Different Yet Similiar to English
By John Robertson, Brigham Young
The Mayan writing system, in use between approximately 250 to 850 A.D., is composed of two main types of symbols:
logographic (idea-based) and phonetic (sound-based). A logograph is a written symbol that has no phonetic value but rather represents a concept or idea that is tied
to a given word. A good example would be the numbers, as 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. The symbol "3" has no written sound value, while the symbol "three" (that is, the word "three" as
spelled here) does. A Frenchman, German, or Japanese speaker could read the symbol 3, interpreting it phonetically in their own languages, but if they read the symbol "three" it
would make no sense to them unless they spoke English. In this regard, then, the English writing system is like the Mayan: it has both a logographic (3) and a phonetic (three)
component. There are, of course, dramatic differences between Mayan and English writing. Mayan has around 3,000 logographs, representing many concepts besides numbers. (For
examples of Mayan logographs click here.)
Furthermore, the sound-based phonetic symbols of Mayan do not belong to an alphabet like the letters of the Latin alphabet you are reading now, where each consonant and vowel has
its own symbol. The Mayan symbols belong to a syllabary. Syllabaries typically have symbols that represent all the possible consonant-vowel sequences (syllables) of a
language. They ordinarily have single symbols for each of the syllables, pi pe pa po pu; ti te ta to tu; ki ke ka ko ku, and so on. (For a remarkable story of the development of a
syllabary by a 19th Century Native American, Sequoyia, click here.) A typical syllabary
might consist of around 70 or 80 symbols. (For an example of the Mayan syllabary click here.)
Despite these deep differences, there is a surprising similarity between English and Mayan in a certain spelling convention. To begin to understand those similarities, consider
the so-called silent e in English, whose only function is to signal long vowels that would otherwise be short vowels. Examples include "hat" versus "hate", "mat" versus "mate",
"rat" versus "rate" and so on. The unpronounced e at the end of the word tells the reader to pronounce the spoken vowel long. Pronounce these words normally and notice the
difference in the length of the "a", depending on whether the word ends on "e".
The Mayans had a similar rule based on their syllabic way of writing. It worked like this: almost all Mayan roots take the form consonant - vowel - consonant, where the vowel was
either short (CVC) or long (CV:C). For example, the language of the hieroglyphs had words with short vowels such as "sak" 'white', "kuch" 'load', and words with long vowels (the
colon indicates the vowel is long) such as "k'i:n" 'sun', "ba:k" 'bone'. How is it possible to write CVC with a syllabary that has only CV sequences?
The inventors of the Mayan script did something quite ingenious. They spelled the long and short vowels with an extra "dead vowel" on the end, using the syllabary CV-CV.
Vowels the same = short vowel
Vowels different = long vowel
If the "dead vowel" was the same as the spoken vowel, the spoken vowel was short; if the "dead vowel" was different from the spoken vowel, the spoken vowel was long. In this
regard, Mayan writing is somewhat like English. If there is no "silent e" in English, the spoken vowel is short; if there is a silent e, the spoken vowel is long:
No silent 'e' = short vowel
With silent 'e' = long vowel
Wewill probably never know who devised the Mayan writing system, but we do know that the person or group of people who invented the writing system
were sophisticated grammarians and linguists. They understood their language very well, and were able to use the phonetic tools at hand to distinguish between long and short
Note:This presentation is somewhat simplified. A complete exposition of the ideas can be found in: "Disharmony in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing:
Linguistic Change and Continuity in the Classic Society" by Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and John S. Robertson. Anatomía de Una Civilización. Aproximaciones
Interdisciplinarias a la Cultura Maya. Ciudad-Ruiz, Andrés et al. eds. Sociedad Española de Estudios Mayas: Madrid. pp. 275-296. 1998.