The Maya Writing System
The Maya hieroglyphic script was the only fully-fledged writing system in the Americas. There are over a thousand Maya glyphs known from carved stones, painted murals and ceramics. Most of them are logograms; the rest are phonetic signs. This article will show you how to read Maya hieroglyphs.
- Maya Glyphic Writing: Introduction
- How to read Maya Hieroglyphs
- Maya Hieroglyphic Texts: Grammar
- Maya Syllabary and Worsksheets
- Origins of the Maya Script
- Breaking the Maya Code
- Maya Writing: Frequently Asked Questions
- Recommend Reading
Maya Glyphic Writing: Introduction
The Maya script is a logosyllabic system in which some signs called logograms represent words or concepts (like “shield” or “jaguar”), whilst other signs called syllabograms (or phonograms) represent sounds in the form of single syllables (like “pa”, “ma”).
From about 5000 texts that survived and have been recovered by archaeologists, over a thousand of these 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 5001.
The phonetic value is known for 80% of these signs while the meaning of only 60% of them has been deciphered so far (and counting).
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. The Maya script, though, was possibly in use until the 17th century when the last Maya kingdoms were conquered2.
Rabbit Scribe on the Princeton Vase (Princeton Art Museum)
How to Read Maya Hieroglyphs
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.
Conventions for the Study of Maya Glyphs
In this article, we use boldface to represent transliteration (i.e. the transposition of Maya hieroglyphs into Latin alphabet broken down by syllables).
- Logograms are written in BOLDFACE UPPERCASE letters
- Syllabograms are written in boldface lowercase
Transcriptions are represented in italics (i.e. intended Maya word written in the Latin alphabet).
I will use quotation marks ” ” to indicate translated texts.
The Structure of Maya Glyphs
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 are 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 and things.
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.
Maya Syllabograms / Phonograms
Syllabograms / phonograms are phonetic signs that were used to express syllables. In Mayan 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).
Broadly, though, Mayan languages follow a consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) pattern but according to the harmony principle, the last vowel of the last syllable of a given word is usually suppressed3. 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 my 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: Grammar
Maya grammar would require a lengthier post,4 but for the purpose of an introduction to the 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 is 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 represent 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 (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 noun 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 does not really exist in Mayan languages, it has to be deduced 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
Ancient Maya hieroglyphic texts that are known to us mostly come from public monuments, which recount the deeds of kings. This means that almost all the verbs are written in the third person (he/she). In the inscriptions, the verbs will be usually found immediately after dates.
The third person is marked by the prefix u- before verbs starting with a consonant and y- before verbs starting with a vowel as we have seen in the “Pronouns” section.
Intransitive verbs are the most common in inscriptions.
There is no suffix for the present tense, while the past tense (still debated) seems to be marked by the suffix -iiy and the future (quite rare in the inscriptions) is marked by the suffix -oom.
The sign -AJ is often seen following a verb. Its function is to turn transitive roots into intransitive verbs, for example chuhk-aj (“he is captured”):
One common form of transitive verbs is easy to recognise thanks to the prefix u- (pronouns, 3rd person) and the suffix -aw that usually accompany them.
For example, when a ruler ascends the throne, the text would say: uch’am-aw K’awiil, “he takes Kaw’iil” (Maya kings did not “take” the throne, rather a scepter representing the god Kaw’ill):
In Classic Maya inscriptions, adjectives precede nouns and they are constructed by adding a syllable to a noun (-al, -ul, -el, -il, -ol) following the rule of synharmony.
So, for example the adjective “fiery” is k’ahk’ (“fire”) + -al = k’ahk’al
Maya Hieroglyphic Syllabary
The following charts are drawn from Harri Kettunen & Christophe Helmke (2014), Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs, Wayeb: XIX European Maya Conference, pp. 74-77.
The Origins of the Maya Script
The Maya script was not the first writing system in Mesoamerica and until recently it was thought to have evolved from the so-called Isthmian script (a.k.a. “Epi-Olmec script”),5 but texts discovered in 2005 at the Maya lowlands site of San Bartolo (where I carried out my PhD research), questioned this proposition, as writing dating back to 300 BC was discovered.6.
The scientific consensus is that the first writing systems in Mesoamerica were developed around 700-500 BC and later forked into two traditions in two different areas:
- the highlands of Mexico
- 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 in the Pyramide de las Pinturas at San Bartolo, Guatemala and on the masonry masks of structure 5C-2nd at the site of Cerros (Belize, 1st century BC).
Early Maya text and image from a re-used Olmec greenstone pectoral (Dumbarton Oaks Museum)
(redrawn after Kettunen & Helmke 2014, fig 5)
Deciphering the Maya Script: How were Maya Glyphs Translated?
The decipherment of the Maya script took several centuries and the story of that long scientific endeavour has been recounted in several books7 but most famously in Michael Coe‘s “Breaking the Maya Code”8 which was turned into a TV documentary by Night Fire Films in 2008.
One pivotal moment in this story was in 1862 when a French clergyman, Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, uncovered a 16th-century manuscript at the Royal Academy of History in Madrid: the Relacion de la cosas de Yucatan written around 1566 by Yucatan bishop Diego de Landa.
In this document, Diego de Landa tried to match Maya glyphs to the Spanish alphabet not realising that the Maya script was not alphabetic.
The turning-point happened in the 1950’s when a Russian linguist, Yuri Knorozov, explained that the signs de Landa had copied in his manuscript did not represent letters but sounds (syllables).
Knorozov noticed that one of the signs in the codices was Landa’s cu followed by another sign. These two signs were associated with the image of a turkey. The Maya word for turkey is cutz and Knorozov reasoned that if the first sign was cu, then the second one ought to be tzu (assuming the last vowel was dropped according to the principle of synharmony).
To test his model, Knorozov looked in the codices for a glyph that started with the sign tzu and found it above the image of a dog (tzul in Maya):
Knorozov syllabic approach opened the way for other epigraphers and led to the decipherment of the Maya script.
Once a sign’s phonetic value is known, epigraphers will then search the dictionaries of Mayan languages to try to find the closest gloss in order to translate the glyph.
Maya Writing: Frequently Asked Questions
What were Maya hieroglyphs used for?
Like any writing system, Maya hieroglyphs were used for a variety of tasks. The texts that survived, though, mainly come from public monuments and mostly recount the deeds of ancient kings.
The four codices (Maya books) known to us, are mostly about astrology (eclipses, Venus cycles and horoscopes).
How many Maya glyphs are there?
Over one thousand glyphs have been recorded by epigraphers, but there are many variants for each sign and so there was never more than 500 glyphs in use at any time.
Did the Maya write books?
Yes, the Maya wrote books (now called Codices) made from bark paper. Only four have survived and are known to us:
- The Dresden Codex (Codex Dresdensis) is held at the Sächsische Landesbibliothek (the state library) in Dresden, Germany.
- The Madrid Codex (also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex or the Troano Codex) is held at the Museo de América in Madrid, Spain.
- The Paris Codex (also known as the Codex Peresianus and Codex Pérez) is held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.
- The Grolier Codex is held at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico city.
Could everybody write?
No, not everybody could write just literate nobles who had been trained as scribes.
How many Maya Glyphs are translated?
The phonetic value of 80% of the glyphs is known but the meaning of only 60% of them is known at the moment.
Is there a Mayan Alphabet?
There is no Maya alphabet because the ancient Maya hieroglyphic script was a logosyllabic system in which some signs represent words while other signs represent single syllables.
- Content, illustrations and examples used in this article are drawn and adapted from Harri Kettunen & Christophe Helmke (2014), Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs, Wayeb: XIX European Maya Conference (available online), which I would recommend as a much more detailed introduction to the Maya writing system.
- Michael D. Coe and Mark Van Stone (2005) Reading the Maya Glyphs. Thames and Hudson
- Michael D. Coe (2011) Breaking the Maya Code. Thames and Hudson
- Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube (2000) Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson
- Andrea Stone and Marc Zender (2011) Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson
- Michael Coe and Justin Kerr (1997) The Art of the Maya Scribe. Thames and Hudson
- Mark Pitts & Lynn Matson (2008), Writing in Maya Glyphs Names, Places, & Simple Sentences A Non-Technical Introduction, FAMSI. [PDF]
- Montgomery Drawing Collection – A database of hieroglyph drawings that you can print and use.
- 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.
- How the Maya made bark paper – Demonstration
Expert decipherer and calligrapher Dr Mark Van Stone explains how Maya hieroglyphs are constructed by writing a modern name in glyphs:
Cracking the Maya Code
Documentary by David LeBrun, Written by Prof. Michael Coe
Duration: 55 min
NOVA / PBS (2008)
The ancient Maya civilization of Central America left behind an intricate and mysterious hieroglyphic script, carved on monuments, painted on pottery, and drawn in handmade bark-paper books.
For centuries, scholars considered it too complex ever to understand—until recently, when an ingenious series of breakthroughs finally cracked the code and unleashed a torrent of new insights into the Mayas’ turbulent past.
Inside Emblem Glyphs: Tracking Royal Identies at Calakmul & Dzibanche
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (2013)
Conference by Dr Simon Martin
Duration: 80 min
Recalling the Ancestors: Maya Traditions across Time
For ancient and contemporary Maya alike, ancestors are ever-present and fundamental to the sense of identity, heritage, power and place. Join the Penn Museum as they celebrate Maya ancestors and the cultural traditions through which communities engage them.
References & Notes
- Harri Kettunen & Christophe Helmke (2014), Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs, Wayeb: XIX European Maya Conference
- Several groups in the Péten, but namely the Itza Maya, remained independent until 1697. For more information, see Jones, Grant D. (1998), The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom, Stanford, California, US: Stanford University Press.
- That’s Knorosov’s second rule, also called the rule of synharmonie.
- see Kettunen & Helmke 2014, namely chapter III, for a more comprehensive overview
- for more information, see: Stephen D. Houston (2004) “Writing in Early Mesoamerica” in The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 274-309.
- see: Saturno, William, David Stuart, & Boris Beltrán (2006) Early Maya Writing at San Bartolo, Guatemala. Science Express.
- see in particular: Houston, Stephen, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, & David Stuart (2001), The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
- Coe, Michael D. (1992). Breaking the Maya Code. London: Thames & Hudson.