Sign Classes and Catalogues


The Maya writing system is described as a hieroglyphic script because of the iconic character of its approximately 650 signs. Typologically, however, it is a logo-syllabic writing system with two sign classes, syllabic signs and logograms.

Logograms represent concrete linguistic terms and, with only few exceptions, always refer to only one denotation. The increasing influence of vernacular languages on the script increased the polyvalence of Maya signs during the Terminal Classic period. The second sign class is that of vowel and syllabic signs, which represent open syllables. They permitted the syllabic spelling of lexical and grammatical morphemes. In addition, they were used as pre- or post-fixed phonetic complements for logograms.

Thus, it was possible to write words with exclusively syllabic signs or using only logograms. Usually, logograms and syllabic signs were combined. A high level of calligraphic complexity was achieved in texts primarily through allographic notation and allomorphic representation of signs. This phenomenon allowed scribes to compose texts that were aesthetically ambitious without repeating signs. There were at least two or more signs for frequently used syllables, a situation which explains the extremely high number (about 200) of syllabic signs within the total inventory of some 650 graphemes in the Maya script.

The signs were combined with each other to build roughly quadratic blocks. One such hieroglyphic block probably corresponds to the emic concept of a word among the pre-Hispanic Maya. In most cases, these blocks were paired in double columns that were read from left to right and from top to bottom. Sentences were formed by the combination of hieroglyphic blocks that indicated various parts of a sentence. Multiple sentences were combined to produce complex texts, whose syntax and textual structure are comparable to those of modern Mayan languages.

Sign Inventories

Out of eleven proposals for the inventory and systemization of the signs of the Maya script, only the transcription conventions and sign nomenclature of Günter Zimmermann for the codices and Eric Thompson for all text forms have become widely accepted. Thompson compiled an inventory of 862 signs, which remains the standard reference system for Maya hieroglyphs today, in spite of incorrect classifications, double entries, and the incompleteness of the text inventory.

Nikolai Grube’s investigations of the sign inventory have indicated that about 200 of Thompson’s 862 classified graphemes are allographs, whereby the total inventory of signs can be reduced from 862 to approximately 650. Martha Macri arrived the same total number in her proposal of an alternative classification system about ten years ago, although her system has not been widely adopted due to its incompleteness, erroneous classifications, and misinterpretations.

Although previously published sign catalogs primarily contain simple documentation of occurrences and grapheme concordances, reference works with suggested readings of individual graphemes have been published in the course of decipherment efforts. These references document the current state of decipherment at the time of publication with bibliographic references.