by Peter Mathews
When Spanish friars compiled the first descriptions of Mayan languages in the sixteenth century, they were immediately confronted by some distinctive Mayan phonemes, or sounds, that neither corresponded to Spanish sounds nor could be easily transcribed in the Latin alphabet. With great ingenuity, the Spanish friars invented a series of symbols for transcribing the Mayan sounds. The trouble is, they used different symbols! For example, what linguists call the midvelar glottalised "voiceless" stop was transcribed by friars working in northern México, and recording the Yukatek language, with the symbol k. (The midvelar non-glottalised stop was transcribed with c.) By contrast, in highland Guatemala, the midvelar glottalised stop was mostly transcribed with c’. The glottalised tz is transcribed ts or dz in Colonial Yukatek sources, tz in Colonial highland Guatemala, and ts’ or tz’ in modern Mayan language studies.
The best known of the colonial orthographies is the one developed in northern Yucatán, and used by Diego de Landa, among others.
In 1994 the Academia de Lenguas Mayas (the Academy of Mayan Languages) was established in Guatemala by an act of the Guatemalan Congress. One of the first accomplishments of the Academia was to adopt a standardized orthography for all of the Mayan languages in Guatemala, to facilitate the teaching and written dissemination of Mayan languages in Guatemala (López Raquec 1989). By happy coincidence, the orthography is almost identical to that used by Alfredo Barrera Vásquez in his great dictionary of Yukatek Mayan (Barrera Vásquez 1980).
Maya epigraphers were quick to adopt the Academia’s orthography.
There are always problems with the introduction of a new orthography. As you will have already seen, inconsistencies tend to appear. For example, in the paragraphs above I have spoken of "Yucatán", but also of the "Yukatek Mayan" language. Does this mean that the new orthography is too confusing to be of value? No – over time, it will become the norm.
The signs used in this online Maya Dictionary follow those used by the Academia de Lenguas Mayas published in 1989 by the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala as "Acerca de los alfabetos para escribir los idiomas mayas de Guatemala."
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