Problem Areas


At present, there is no complete catalog of the known texts or an archive that is available for investigative search. Existing archives are incomplete and have only been partially digitalized, and can thus only be consulted on-site. A desirable alternative would be a complete, online digital archive that included all known texts and made these broadly available for research. The re-contextualization of written media of unknown provenience represents an additional ambition. With the aid of the EDV-supported text corpus, paleographic and content comparisons could be conducted, which in turn would make possible efforts to narrow down the possible origin of the artifacts and to reconstruct their historical context.


Large sections of the Maya inscriptions are legible, but the process of decipherment has still not been completed, because many logograms and syllabic signs still lack a reading. Furthermore, certain sign collocations can be read aloud, but resist translation, because the corresponding forms in contemporary Mayan languages or their colonial-period variants have not yet been identified. The project intends to confront this deficit with careful etymological research and linguistic analysis. An additional problem is that previous lexical lists are often based on erroneous readings, which lead to inconsistent interpretations.

A corpus-based examination of hypothesized readings is thus an important aim. With this goal in mind, the sign inventory of the Maya script must be compiled in its entirety and continuously updated as soon as additional inscriptions with previously unknown signs are added to the corpus. Sign classifications need to be continuously evaluated with respect to their consistency, particularly in the case of writing systems that have not yet been fully deciphered. Given that existing catalogs are incomplete and incorrect in many areas, the development of a new, dynamically structured, digital sign catalog constitutes a pressing need.

Writing System

The structure of the writing system is only superficially known. The reconstruction of scribal conventions is still in its infancy. The controversy over the meaning and function of vowel-harmonic and –disharmonic spellings, as well as the function of phonetic complementation of logograms, has dominated the debate over orthographic conventions in recent years. At the heart of the debate is the question of whether and in what form the Maya represented vowel length and quality in their script. However, these discussions do not account for dynamic of the writing system. To date, they have not included spatial or temporal aspects of writing and language phenomena.

Different hypotheses concerning the conventions of the writing system rely on deficient linguistic readings. Investigations of geographic distribution, which permit inferences about intraculturally or sociologically conditioned varieties, have yet to be undertaken. Changes in sign form, sign inventory, allomorphic spellings, or the criteria according to which signs were ordered within a glyph block have been inadequately described and analyzed up to now. Research gaps are particularly evident in the field of paleography. At the moment, the only relevant work is that of Alfonso Lacadena, which nonetheless addresses only selected examples from the text corpus. A comprehensive paleographic sign list, such as that created by René Labat for Sumerian, has yet to be compiled and represents a pressing research need.


A comprehensive linguistic description of Classic Mayan is still wanting, because basic understanding of phonology (for example, with respect to vowel quality), morphophonemic processes (for example, changes in vowel length in certain contexts), the field of verb morphology and its tense/aspect/mood system, and the meaning of adverbs and deixis is lacking. Thus, we cannot yet reconstruct important developments within the Mayan languages, such as the rise of aspect-oriented split ergativity in various Mayan languages.

Discourse-grammatical studies have been conducted on only a few texts to date. In addition, literary genres and their linguistic manifestations have only been selectively investigated. The relationship of spoken languages to the written language and the processes of innovation within Classic Mayan should be analyzed in relation to historical, social, and cultural processes. The impression that the writing system was largely homogenous in the lowlands at a given point in time is often based on selective studies and requires comprehensive textual analysis to be verified or falsified. In addition, the reconstruction of the language geography and sociolectology of the Classic Maya lowlands is still in the beginning stages, because the lack of a lexicon of Classic Mayan has prevented more comprehensive studies.


Various attempts have been made to compile word lists and dictionaries of the Classic Mayan lexicon (see State of Research above). However, these works are incomplete, flawed, and de-contextualized; linguistic readings often remain unexplained. Yet the crucial deficit is the lack of a record of occurrences that encompasses all textual sources and thus includes those text passages, in their original hieroglyphic form and with alphanumeric transcriptions that cannot yet be read. Existing, catalog-like inventories of hieroglyphic expressions lack morphological and grammatical analyses of the hieroglyphic expressions, spatiotemporal references, commentary on cultural context, explanations of the translation, and bibliographic information.

In summary, language varieties and the development of the lexicon, grammar, and script still cannot be retraced in spite of the digital presentation of some dictionaries, nor can the original context be retrieved. The interactivity between a text corpus and an analytical word catalog that is necessary for the comprehensive investigation of writing and language cannot be found in any published dictionary or word list to date.