Phonetic Writing in Late Postclassic Yucatan
FIGURE 9. Detail of a scene and hieroglyphic caption from page 15b of the Codex Dresden, with the reading order grid superimposed.
FIGURE 10. Details of the Codex Dresden, from pages 15b (left), 18b (center), 40b (right).
FIGURE 11. Detail from page 18b of the Codex Dresden.
FIGURE 12. Detail from page 40b of the Codex Dresden.
FIGURE 13. Detail from page 15b of the Codex Dresden.
Both Maya and Central Mexican writing uses a combination of logographic and syllabic signs. Both systems join a number of smaller signs into roughly square “blocks.” Maya texts usually involve more than one block of glyphs. These blocks are usually arranged in pairs, and are read from left to right, top to bottom, one row at a time. In order to be able to talk specifically about particular glyphs, glyphic blocks are given letters along their horizontal axis and numbers along their vertical axis. This produces a series of number-letter combinations. Figure 9 shows the reading order of hieroglyphic blocks in a detail from page 18b of the Codex Dresden. The reading order of the glyphs begins at A1, then moves over to B1, then moves one row down to read first A2 and then B2. In contrast, Central Mexican phonetic texts are usually limited to single visual blocks, or single strings of signs.
Our discussion of Maya hieroglyphic writing focuses on three images from the Codex Dresden, each of which is accompanied by a brief hieroglyphic caption.19 The first image, from page 18b, shows a goddess seated on the ground and carrying a horned owl on her back. The second, from page 40b, shows a humanoid macaw holding two torches beneath a rectangular skyband. The third, from 15b, shows a rain god falling head-first towards the earth, carrying a sprouting seed in front of him (Figure 10; see Figure 6 for full images of pages 15b and 18b).
In discussing the hieroglyphs that accompany these figures, we write out their sound values using a transcription system developed by Maya epigraphers.20 This transcription system has three phases: transcription, transliteration, and translation. Transcriptions are alphabetic representations of all the sound values present in a glyphic block. Transcriptions are written in bold face. Logographic signs are written using all capital letters: K’AK’, CHAN, MO’. Syllabic signs are written using lower case letters: u, ti, na. When a glyphic block contains more than one element (and they usually do), dashes are used to separate the sound values of each individual glyph: u-K’AK’. Transliterations merge these separate sound values in order to form meaningful words. Transliterations are written in italics: u-k’ak’. Translations are written in a normal font: his fire. As a final point, Maya languages make use of a sound called a glottal stop, which is represented using an apostrophe.
Logograms, as discussed above, are single signs that represent the complex strings of sounds that form whole words. Logograms are sometimes pictorial and iconic, making their meaning easier to identify. The icon provides a picture of what the logogram represents. Block A1 of Figure 11 contains two glyphs.21 On the left-hand side are three dots and two bars, which represent the number 13 (3+5+5). The main space of the sign is taken up by a picture of the head of a horned owl. This logographic head looks almost the same as the head of the full-bodied owl perched on the shoulders of the seated woman in the scene below. Not surprisingly, this logogram is read KUH and represents the word kuh, owl. Overall, A1 represents the name of the feathered being shown in the scene below: 13 Owl.
The numbered name of another avian supernatural appears in block A2 of Figure 12.22 This block contains three different units: four dots on the left-hand side (representing the number 4) and then two logograms stacked one atop the other. The lower logogram is a picture of a macaw’s head in profile, looking to the left and with its beak open. Once again, this sign is almost identical to the head of the personified macaw right below it. Not surprisingly, this sign is a logogram for mo’, macaw, MO’. The sign on top of the MO’ glyph is not as easy to decipher visually, but it represents a leafy maize cob drawn on its side. It is read NAL, meaning nal, maize. Overall, the glyph block at A2 gives the name for the supernatural being in the scene below: 4 Nal Mo’ or 4 Maize Macaw.
These first examples have involved glyphic blocks that contain only logographic signs. More often, however, logograms are combined with syllabic signs. Directly above 4 Maize Macaw’s name, block A1 contains a syllabic sign and a logogram. The syllabic sign is on the left-hand side, and looks a bit like a square bracket: [ . This is the syllabic sign for u. Right next to it is a single glyph composed of two parts, a striped oval shape from which 2 curving scrolls emerge. The scrolls represent flames: the sign is read K’AK’, and is a logogram for k’ak’, fire. Together, the glyphs in A1 read u-k’ak’, “his fire”—referring to the torch-wielding macaw in the picture below.
Sometimes the syllabic signs attached to a logogram are not meant to be pronounced. Instead, those signs have been added to help the reader understand the meaning of the logogram. Keeping with the same image, B1 contains three signs. On the left is the syllable ti, followed by the round X-marked logogram CHAN (sky), followed by the syllable na. The final na serves as a “phonetic complement,” letting the reader know that the round logogram on top of it must end with an -n sound (which in fact it does: CHAN). Because the a sound of the na is not pronounced, it is placed in parentheses in the transcription: ti-CHAN-n(a). These signs are transliterated as ti-chan, meaning “in the sky.” Read together, glyphs A1, B1, and A2 therefore read “His fire in the sky: 4 Maize Macaw”—meaning that 4 Maize Macaw’s fire is in the sky. (Word order in Mayan, as you can see, is different from word order in English and Spanish—see below).23 This seems to be a metaphorical phrase related to drought (which is the meaning of the final glyphs at B2). Maya screenfolds were books of divination and prophecy. But whatever its metaphorical meaning, this glyphic inscription is illustrated in the scene below. The humanoid macaw holds flaming torches in both hands, and the fiery tongues of the uppermost torch lick against a long rectangular band that represents the sky. Note that the first part of the band has an X-shape drawn with dotted lines. This is the same X-shape seen in the logogram CHAN, sky, that we looked at in B1. In this image, then, the fire of 4 Maize Macaw is indeed reaching up to burn the sky.
So far we have considered logograms by themselves, and logograms in combination with syllabic signs. Some hieroglyphic blocks were composed using only syllabic signs, and this can be seen in block B1 of Figure 11. This block contains three syllabic signs: the bracket for u that we looked at above, a round sign with a curl inside that is read mu, and a bead-like sign read ti: u-mu-t(i). These three syllables form the phrase u-muut, “her omen.” Put together, A1 and B1 read “13 Owl, her omen.” This omen belongs to the person named in A2 and drawn with an owl on her shoulders in the scene below. A2 seems to contain a single logogram probably read as IXIK, “woman” or “lady.”24 This may seem a vague name for a goddess, but similar naming can be seen in Spanish-language Christianity: the Virgin Mary is addressed in prayer as Señora, Lady.25 Put together, A1-B1-A2 read “13 Owl her omen: Lady—or, the Lady’s omen is 13 Owl. Again, this is probably a complex metaphor about the good or bad fortune associated with particular days. But its literal meaning is illustrated quite well in the picture below: the seated goddess carries an owl on her back, its talons buried in the Lady’s long ponytail.
Our final example, from page 15b of the Codex Dresden, involves a hieroglyphic text written using only syllabic signs (Figure 13).26 This example also illustrates the grammatical structure of Mayan languages. English and Spanish sentences usually have a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) structure: I read the book; Yo leí el libro. In contrast, Mayan languages have a Verb-Object-Subject (VOS) reading order. In this inscription, then, A1 contains the verb, B1 contains the object, and A2 contains the subject:
|he is planting||food||Chaak|
…or, “Chaak (the rain god) is planting food”—an act illustrated in the image below.27 There, the rain god (identifiable by of his long upper lip) falls head-first to the earth, his feet swimming in the air above. He holds out one hand in front of his face, and in that hand is a round glyphic maize seed. Leaves sprout from that seed, as well as from Chaak’s hands and feet.
With this introduction, you should have a basic idea of how Maya hieroglyphs functioned as a phonetic writing system. Before moving on to consider the phonetic writing system used at the same time in Central Mexico, there are two points worth mentioning. First, Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions fully spell out the words they were seeking to convey. Indeed, so thorough are Maya hieroglyphic texts that they often contain extra sounds that are to be ignored by the reader. In epigraphic transcriptions, these are indicated by the use of parentheses. Second, Maya glyphs can record fully grammatical sentences (He is planting food, Chaak), as well as complex, multi-part captions (His fire is in the sky: Four Maize Macaw). As we will see now, neither of these aspects of Maya writing is found in phonetic inscriptions from Central Mexico. Central Mexican texts spell only partially the words they are meant to represent, and they do not create whole sentences or elaborate captions through the combination of long strings of phonetic signs. Instead, Central Mexican phonetic texts partially record single words, in isolation.
Phonetic Writing in Late Postclassic and Colonial Central Mexico >
19 This discussion makes use of three main resources: the Maya Hieroglyphic Codices website (www.mayacodices.org/), Michael D. Coe and Mark Van Stone’s Reading the Maya Glyphs (Coe and Van Stone 2005), and Martha J. Macri and Gabrielle Vail’s The New Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs, Volume Two (Macri and Vail 2003). Because this is meant as an introductory text—on Central Mexico!—I have not used the elaborate diacritical marks used in more formal linguistic studies. I have also favored Ch’olti’ spellings instead of Yukatek ones. For an introduction to the debates surrounding the language recorded in the Maya screenfolds, see Lacadena 1997 and Wald 2004.
20 Coe and Van Stone 2005, 19.
21 The reading of this hieroglyphic text has been adapted from the Maya Codices Website (www.mayacodices.org/frameDetail.asp?almNum=339&frameNum=1), with modifications based on Coe and Van Stone 2005, 157-166 and Macri and Vail 2003.
22 The reading of this hieroglyphic text has been adapted from the Maya Codices Website (www.mayacodices.org/frameDetail.asp?almNum=368&frameNum=8), with modifications based on Coe and Van Stone 2005, 157-166 and Macri and Vail 2003.
23 The structure of this phrase, and the phrase on 40b that we will study shortly, seems very similar to the name-tagging inscriptions found on Classic Maya portable objects; see Houston and Taube 1987, Houston et. al 1989.
24 Coe and Van Stone 2005, 117-118.
25 J. Eric S. Thompson (1970, 241-242) points out that honorary titles like “Lady” were commonly used for Maya deities, and even claims that one title, _Culel_ (“Mistress”) was used in the Yucatan to refer to both the Moon Goddess and to the Virgin Mary.
26 The reading of this hieroglyphic text has been adapted from the Maya Codices Website (www.mayacodices.org/frameDetail.asp?almNum=335&frameNum=1), with modifications based on Coe and Van Stone 2005, 157-166 and Macri and Vail 2003.
27 Cell B2 seems to contain one of Chaak’s noble titles. On the translation of the -aj ending, see Houston 1997.