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

by Peter Mathews

When Spanish friars compiled the first descriptions of Mayan languages in the sixteenth century, they were immediately confronted by some distinctive Mayan phonemes, or sounds, that neither corresponded to Spanish sounds nor could be easily transcribed in the Latin alphabet. With great ingenuity, the Spanish friars invented a series of symbols for transcribing the Mayan sounds. The trouble is, they used different symbols! For example, what linguists call the midvelar glottalised voiceless stop was transcribed with the symbol k by friars who worked in northern Yucatan and recorded the Yukatek language. They transcribed the midvelar non-glottalised voiceless stop with the symbol c, and the glottalised voiceless alveolar affricate as dz or כ.

The best known of the colonial orthographies is the one developed in northern Yucatán, and used by Diego de Landa, among others.

Another priest, Francisco de la Parra used five symbols to distinguish distinctive sounds in Kaqchikel, K'iche', and other highland Mayan languages (Brinton 1885: 48).

In 1994 the Academia de Lenguas Mayas (the Academy of Mayan Languages) was established in Guatemala by an act of the Guatemalan Congress. One of the first accomplishments of the Academia was to adopt a standardized orthography for all of the Mayan languages in Guatemala, to facilitate the teaching and written dissemination of Mayan languages in Guatemala (López Raquec 1989). By happy coincidence, the orthography is almost identical to that used by Alfredo Barrera Vásquez in his great dictionary of Yukatek Mayan (Barrera Vásquez 1980).

Maya epigraphers were quick to adopt the Academia’s orthography.

There are always problems with the introduction of a new orthography. As you will have already seen, inconsistencies tend to appear. For example, in the paragraphs above we have spoken of "Yucatán", but also of the "Yukatek Mayan" language. Does this mean that the new orthography is too confusing to be of value? We believe that the answer is no, and that over time the new orthography will become the norm. Therefore the orthography used in this Maya Hieroglyph Dictionary is the same as that used by the Academia de Lenguas Mayas published in 1989 (López Raquec 1989).

The Order of Entries in the Dictionary
The dictionary entries follow the usual order for dictionaries of the Mayan languages, proceeding letter by letter through the alphabet, and taking into account that Mayan languages have phonemes that are distinct from those in English or Spanish:


Many scholars have argued that p' did not occur as a distinctive phoneme in what we are calling Epigraphic Mayan, the language of most of the hieroglyphic texts (this phoneme does occur in modern Ch'olan and Yukatekan languages, but it has been interpreted as a later innovation). The phoneme t' appears to be quite rare, but it is attested by some words and the presence of the syllabic sign t'u.

Easily the most important difference between this Dictionary and many earlier word-lists and dictionaries involves the distinction between h and j, both of which appear to have been present in Epigraphic Mayan (Grube 2004). Note, for example, that the Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs by John Montgomery (2002) does not distinguish between these two phonemes, recording only j.


Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo
1980 Diccionario Maya Cordemex. Maya-Español, Español-Maya.
Mérida, Yucatan: Ediciones Cordemex.
Brinton, Daniel G.
1885 The Annals of the Cakchiquels.
Brinton's Library of Aboriginal Literature, Number VI.
Grube, Nikolai
2004 The orthographic distinction between velar and glottal spirants in Maya hieroglyphic writing. In: The Linguistics of Maya Writing (Soren Wichman, ed.): 61-82.
Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press.
López Raquec, Margarita
1989 Acerca de los alfabetos para escribir los idiomas mayas de Guatemala.
Guatemala City: Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín.
Montgomery, John
2002 Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs.
New York: Hippocrene Books.

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