True Writing?

FIGURE 1. Egyptian hieroglyphs at Luxor. Note the weave-patterns carved into the round hieroglyph in the shape of a basket.

FIGURE 1. Egyptian hieroglyphs at Luxor. Note the weave-patterns carved into the round hieroglyph in the shape of a basket.

FIGURE 2. Table of Phonetic Signs of the Hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts of the ancient Egyptians. Plate IV of Jean-Franois Champollions 1822 _Lettre  M. Dacier_.

FIGURE 2. “Table of Phonetic Signs of the Hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts of the ancient Egyptians.” Plate IV of Jean-François Champollion’s 1822 Lettre à M. Dacier.

What is “writing”? What you are looking at now is one kind of writing system, an alphabetic one. Alphabetic writing is used in many parts of the world, and alphabets come inmany different forms: Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew (to name a few). But does writinghave to function like an alphabet in order to really be writing?1 The answer, of course, is no. Nevertheless, debates over what counts as “true writing” have gone on for centuries. Prejudices against (and misconceptions of) non-alphabetic scripts have a long history.

Egyptian hieroglyphs, for example, were long thought to be a mystical form of communication.2 They were believed to be totally different from the alphabet. This idea arose because of the iconic nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Most of these signs are pictures of animals and objects (birds, houses, body parts; Figure 1). Because these pictorial signs look so different from the letters used in the Latin and Greek alphabets, people for centuries believed Egyptian hieroglyphs were a very different (and very strange) form of communication. The word “hieroglyph” means “sacred writing” in Greek. A number of ancient Greek writers described Egyptian “sacred writing” as a metaphorical, non-phonetic script. Although none of these writers had first-hand familiarity with how Egyptian writing communicated, their judgments were very influential.3 In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as Renaissance Europeans studied the remains of classical antiquity, they interpreted Egyptian hieroglyphs through the mystical lenses of the ancient Greeks. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were also a time of European exploration and colonization. When early modern Europeans encountered non-alphabetic scripts in China and the New World, they often compared these scripts to Egyptian hieroglyphs. As a result, writing systems in both China and the New World began to be referred to as “hieroglyphic.” This practice (through the sheer inertia of tradition) has continued up until the present. The shorter word “glyph” was first used by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1825, as part of a discussion of ancient religious texts. “Glyph” was first applied to Mesoamerican writing a few years later, in C. S. Rafinesque’s 1832 “Second Letter to Champollion.”4

The emergence of the word “glyph” in the 1820s was no accident. It was in the 1820s that Jean François Champollion began to decipher ancient Egyptian texts. He discovered that Egyptian hieroglyphs represented the sounds and words of the Egyptian language. This writing system was not alphabetic, but it was much closer to alphabetic writing than had been assumed. Indeed, a number of hieroglyphic signs represent single sounds, much as in alphabetic writing. Champollion included a chart of this “hieroglyphic alphabet” in one of his early publications from 1822 (Figure 2).

What is especially strange about this history is that, for centuries, Egyptian hieroglyphs were thought to be completely different from alphabetic scripts, even though those hieroglyphs could not be read . It might seem odd that people once made broad claims about the nature of Egyptian writing even thought they couldn’t read it. However, this kind of prejudice towards writing systems that don’t look like an alphabet is quite common. Similar prejudices existed—and still exist—against writing systems in the New World.5 It was long believed that “true” writing systems did not exist in the Americas. By “true,” many scholars meant (and still mean) phonetic writing systems, systems that can be used to record the spoken word. Alphabetic scripts are one type of phonetic writing, but there are a number of others (see below). As late as 1952, in his influential A Study of Writing: The Foundations of Grammatology, Ignace Gelb proclaimed that “the so-called ‘Maya and Aztec writings’” were not “writings proper” but rather “forerunners of writing.” He argued that Maya and Aztec scripts conveyed their meaning above all through pictures, pictures that were not closely connected to spoken sounds. He did acknowledge that some signs in Mesoamerican scripts indicated “the beginnings of phoneticization.” Still, Gelb continued (in a tortured sentence), “sporadic occurrences of phoneticization cannot be taken as evidence of a high level of the Central American systems since the principle of phoneticization sometimes appears among primitive peoples without any prospects of developing into a full phonetic system.”6 Unfortunately, Gelb didn’t really know how to read either Maya or Aztec writing. He, like scholars of Egyptian hieroglyphs before the 1820s, made claims about New World writing even though he didn’t understand it.

At the same time Gelb made these proclamations, however, new studies revealed that Maya hieroglyphs were indeed a phonetic writing system (a system closer to Egyptian hieroglyphs than to the alphabetic system you are reading now). More recently—over the past ten years—research by Spanish scholar Alfonso Lacadena shows that Central Mexicans also created a phonetic writing system, with a standardized set of signs corresponding to specific sounds.7 A number of uses of this phonetic writing system appear in the Matrícula de Tributos (an Aztec document from Tenochtitlan) and the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (a Tlaxcalan document from, of course, Tlaxcala).

Relatively speaking, phonetic writing plays a minor role in the Matrícula de Tributos and the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Most of the images on the pages of the Matrícula and in the cells of the Lienzo make little direct reference to a specific language. This was a conscious—indeed essential—communication strategy. The Matrícula was created to show the tribute brought to Tenochtitlan by people from throughout the Aztec empire, many of who spoke languages very different from Nahuatl (the language spoken by most people in Central Mexico). Because phonetic writing systems require translation in multilingual contexts, it is often more effective to use non-phonetic strategies for writing and documentation. Most of the information recorded on the pages of the Matrícula could be understood by speakers of Mixtec, Otomi, Zapotec, Maya, and even Spanish and English speakers today, five centuries later.

Similarly, the Lienzo was created for both Tlaxcalan and European viewers—not the least of who was Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. The Lienzo was probably painted around 1552, when Charles was still alive—indeed, his coat of arms hangs over the large scene at the top of this document. Charles grew up speaking French and Dutch, and only started to learn Castilian (Spanish) after he inherited a number of Iberian kingdoms from his father and grandfather. But he never learned Nahuatl. Nevertheless, if he ever saw the Lienzo, he would have been able (with help from Tlaxcalan ambassadors) to understand the visual story it told. In other words, phonetic writing systems can be very useful for recording specific languages. But in contexts where many different languages are spoken, other strategies for writing, other forms of communication, can be more effective. Even though phonetic writing is only one aspect of the Matrícula and the Lienzo, it is an important topic. Research on this theme in Central Mexican writing is only just beginning.

As we saw above, for years people thought phonetic writing was absent from Central Mexico. These recent discoveries have revealed unexpected similarities between Central Mexican writing and Maya hieroglyphs—writing systems that for decades were thought to be totally different.

Understanding what these phonetic signs say expands our understanding not only of textual matters and linguistic histories, but also of life in the highlands of Mesoamerica in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The following sections of this tutorial therefore focus on phonetic writing systems in more detail, and then briefly compare the structure of Maya hieroglyphic writing with the phonetic messages recorded in the Matrícula and Lienzo.

Phonetic Writing Systems >
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1 For debates on how to define “writing,” and their relation to Mesoamerican scripts, see Boone 2000, 28-63.

2 Hamann 2008.

3 Iversen 1961, 28-46.

4 Hamann 2008, 6.

5 On the academic “scorn” and “disdain” frequently shown towards Central Mexican writing, see Whittaker 2009, 48.

6 Gelb 1952, 54.

7 Lacadena 2008a, 2008b; Lacadena and Wichmann 2008; for a critique, see Whittaker 2009, 2012.