglyphs are similar to other writing systems such as Akkadian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, or modern Japanese script.

Logograms (or logographs) represent an entire word with various affixes (linguists call these elements independent and bound morphemes, respectively). Epigraphers transliterate logograms in bold upper case letters: AJAW, CHUM or B'ALAM. Syllable signs represent the other major category of signs in Maya writing. They are composed in the form of a consonant plus a vowel ('CV'), and epigraphers transliterate them in bold lower case letters: ka, ke, ki, ko, ku, etc. A Maya word can be written by a logogram, or by the combination of a logogram and one or more syllabic signs, or just by the use of syllabic signs: B'ALAM, B'ALAM-m(a) or b'a-la-m(a).

There are other categories of signs in Maya writing which are rare and have restricted usage. These are determinatives and diacritics. An example of the first category (determinatives) is the so-called 'cartouche' surrounding day signs. An example of a diacritic is the presence in some signs of two little dots, usually in the left upper corner, which indicate the doubling of a syllabic sign (Stuart and Houston 1994: 50).

The normal reading order of Maya inscriptions is from left to right, and top to bottom, within double columns of text. There are, however, numerous variations to this theme particularly when inscriptions were incorporated in figural scenes. Signs were usually composed in clusters (called glyphs) that were arranged within roughly square 'glyph blocks'. The reading order of signs within glyph blocks is normally left to right and top to bottom.

The Maya script involves over 800 distinct signs, but only 300-400 appear to have been in (common) use at any one time.

The Maya writing system was not a static script as it had changed substantially during more than 15 centuries of use. The first example of Maya hieroglyphs can be found on little objects made of jade, bone or shell and on the beautiful murals recently discovered at the site of San Bartolo in northern Guatemala. Most of the signs from this early period (roughly 200 BC- AD 250) were logograms; syllabic signs commonly appeared later, although the cause of this is debated among epigraphers. Although the relative proportion of logograms versus syllabic signs remained the same (roughly 60:40 during the Classic period, AD 250-900), the phonetic transparency of the inscriptions increased till the end of the Terminal Classic Period (AD 800 - 1000).


Stuart, David, and Stephen D. Houston
1994 Classic Maya Place Names.
Dumbarton Oaks Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, Number 33.
Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

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