How to Read Mayan Hieroglyphs

The first part of the Mayan writing system to be deciphered by the western scholars in the XIXth century was its numerical system. Unlike many believed, the system turned out to be remarkably sophisticated. Very similar to the Arabic system, the Mayas used the idea of place as a consideration of value for each number, however, where we have a place value that increases in multiples of 10 from right to left, the Mayan system increases in multiples of 20. Instead of the place value increasing horizontally, in the Maya system it increases vertically, moving up the page.

In Maya writing, a shell symbolizes a zero, an advance that the Maya and the hindus made over the Roman and Babylonians, a dot stood for one, and a bar for five. These were the 3 main symbols used in the Maya numerical system, however, Mayan scribes also expressed numbers with the face of a god. Each number from 1 to 20 could also be expressed with one of these faces. This gives an idea of the complexity of the numerical system.

In one of history’s ironies, we owe the decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs to the Spanish inquisitors, which were largely responsible for the eradication of Mayan scriptures. The most important inquisitor of the Yucatan, Fray Diego de Landa, wrote an important source for the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphs (Relación de las cosas en Yucatan, or an account of things in Yucatan). The alphabet described by Diego de Landa was the basis for the studies of the Russian scholar Yuri Knorosov, who proposed phonetic readings of many glyphs.

The Mayan alphabet contains more than one sign for some letters and syllabic signs. One of the mistakes that Landa made was the assumption that the Mayas wrote in the same way that XVIth century Spaniards did, using an alphabet. The fact is that the Mayan writing system also contained syllabic glyphs, which meant that several letters could be represented in one symbol. In this way, the glyph for “i” and “ti” would appear as something completely different.

Even today, Mayanist face the obstacle of Mayan language diversity when deciphering the glyphs. The Maya spoken in Yucatan is not the same as the one in Guatemala or the one in Chiapas, and though they can be as close as Dutch is to English, there are significant differences in their grammar and pronunciation. The complexity of the Mayan writing system combines phonography and logography. Very much like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan hieroglyphs are unpredictable and the same word can be written in several ways. Likewise, Mayan hieroglyphs are often soldered together, so only a trained eye can distinguish one from the other.

Today, it can be said that roughly 80 percent of the Mayan writing has been deciphered. More than 45 years after Knorosov’s discovery, there are still some disagreements about the Mayan glyphs. The complexity of the Mayan scripture is evident, its most obvious feature is the large number of symbols for a single sound. For instance, the vowel “u” can be expressed in seven different ways. Likewise, one sign can count with several different pronunciations, making it one of the most complex writing systems ever conceived by mankind.