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

What is a dictionary?
by Peter Mathews

"A Table Alphabeticall …" is how the title began of the first dictionary of the English language, published in 1604 and containing about 2,500 entries of "Hard Unusual English Words". In fact, the first Mayan-Spanish dictionary had already been compiled by 1604. The year before, a Spanish priest named Antonio de Ciudad Real was appointed Ministro Provincial of the Franciscan Order in Yucatán. Ciudad Real had arrived in Yucatán thirty years earlier, in the company of Fray Diego de Landa, and by 1603 he had almost certainly completed his great Diccionario de Motul; he died in 1617 (Martínez Hernández 1929:xvii-xviii; Barrera Vásquez 1980:19a-21a).

Actually, there is no direct evidence that Ciudad Real was the author of the "Motul" dictionary. There is no proper title page to the surviving manuscript, which in any case is almost certainly a copy by a Maya scribe. Likewise there is no date on the manuscript, apart from one recorded in the entry "bu… ek (in the orthography used in this online Maya Dictionary, it would be written b’utz’ ek’): cometa crinita como lo que apareció el año de 1577, "comet, such as the one that appeared in 1577". It seems, then, that the Motul dictionary was compiled in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, and on the evidence of his contemporaries, the author was Antonio de Ciudad Real, who has been called "the great Maya scholar of the [sixteenth] century" (Ralph Roys, in Tozzer 1941:45).

Let me change the scene to London, nearly three centuries later.

In 1879 a Scottish schoolmaster named James Murray was invited by Philological Society of London to take on a gargantuan task. He was formally contracted to be the editor of the Society’s planned New English Dictionary, the name then given to what is now known as the Oxford English Dictionary. Murray quickly decided that he could not complete the entire work on his own, and he devised a strategy of enlisting the aid of a host of assistants. He organized the printing of "an appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading public", and this four-sheet appeal was produced by the thousand and circulated by bookshops and libraries, by newspapers and magazines. Through this appeal, Murray received thousands of reader volunteers. He divided them into time periods, and asked them to provide on slips of paper references to English words used in definitive or unusual contexts. By the end of the project, over six million paper slips had been received, filed, classified, and organized. 1   The result is the great Oxford English Dictionary, originally published in twelve volumes, with well over 400,000 words defined. Subsequently, five supplementary volumes were added, but the "OED" as it is widely and affectionately called, is now much better known through various printed versions or the CD-ROM and online editions (

Of course Murray’s great work was a monolingual dictionary. Bilingual dictionaries have been in existence for thousands of years. Some otherwise unknown ancient Near Eastern languages are known from such bilingual dictionaries, which were compiled by scribes who presumably had to deal with both languages.

In the case of Mayan languages, dictionaries have been around since shortly after the Spanish conquest. The earlier dictionaries are bilingual Spanish-Mayan or Mayan-Spanish. The initial impetus behind their compilation was so that Spanish priests and friars could learn the language in which they would proselytize, for invariably the situation was one where very few priests were facing the task of converting thousands, even millions, of Indians (see The Classification of Mayan Languages). There now exist excellent dictionaries for most of the Mayan languages, both monolingual as well as bilingual, involving other Mayan languages, Spanish, English, German, French, and so on. There are also dictionaries and word-lists for earlier, reconstructed forms of Mayan languages, including proto-Ch’olan, proto-Tzeltalan, proto-Yukatekan, and proto-K’iche’an. And, with the advances in our understanding of Maya hieroglyphic writing, Maya hieroglyphic dictionaries have begun to be compiled (see Earlier Glyph Dictionaries).

The present online Maya Dictionary is based on the one compiled by John Montgomery (2002). Essentially, John Montgomery’s dictionary is of Classic Maya hieroglyphs, organized alphabetically by word, phrase, or syllable, and including appendices that list signs under several additional categories. This online Dictionary adopts a similar format, and eventually you will be able to toggle between the different categories with ease—such are the advantages of the modern computer.


  1. For an interesting account of the genesis and preparation of the OED, see Winchester 1998.

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