The Maya hieroglyphic script was the only fully-fledged writing system in the Americas. There are over a thousand Maya glyphs known from carved stone stelae, door lintels, painted murals and ceramics. Most of them are logograms; the rest are phonetic signs.
This resource can be use for the History Key Stage 2 (KS2) curriculum.
- The Maya Script: introduction
- The Maya Writing System: principles
- Maya Hieroglyphic Texts: some grammar
- Origins of the Maya Script
- How do we know what we know: breaking the Maya code
- References & Notes
NB: specialists of the Maya civilisation say “Maya hieroglyphs”, “Maya script”, “Maya writing system” and not “Mayan hieroglyphs”, “Mayan script“, etc. The adjective “Mayan” is used only in reference to languages (see: 10 red-flags for spotting unreliable online resources).
The Maya Script: introduction
From about 5000 texts that survived and have been recovered by archaeologists, over one thousand of glyphs have been referenced by epigraphers (i.e. scholars who study Maya inscriptions). Many of these glyphs are variations of the same signs (i.e. allographs) or are signs with the same reading (i.e. homophones). The total of hieroglyphs used at any time was never more than 500.
The phonetic value is known for 80% of these signs while the meaning of only 60% of them has been deciphered.
The earliest known Maya texts were written in the 3rd century BC and the latest date from the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century AD, but the Maya script was possibly in use until the 17th century when the last Maya kingdoms were conquered.
Rabbit Scribe on the Princeton Vase (Princeton Art Museum)
The Maya Writing System
From a visual perspective, the design and writing of Maya hieroglyphs (i.e. calligraphy) was quite flexible and, unfortunately for students, there are various of ways of writing the same word without changing the reading and/or meaning. Maya scribes seem to have enjoyed, and nurtured, this artistic freedom a lot.
Very much like in our latin-based writing system, words in the ancient Maya script are composed of several signs associated together. The pictorial nature of the Maya writing system, though, makes it harder to grasp for the untrained eye than our alphabetic system.
A group of signs that form a word is called a “glyph block” or a “glyph compound”. The largest sign within a glyph compound is called the “main sign” while the smaller ones attached to it are called “affixes”.
As a general rule, signs in a given glyph block are read from left to right and from top to bottom. Similarly, Maya texts are written and read from left to right and from top to bottom, usually in columns of two glyph blocks.
Logograms are signs representing meanings and sounds of complete words. Even in our alphabetical phonetic Latin-based writing system we’re still using a number of logograms such as:
- @ (at): most commonly used in email addresses and social media “handles” but also used as an accounting and invoice abbreviation meaning “at a rate of”
- £ : symbol for the pound sterling
- & (ampersand): represents the conjunction “and”
Most signs in the ancient Maya hieroglyphic script are logograms:
A purely logographic system would be impractical as too many signs would be needed to express ideas, concepts, emotions, things, etc. To put things in perspective, there are over 12,000 characters in Chinese Han script (also used in Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese) which is not a purely logographic system.
To keep the system manageable, the ancient Maya also used syllabograms.
Syllabograms / phonograms
Syllabograms / phonograms are phonetic signs that were used to express syllables. In Maya languages, these syllables can either work as CV (consonante-vowel) syllables, or C(V) sounds (i.e. the sound of the consonant without the sound of the accompanying vowel).
According to the harmony principles, the last vowel of the last syllable of a given word usually drops out. In the examples below, the last vowel of each word is discarded:
- ba-ka-b(a) bakab “head of” (title)
- wi-tz(i) witz “mountain”
Interestingly, any word that could be written with a logogram could also be (and often was) spelled entirely with syllabograms but the ancient Maya never gave up logograms!
Among the most common affixes used in the Maya script are phonetic complements.
A phonetic complement is a syllabogram that helps the reading of ambivalent logographic signs (e.g. when a logogram has more than one possible reading) or simply cues the reader about the phonetic value of the first syllable to facilitate the reading.
In the example below, the glyph for “stone” (in grey) is also a phonogram for the sound ku that can be used to phonetically write the words such as ahk “turtle” or kutz “turkey” (remember the last vowel is silent). So, to avoid any confusion, the phonetic complement ni is added to the glyph (logogram TUUN) to confirm that the intended word is indeed tuun (“stone”).
Semantic determinatives and diacritical signs
Semantic determinatives and diacritical markers assist the reader in expressing the intended pronunciation or meaning of a word but unlike phonetic complements, they have no phonetic value.
A semantic determinative is a sign that specifies the meaning of certain logograms that have more than one meaning. A good example of semantic determinative in the Maya script is the cartouche (i.e. the ornate frame around a design or inscription, in grey below) used to frame day signs in the 260-day Count (see our article on the Maya calendar):
Diacritical markers are signs that assist the reader in expressing the intended pronunciation of a glyph. In European writing systems diacritical markers are common. Here are some examples:
- the cedilla in French to show that the letter c is pronounced like an s rather than a k, e.g. façade.
- the diaeresis in German to show a forward shift of the vowels /a/, /o/ or /u/, e.g. schön [ʃøːn] “beautiful”, schon [ʃoːn] “already”
In the ancient Maya writing system, one common diacritical marker is a pair of small dots in the upper (or lower) left corner of a glyph block that cues the reader to double (i.e. repeat) a syllable in the glyph block.
Polyphony and homophony
Polyphony (or homography) means that a given sign has different sound values and can thus be read differently despite being written the same way. In English, examples of homographs include:
- minute [‘minit] “a unit of time and angular measurement”
- minute [mai’nju:t] “extremely small or insignificant”.
In the Maya hieroglyphic script, the word tuun and the syllable ku can be written using the same glyph (see Phonetic Complements section above):
Homophony means “different signs for the same value”, in other words the same sound represented by different signs. In English, examples of homophones include:
- buy – by – bye
- to – too – two
- there – their – they’re
- weak – week
In the ancient Maya script, the words for “snake”, “four” and “sky” are pronounced in the same manner (chan) but they are written using different signs:
Maya Hieroglyphic texts: some grammar
Maya grammar would require a lengthier post but for the purpose of an introduction to ancient Maya hieroglyphic script, the following points should do the trick.
Unlike the typical Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) construction of English sentences, Mayan languages follow a Verb-Object-Subject (VOS) pattern.
Ancient Maya hieroglyphic texts usually begin with a date and there’s no objects, so the most common sentence structure will be Date-Verb-Subject (Date-Verb-Subject).
Most texts recovered by archaeologists come from monumental inscriptions and, due to their public nature, these texts deal primarily with the deeds of kings and the history of their dynasties. So dates were very important and they take up most of the space (up to 80%) in monumental inscriptions. Verbs usually represents only one or two glyph blocks followed by lengthy names and titles.
Mayan languages are inflected to express grammatical changes. This is done by adding prefixes and suffixes to word roots rather than making internal changes such as in goose/geese.
There are two different sets of pronouns in Mayan languages. Set A goes with transitive verbs while Set B goes with intransitives verbs. The 3rd person singular (“he, she, it”, “his, hers, its”) of Set A is by far the most common pronoun attached to verbs and nouns in ancient Maya inscriptions.
Set A pronouns are used both with nouns and verbs. The third person singular (“he, she, it”, “his, hers, its”) is marked by the following prefixes:
- u- before words/verbs starting with a consonant
- y- (i.e.: ya-, ye-, yi-, yo-, yu-) before words/verbs starting with a vowel
Syllabograms for the pure vowel /u/ are the following:
Any of these syllabograms can be used to mark the third person singular as in the following examples:
Note the stylistic “abbreviation” in the first example. The sign used is a simplified version of the first syllabogram of the third line in the chart above.
Syllabograms for ya- are the following:
Any of these syllabograms can be used to mark the third person singular in front of a word starting with the sound /a/ as in the following example:
Syllabograms for ye- are the following:
Any of these syllabograms can be used to mark the third person singular in front of a word starting with the sound /e/ as in the following example. Note how the sign ye– (represented by a hand) is stylised:
Syllabograms for yi- are the following:
Any of these syllabograms can be used to mark the third person singular in front of a word starting with the sound /i/ as in the following example. Note how the sign yi- is rotated 90° anti-clockwise for aesthetic reasons:
Syllabograms for yo- are the following:
Any of these syllabograms can be used to mark the third person singular in front of a word starting with the sound /o/ as in the following example:
Syllabograms for yu- are the following:
Any of these syllabograms can be used to mark the third person singular in front of a word starting with the sound /u/ as in the following example:
There are two kinds of nouns stems in Classic Mayan: “possessed” and “unpossessed” (i.e. “absolute”)
Unpossessed nouns are not usually marked by any affixes. There are two notable exceptions, though:
- the suffix -aj marks unpossessed nouns associated with things worn by humans such as jewellery
- the suffix -is marks body parts
Gender doesn’t really exist in Mayan languages it has to be deducted from the context. There is an exception for nouns that describe the occupation or office of a person such as “scribe” or “queen” or “king”, etc, in the classic Maya inscriptions:
- the prefix Aj- is used for males
- the prefix Ix- for females
The origins of the Maya script
The Maya script was not the first writing system in Mesoamerica and until recently it was thought it had evolved from the so-called Isthmian script (a.k.a. “Epi-Olmec script”) but texts discovered in 2005 in the Maya lowlands site of San Bartolo have pushed back in time the origins of Maya writing.
The scientific consensus is that the first writing systems in Mesoamericas were developped in the late Olmec times (around 700-500 BC) and later forked into two traditions in two different areas: 1) the highlands of Mexico, and 2) the highlands of Guatemala and Chiapas along with the Pacific piedmont of Guatemala.
The Maya writing system belongs to the second tradition. The earliest known texts with signs that can be identified as part of the Maya Lowlands hieroglyphic writing system are found on the famous mural painting of San Bartolo (Guatemala, 3rd century BC), and on the masonry masks of structure 5C-2nd at the site of Cerros (Belize, 1st century BC).
Further activities and resources
- The FAMSI website has a teacher guidebook and also a booklet entitled a non-technical introduction to Maya glyphs. This is an excellent guide showing how to write your name in Maya hieroglyphs, simple sentences and includes information on the Maya calendar and numbers
- The Maya had emblem glyphs for their cities, much as football teams have insignia. Using examples from the FAMSI booklet, students can make their own emblem glyph using the attributes of their town.
- Stelae were carved standing stones that represented the major events in a ruler’s life, such as accession to the throne, marriage, conquest and so on. Using the booklet students can draw their own stelae and record important events in their lives.
- Show the NOVA documentary ‘Lost Kingdoms of the Maya’, which includes a tour with David Stuart (a Maya epigrapher) around Copan. Copan has a stairway of 62 steps, each 10 m wide, which contain some 2,200 individual glyphs, the longest of all Maya hieroglyphic texts, representing the major rulers of the Copan dynasty. Students can make their own hieroglyphic stairway concerning events of their family’s lives or the town in which they live.
- For the Maya, writing and painting were virtually identical and within the glyphs themselves there is a strong link between text and picture. Ask pupils to try and decipher the lintel from Tikal above ( http://www.famsi.org/research/montgomery/index.html) Various dates are mentioned that pupils should be able to pick out.
- A great resource is the NOVA documentary ‘Cracking the Maya Code’. The documentary includes a timeline of decipherment and an interactive with the mural of San Bartolo. The website also has a great example of how to read a stela. After watching the video on San Bartolo students can make their own mural either on own or collectively about themselves or their town. The mural should reflect life and events in their town. Photos of the Mural
- Show the presentation on the codices from the Maya Codices database. Discuss what is represented in the codices, the animals, people and objects. What numbers are there? Ask pupils to paint their own manuscript on what they did during the holidays and then tell the class as part of a story-telling session. You can then compile all the manuscripts and make one codex, which you can display as a book.
- How Maya Hieroglyphs are Written – Demonstration. Expert decipherer and calligrapher Dr Mark Van Stone explains how Maya hieroglyphs are constructed by writing a modern name in glyphs. His website includes a discussion on the end of the world. After watching the video students can try their hand at writing their own name in glyphs, or rather what they think their own name would look like in Maya hieroglyphs
- How the Maya made bark paper – Demonstration
- Montgomery Drawing Collection – A database of hieroglyph drawings that you can print and use in class.
- Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. This site lists all the Yaxchilan lintels (which are displayed in the British Museum) as well as others, explaining the details of the scene with both a drawing and photo of each lintel.
- Decoding a Stela – NOVA – This site allows you to read Maya hieroglyphs and hear them being spoken aloud
- Breaking the Maya Code: Michael Coe. Thames and Hudson. 1992. History of the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphics.
- Reading the Maya Glyphs: Michael Coe and Mark Van Stone. Thames and Hudson. 2001. Guide that will enable students with no previous training in Maya epigraphy or archaeology to read and understand commonly encountered Classic Maya texts. Also fully covered are descriptions of the nature of the script, the Maya calendar, dynastic and political texts and aspects of the natural and supernatural world in which they lived.