Maya Vase with Hieroglyphs K5424 ©Justin Kerr - Click to view Kerr rollout John Montgomery
Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs

How the Dictionary Works
by Peter Mathews

An obvious first question is "How is this Dictionary organized?" Is it done alphabetically, or is it organized by some category, such as syllable signs, or those dreaded "T-numbers" (more of which later)? Of course with the wonders of modern computers, the answer is: all of the above. In the coming months, the online Maya Dictionary will enable a search by entering through any of these categories. You will simply be able to toggle between one category and another. For example, if you want to look at all b’i signs, you can go straight to them in the alphabetical dictionary, or you can look at them in the syllabary, or find the entry by looking at T585a, one of the relevant "T-numbers" for b’i. And once you have made your initial entry point, you will be able use links to "toggle" to the other categories as well.

I believe that the most useful entry point for the online Maya Dictionary will be its alphabetical listing. In other words, you are able to look up the basic alphabetically-listed Dictionary entries the way you are used to looking up a dictionary of English words or a word in a Spanish-English dictionary. For more details, please see The Organization of the Dictionary.

I think a lot of people, especially beginners, may like to start with the Syllabary Grid. By clicking on one of the signs in the Syllabary Grid you will be able to move to an index of hieroglyphs for syllables and words beginning with that particular sound, you’ll also be able to find out such things as the T-number for the sign in question, the glyphic contexts in which that sign is used (i.e. which words it helps spell), and to hear how the Maya syllables and words are pronounced.

Perhaps at this point I should say a little about T-numbers. The "T" refers to the late Sir J. Eric S. Thompson (1898-1975), one of the greatest of Mayanist scholars. In 1962 Thompson published a Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs, which was an attempt to sort and categorize Maya signs and also to show the glyphic contexts in which they occur. The basic groundwork for this catalogue, which at the time was quite exhaustive, was done by hand; by cutting and pasting thousands of entries on cards (the famous "Thompson Gray Cards", as they are known). These cards were then sorted by sign, and each distinct sign that Thompson identified was given its own individual "T" number. Thompson catalogued just over 800 signs. Although some of his entries involve two or more numbers for what is in fact the same sign, and in other cases an individual T-number actually involves more than one distinct signs, Thompson’s Catalog has been of great use to the field for tracking down hieroglyphs and for doing comparative glyphic analysis. In the days before the linguistic decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs was well advanced, and many signs either were not "read" at all or were the subject of disputed readings, Thompson numbers were used as a handy reference. Many earlier publications, from the 1970s for example, would talk freely of a glyph as T644b:130.116 when today we would normally call that glyph CHUM-[mu]-wa-ni or chum-wan. In those days, now enshrouded in the mists of time, some of us actually knew the Thompson numbers pretty well by heart: I remember at the end of the third Mesa Redonda de Palenque in 1978, I was awarded the "Mr. T-number award" for "anal retention in Maya glyphs", because Linda Schele accused me of being able to remember every single Maya sign by its Thompson number. Happily, those halcyon days have long passed, and so have most of my gray cells (not to mention the Gray Cards!), so T674 doesn’t mean much to me today unless I look it up. But no matter, because with this Dictionary we shall all be able to toggle in and (perhaps more importantly) out of T-numbers with ease.

Other glyph catalogues and dictionaries have been compiled and published over the years (see Earlier Glyph Dictionaries), but Thompson’s has been the most useful and easily the most commonly referred to.

While some of the links will take a little time to develop and put online, the alphabetical Dictionary and the Syllabary Grid are available now. I have made some emendations to John Montgomery’s written version of the dictionary, and will continue to make changes and additions.

Of course we would also like to get your feedback on the online Maya Dictionary and its organization so that we can improve it and make it easier to use. So please feel free to get in touch, with any questions, concerns, and suggestions for changes or emendations. I shall do my best to deal with them in a timely fashion.

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