Maya glyphs

jess tauber phonosemantics at
Fri Apr 11 02:12:51 UTC 2008

Boy am I not keeping up... I just caught the PBS/Nova special about Mayan epigraphy and translation, and learned for the first time about the choices that the makers of these messages had for different syllables. Then like a flash, out of the blue comes one of those 'aha' moments that may or may not have lasting import.

As all of you know by now I keep beating my dead hobby horse of sound symbolism. Mayan languages are rather rich in sound symbolism, from bucketloads of expressive verbs all the way down to partial analytical transparency for many many verb roots, even nonexpressive ones.

I have good dictionaries of a number of different languages in the family (such as Laughlin's Tzotzil set), and had in past years worked out the phonosemantic patterning (imperfect as that patterning is), which tended to block out groups of roots with related form/meaning partial structure, for initials, vowels, finals.

After seeing the show, it occurs to me that perhaps the glyphmakers might not have been randomly assorting the syllabics with the various choices (as the show implied, they liked 'surprise' or some such). Instead, given the blocking into form/meaning groupings I'm claiming (those of you who've noticed this sort of thing PLEASE chime in), perhaps a) the form of the glyph-partial chosen matched one particular sound symbolic subset that matched the word, and/or b) choice of glyph might create a secondary message to overlay over the first one.

In spirit this might be something (assuming it is valid, which I'm not- too much of a piker here) like in modern Chinese where you get 'means like' attached to 'sounds like' (the 'phonetic')- but in Mayan you would get this in the self-same element.

Anyway, just a thought. Comments welcome.

Jess Tauber
phonosemantics at
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