Link to enlarge Masculine head from Palenque Chiapas after Michel Zabé WHO'S WHO IN THE CLASSIC MAYA WORLD
Peter Mathews

Orthography Used in the Who's Who

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, each one came up with different symbols. For example, what linguists call the voiceless, glottalised, velar occlusive was transcribed by friars working in northern Yucatan, and recording the Yukatek language, with the symbol k (the voiceless, aspirated, non-glottalised velar occlusive was transcribed with c). And the sound that linguists love to call the voiceless, glottalised alveolar affricate is transcribed ? or dz in Colonial Yukatek sources, 4 in Colonial highland Guatemala, and ts' or tz' in modern Mayan language studies.

The best known of the colonial orthographies is the one developed in northern Yucatan, and used by Diego de Landa, among others. It is this orthography that is still most widely used for writing Yucatec (Yukatek) Mayan, and it has also been used until recently by Maya epigraphers in transcribing deciphered Maya words.

A little over ten years ago the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala) was established by an act of the Guatemalan Congress. One of the first accomplishments of the Academia was to adopt a standardised orthography for all of the Mayan languages in Guatemala, in order to facilitate the teaching and written dissemination of Mayan languages in Guatemala (Academia de las Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala 1988). 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, partly because this orthography will be so widespread in the Maya area, but also out of a desire to express solidarity with the Academia.

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 I have spoken of "Yucatan", but also of the "Yukatek Mayan" language. Does this mean that the new orthography is too confusing to be of value? Certainly I hope not, and that you, gentle reader, will not find it so. For the most part, the new orthography has spellings that are perfectly logical.

The orthography used in this Dictionary, then, follows that used by the Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala (I include, for purposes of comparison and reference, the standard Yucatec (Yukatek) orthography still used in the Yucatan peninsula and used previously by epigraphers:

Academia Orthography16th C. Yucatec Orthography
tz'dz, כ

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