A Brief Note for Beginners
Numerous features distinguish the Maya from other cultures of ancient Mesoamerica, but one that has attracted explorers, scholars, and enthusiasts for centuries is Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. The calligraphic style and pictorial complexity of Maya glyphs are like no other writing system.
While the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs has been advancing rapidly in the past few decades, differing opinions of whether or not Maya writing was either a number of simple word-pictures or a sophisticated phonetic system stifled decipherment for years. Indeed, it was only in the mid-twentieth century following a breakthrough by Mayanist Tatiana Proskouriakoff that epigraphers (or glyphic experts) could finally agree that Maya Hieroglyphic Writing was a fully functional system based on phonetic signs.
While our system is also based on phonetic signs, in comparison to Maya writing our system seems much simpler. All of our words are formed from various combinations of only 26 signs—that list of letters we call an Alphabet. By contrast, all Maya words are formed from various combinations of nearly 200 signs, and each sign represents a full syllable—so that list of signs is called a Syllabary, not an Alphabet.
Twenty-six signs versus hundreds of signs? Sounds impossible? Not really. As can be seen in the Syllabary below, while one sign of our alphabet can represent only one sound, Maya writers could select from many different signs to represent one sound. For example, there are at least five different signs that could be chosen to represent the Maya syllable ba. Please note that the syllabary includes only about 100 of the nearly 200 possibilities.
In the syllabary presented, sounds are formed by combining a particular consonant with one of the five vowels; a, e, i, o, or, u. If a Maya writer wanted to describe the act of "writing" (or tz’ib’ in Maya) the scribe could select from several different signs to convey the sounds. For example, this combination might be chosen:
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