Written Language

Language Affiliation

Like many ancient writing systems, the Maya script represents a relatively conservative, standard language, which likely developed from Proto-Cholan-Tzeltalan. The lexicon and morphology of Classic Mayan, as this standard language is now known, suggest that it was a forerunner of Ch’orti’, which is still spoken today. Inscriptions from the western Maya lowlands feature numerous characteristics of the modern western Cholan languages Chol and Chontal.

In the northern Yucatan peninsula, there are indications of a strong influence of proto-Yukatekan on lexicon, phonology, and grammar of Classic Mayan. Whether or not additional languages in the southern periphery of the lowlands exercised influence on the written language remains hotly debated. Classic Maya is characterized by great conservatism, but also by innovations that indicate, albeit presumably with some delay, processes of language change and language contact. In this sense, Maya texts provide data that have the potential to contribute to critical examination and calibration of attempts to date language change using glottochronology.

The investigation of the phonology, morphology, and syntax of Classic Maya constitutes the subject of a few, selective studies. Neither the origin of Classic Mayan nor the changes that the written language underwent have been subjected to systematic research.

Lexicography

With the exception of a few word lists, the vocabulary of Classic Mayan remains undocumented. Previously published dictionaries are selective compilations of a subset of hieroglyphic expressions, which are ordered macro-structurally according to functional group and only represent the state of decipherment of a hieroglyph up to the point of publication. As such, they are largely out of date. The hieroglyphic texts of the Post-Classic codices were the focus of lexicographic studies in the 19th and 20th centuries. With a total of 7,550 hieroglyphs, these codices were the most important foundation for initial investigation of the Maya script. The earliest lexicographic lists and compilations of individual graphemes with proposals for their linguistic readings are based on the Maya codices. Most of these proposals have since been disproved and are now only relevant to the history of the research field.

Most of the hieroglyphic texts can now be read and their contents largely revealed due to the progress of the linguistic decipherment of the Maya script in the past twenty years and thanks to new understanding of the morphology and grammar of Classic Maya. The past two decades have thus seen the publication of various Classic Mayan word catalogs, whose lemmas are sorted according to strict alphabetic criteria and which vary in their degree of comprehensiveness. The first annotated list of this kind, composed in 1999 by Alfonso Lacadena, is restricted in scope to lexical morphemes and remains unpublished. This word list is characterized by the same restrictions as all other lists that have since been compiled: they do not document occurrences of the forms and contain neither explanations of the translations nor linguistic analysis of the forms.

An additional feature that these word lists share is that they document neither spatial dissemination (varieties) nor temporal developments of spellings. They thus do not lend themselves to retracing local varieties or developments in the lexicon, grammar, and script. Similarly, one cannot use these resources to retrieve the contexts of use of the signs or lemmas.