General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Oct 2020/13 Water
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Article suitable for Top Juniors and above

Mexicolore contributor Janice Van Cleve

RESOURCE: Fun with Maya Glyphs

We’re very grateful to Janice Van Cleve, researcher and author of several books and many research papers on the Maya, for this appealing ‘how-to’ introduction to writing your name using ancient Maya glyphs...

Pic 1: (Somewhat daunting) Maya script...
Pic 1: (Somewhat daunting) Maya script... (Click on image to enlarge)

When a person first looks at a Mayan inscription, understanding it can be pretty daunting (pic 1). To write such elaborate texts required a good artistic sense and a lot of time. Scribes were often nobles and so they not only used artistic license, but they had an attitude about it. To read it today requires a good eye and some detective work. Fortunately there are still between 7 million and 11 million Maya living today in Central America. Many of them still speak the same language as their ancient ancestors who wrote in glyphs. This is a real written language and these characters represent real sounds.

Pic 2: Maya scribe
Pic 2: Maya scribe (Click on image to enlarge)

The Maya wrote in syllable combinations – one consonant and one vowel. When these combinations are put together, they spell words. This has helped linguists figure out the sounds and match them to the characters. The linguists have arranged them in a table called a syllabary (pic 3). The table lists the vowels at the top and the consonants down the side. Note that many of the consonant/vowel combinations can be written several ways. Like I said, those scribes had artistic attitudes.

Pic 3: Maya syllabary, from ‘Maya Hieroglyphic Workbook’ by J. Kathryn Josserandt and Nicholas A. Hopkins*
Pic 3: Maya syllabary, from ‘Maya Hieroglyphic Workbook’ by J. Kathryn Josserandt and Nicholas A. Hopkins* (Click on image to enlarge)

Sometimes they would use a logogram – an actual picture of the item instead of spelling it out. For our purposes, however, we can leave that for another time. The tables shown here (pic 3) were taken from a Maya Hieroglyphic Workbook by J. Kathryn Josserandt and Nicholas A. Hopkins, which can be found on the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. website (*link below; click on the image in pic 3 to see a large version).
For example, here (pic 4) is my name in Mayan. This glyph combines three consonant/vowel elements to spell the word “Janice”. However, when the Maya speak, they do not articulate the last vowel. So while my name is spelled CHA-NI-SI, it is pronounced CHA-NI-S. As you can see, I could have chosen slightly different elements for each of the consonant/vowel combinations – but can’t we all be artistic Maya nobles with attitudes?

Pic 4: ‘Janice’ written in Maya glyphs
Pic 4: ‘Janice’ written in Maya glyphs (Click on image to enlarge)

The Maya have the same vowels as we do – A, E, I, O, and U. They also have most of our consonants. However they do not have D, F, G, Q, R, V or Z. So if you are trying to spell your name in Mayan, Dorothy and Edmund pose a problem. However, with a little creative substitution, it is possible to spell most of our names in Mayan. Here are some helpful substitutions:-

C (soft as in Cindy) - Use S+vowel (i.e. sa, se, si, so, or su)
C (hard as in Cathy) - Use K+vowel
D Use T+vowel
F Use P+vowel
G (soft as in George) - Use Ch+vowel or T+vowel
G (hard as in Gary) - Use K+vowel
J Use Ch+vowel or T+vowel
Ph Use P+vowel
Q Use Ku+W+vowel [ Ex. qua=ku+wa and qui=ku+wi ]
R Use L+vowel
Sh Use X+vowel [ X is pronounced as ‘sh’]
St Use Tz+vowel [Ex. Kristy = ka-li-tzi ]
Th Use T+vowel or X+vowel
V Use W+vowel
Z Use Tz+vowel

Give it a try with your name. The Maya used a brush to paint glyphs in their books but you can use a Sharpie (felt-tip) pen. If you can do it with a mouse on a computer screen using Paintbrush or draw it with your finger on an iPad, so much the better! Have fun!

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 01st 2020

Download the Maya Hieroglyphic Writing Workbook (famsi.org)
Fun with Maya numbers: an excellent video on Maya arithmetic
Janice’s latest research paper and the rest of her books can be found on her website, here
Google Arts/British Museum online resource ‘Untangling Maya Glyphs’
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