Research Questions

In addition to the general Problem Areas, a series of research questions can be developed that do not just focus on the grammatology and linguistics of the hieroglyphic script. Comparative perspectives from other writing systems are also important, as well as an interdisciplinary approach that also includes psycho- and sociolinguistics, quantitative methods, or typology.

Script Typology

An unambiguous understanding of the nature and functionality of a writing system is the key to every research question that engages epigraphy as more than just an auxiliary science. Modern research has been able to determine the typology of writing systems in much greater detail. Comparative graphemics is not new approach in Maya epigraphy, but it is advantageous to employ it in a more sophisticated manner than by referring to other writing systems only for the purposes of supporting one’s argument. For example, the graphemic realizations of homophony and determinatives are distinct in Maya, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and cuneiform, because all three represent different developments of a fundamentally logo-syllabic writing system. A contrastive perspective on all three systems thus leads to a greater understanding of the commonalities as well as the differences between them, and thereby to a more precise typology.

The Properties of Signs

No script typology can be derived without an exact definition of the graphemic lexicon, or the functional properties of signs. Whereas the dichotomy between pleremic (“contentful”; i.e., logographic) and cenemic (“phonetic”; i.e., syllabic) signs is no longer in question, some problems remain unsolved. One such question is whether additional sign classes exist, as has been proposed in the case of morphosyllables (syllabic signs with a semantic function) or semantic classifiers (which indicate semantic domains), for instance. The properties of signs are also closely linked to orthography, and thus with epigraphers’ attempts to reconstruction the reading of a sign collocation. Thus, the orthographic depth of the Maya script and the extent to which the various uses of signs converge with each other must be clarified, all while taking into account the mental lexicon.

Rules of Vowel Harmony

The issue of orthographic depth applies not only to the graphemic lexicon and phenomena such as sign ellipsis or metathesis, but additionally to the much-debated issue of whether and, if so, how vowel quantities are indicated by harmonic and disharmonic spellings. However, it also has not yet been definitively determined whether Classic Mayan vowel system was quantitative (i.e., with a phonemic function) or qualitative (with meaningful contrast communicated through stress and syllable length). Even less is known about the exact “rules” themselves; the two most important proposals are mutually exclusive.

Linguistic Affiliation

The proposal of a “Classic Ch’olti’an” as a static lingua franca used in courtly contexts is particularly appealing in comparison with the use of a fossilized Middle Egyptian as the sacred language of the New Kingdom, as a vernacular literary language in a true situation of diglossia. Classical, Ciceronian Latin occupied a similar position as the standard language in the Roman Empire and later in European intellectual life. Yet this perspective is just as problematic as establishing genetic relationships and does not explain the ever clearer influences of vernacular languages on the script. As the epigraphic data indicate, the language situation was much more complex and diversified and far from that of a unified standard language, particularly in less formal discourse contexts and textual genres. In fact, more recent data point to correspondences in the texts with the linguistic development of Proto-Ch’olan, which was reconstructed by historical linguists over 20 years ago. The presence of diglossia and vernacular influences, in turn, affect other phenomena, not the least of which are scribal practice and orthographic depth.