Friday, October 23, 2015


Maya is a key to the arrival of Homo Sapiens in the Americas: Nothing to do with Clovis


This is an indispensable tool if you want to start penetrating the Maya language. Yet you will get very frustrated because the list of T numbers is not full, because the simple alphabetical order does not satisfy your curiosity and particularly if you re using the dictionary intensively. Maya is using hieroglyphs as a writing system. Some of these hieroglyphs are representing actual objects, people, animals. They are real images standing thus for the names of those things, animals or persons, a full word. Maya must have been at one time using a fully and purely hieroglyphic writing system in which each word had its image. But it is highly improbable it remained like that very long because a writing system is always invented in a language that has been in existence for quite a while, that has been stabilized in its oral use. Writing is a practice that in a way ossifies a language and that language has to be already stable to accept to be ossified.

When we compare the successive states of this language in its written form we find out that Maya is mostly advancing towards a syllabic writing system, meaning that the hieroglyphs either were simplified or simple hieroglyphs were invented to stand for syllables, and probably the first syllable of the words they were standing for. This is a standard procedure even in alphabetical writing systems like Phoenician, Greek, runic (Germanic) and Ogham (Celtic), and I guess many others. This writing system is based on a syllabary and some syllables can be reduced to one vowel like the “u” third person anaphoric or cataphoric personal pronoun. And that is just what is missing in this dictionary: a systematic listing of the hieroglyphs that represent single syllables used as prefix or affix of any sort since the writing system can use an affix, before (prefix), over (superfix), after (postfix) or under (subfix) the block that is then generally called a glyph that can be a complex phrase containing several words, or that can be the syllabic writing of one particular word. These affixes should have been set in one section so that visually they could easily be scanned to find the one you would be looking for. In this dictionary you cannot have that overview of all affixes.

Such an overview is available in “A Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs numbered by J. Eric S. Thompson” ( but under their T numbers only and not their phonetic equivalents. To find this visual presentation under the phonetic equivalents we have to go to, but this time you will only have the syllabary and that will not give you the words and how they may be composed since phonetic writing is a little bit tricky: a syllable starting with the last consonant of a word is added to the other syllables to specify this final consonant and its vowel then is not pronounced. A syllable consonant-vowel can be used to actually give the inverted order vowel-consonant. The basic vowels can be syllables on their own. And the most difficult element is that these syllables can be words of their own with real meanings. This by the way might be a sign of an agglutinative language, these affixes being derived from semantically meaningful lexical units. We must also see that these previously meaningful semantic units may have evolved into simple affixes that no longer have any semantic meaning beyond their functional roles. Some of these affixes are yet meaningful like “u” that refers to the third person and thus is a cataphoric or anaphoric pronoun, since this “u” is used to mean a genitive of some sort (possession  or attribution) for the following noun as well as the person (third singular) of the following verb, or even at times the verbalizing 3rd person pronoun in front of what is generally considered as a preposition turning it into some kind of positioning verbal copula. This seems to indicate the great autonomy of this affix and thus to indicate this language is not agglutinative because this affix is not a simple agglutinative functional affix but a semantic unit of its own that can be used with various elements. It sounds a lot more like a synthetic language.

The sections of this dictionary called indices, two bilingual ones English-Maya and Spanish-Maya and one monolingual Maya only, will be great help for you but they are only indices and not bilingual dictionaries: they only refer to what is in the main section of the dictionary. You will find cacao, beans, corn (maize) and (maybe) tobacco but not tomato or pumpkin/squash. The sacred plants of American Indians were tobacco, corn, beans and squash, and tomato and many other plants were Mexican by origin. Maybe these words have not been found yet carved or written, but that’s what a dictionary should tell me and the non mention of such words does not mean that they have not been found: they are plainly not included in this dictionary.

Some of the subject indices will be useful for numbers, days, verbs, etc, including phonetic signs, in other words the affixes I was speaking of, though on a wider basis, but not visually so that we cannot use this listing to decipher a glyph: we have to get into the dictionary to look for the visual glyph corresponding to the phonetic transcription.

The dictionary is also “old” for Maya and it should integrate new elements every single year since Maya is in the process of being deciphered and the dictionary was first published in 2002. But then you would have to go to other resources like those you find on the site and particularly the 2012 “Maya Hieroglyphics Study Guide Compiled by Inga Calvin,” This guide gives you a few tables of the five basic vowels crossed horizontally with all the consonants set vertically. Then the words are presented collected under semantic or syntactic sections like numbers, verbal inflectional endings, various verbs in full verbal phrases at times corresponding to more than one glyph, ergative pronouns, prepositions, warfare, animals, titles, etc. But this time the T numbers are not given which is a shortcoming since these T numbers are often used by other scholars.

This dictionary then is a useful tool but it will make you lose some time because it will be hard for you to remember the T number, phonetic value and visual glyph of every single affix or semantic, syntactic and lexical element.


5 STARS A must for Maya language, August 26, 2015


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5 STARS You cannot overlook this book in Maya studies

By Jacques COULARDEAU on 26 Aug. 2015

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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Un outil indispensable pour comprendre le Maya 26 août 2015

This is a dictionary and you cannot expect more than it proposes. It is organized in alphabetical order but based on the phonetic transcriptions of the glyphs. Note they use two phonetic transcriptions: Ch’olan and Yucatec.

The glottalized consonants (consonants followed by a glottal stop marked in the transcription with an apostrophe) follow the non-glottalized consonants in the alphabetical order. Thus CH’ comes after CH.

But the great advantage is that you can really understand the composition of the glyphs thanks to the transcriptions first but also because you will find the various components in the dictionary as such. The writing system is thus a composite writing system since the glyphs are composed of various glyphs associated to build new words. We are dealing here with the morphology of the compound words and many Mayan words are compounds.

It also gives you the various categories and declension or conjugation elements of the words. Hence you have nouns, verbs, adjectives. Nominal phrases are often treated as one glyph composed of various elements showing that the syntax of the nominal phrase is treated as if it were morphology. And we have the same thing for verbal phrases. That seems to show this language is developing on the basis of the second articulation of human language, though it seems to be developing the first steps towards the realization of the third articulation which implies declensions and later prepositions to express nominal cases, and conjugations for the verbs.

To specify that language more we will enter the details of the description of its syntax. Since it is a Native American language we know today it comes from Siberia where two vast families of languages, and ethnic groups, cohabited. DNA has confirmed these dual origins. On one hand the agglutinative languages of the Turkic family mostly settled in Central Asia, South West Siberia (Urals for example), Asia Minor and the whole of Europe before the last ice age up to the arrival of Indo-Europeans in Europe a few thousand years after the ice age. On the other hand the Sino-Tibetan family us composed of isolating languages.

Most of Native American languages are thus mapped on one pattern or the other. Further studies have to be made to check if the two affiliations are strictly respected or if some languages actually merged the characteristics of both families. The Turkic family is third articulation, whereas the Sino-Tibetan family is second articulation.

I will then have to come back to the subject after more studies.

This dictionary has many indices at the end and these indices transform the dictionary into a multilingual and a practical tool. Three languages are concerned first with the Mayan Index, the English Index and the Spanish Index. Then you have the Index of Visual Elements and then a collection of Subject Indices: Numbers, Days, Months, Long Count, Phonetic signs, Verbs/Verbal Phrases, pronouns, adjectives. T-numbers.

Per se this dictionary cannot teach you the language, but it is an indispensible tool for learning that language.



This book by John Montgomery is irreplaceable though already slightly old in its field. It will not be enough for you to understand everything, but it will be a starting point. The first thing you will understand is that the numerical system of the Mayas is not decimal since it is not based on ten but it is based on twenty. The point is though that these Mayas had invented what we call zero in our decimal system without understanding that zero is not a number of its own. There is no year zero for instance when -1 BCE is finished we shift directly to +1 BCE. Zero is the threshold point between -1 and +1. Thus the first decimal group, the first TEN years is not from 0 to 9 but from 1 to 10. Zero is not a number in itself but the sign of the completion of a group of ten elements, enabling us to start a second group of ten, and so on. The decimal system enables us to cross under the unit that is divided in the same way into ten elements, which creates full continuity from the count of units to the subdivision of a unit into tenths and then hundredths and then thousandths of that unit.

The Mayas invented a completion sign for a group of twenty standing for the twentieth element of that group. So they count from 1 to 19 and then have this sign of completion for 20. Then they can start a new group of twenty and they can multiply this group of twenty and once again have twenty such groups to make the next level of the counting system: 20 then 20x20 = 400, then 400x20 = 8,000, etc. We don’t have any notion about them having invented a way to count under the unit itself, hence to divide it into twenty particles and then 400 and then 8,000. They do not seem to have a dividing vigesimal system. They only seem to have a multiplying vigesimal system. So the role of this completion symbol for a group of twenty items has not yet been understood as the limit between plus and minus, or the threshold enabling us to get under the unit itself. Any presentation that sets this completion symbol before unit 1 is mistaken. It is the last element of a group of 20. It is twenty and as such the last element of the group that triggers the beginning of another group. And this book is quite mistaken in its presentation.

Page 59 he gives the numbers in their symbolic variants and twenty is not even provided. In fact it is but called zero, which is a mistake, though the symbolic hieroglyphic representation for one is a finger showing clearly they counted on their fingers at first, which all human beings must have done at one time. But these symbolic variants are not associated to the phonetic equivalent so that we gave the bars and dots, the English numbers up to nineteen and not the Maya phonetic transcriptions of the symbols. Page 59 he gives the same numbers with the head variants but this time from 1 to 19 with the phonetic transcriptions and nothing at all for twenty. He does not seem to have understood this essential value of 20 as the completion of a set, group, slice of numbers. In the same way he does not really understand that this vigesimal system in its bars and dots version has several stages of mental development: five with one bar for the first time here and then used for the next numbers up to nine; ten with two bars used for the next numbers up to fourteen; and finally fifteen with three bars used for the next numbers up to nineteen. Then if he had given that progression he would have understood that twenty was the completion of that group or set and not zero, the last step before climbing to the next twenty. In fact the use of twenty as a base for counting sheep for instance in the Middle Ages was commonly used in Europe and each group of twenty was indented onto a counting stick. It is in fact the very principle of an abacus, though the abacus seems to work on a decimal base, but it could work on any base. Pascal’s counting machine was decimal and used the very same principle: the tenth dent on one dented wheel turned one dent onto the higher wheel. This system was still used in the registering cash desks of the 1960s before digital counting machines or calculator.

In the same way he does not explain why as for the names of these numbers there is a full continuity in original names up to 9. Then 10 introduces a /la-/ prefix followed by the name of one, hence /la-jun/. Then for 11 it is a fully new name not connected to one (/jun/) at all. And then for 12 we use the ten prefix /la-/ and a root that is totally original in the series, and finally from 13 up to 19 we use the number for 3 to 9 followed by the name of the number 10 (/lajun/), thus producing 16 = wak-lajun from 6 = wak. It is quite obvious here they used the base five and hesitated a lot from ten to twelve when they invented their numbering system. In fact they used their hands first which makes five and ten and then like in numerous systems in the world (English pennies up to their decimalization in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher, oysters and eggs in Europe and probably in other places, and nails were still sold by the gross, 12x12 = 144, and are maybe still sold like that for big ones) 5 fingers + 5 fingers + 2 hands = 12, and later they relapsed into the five-ten base probably by introducing the toes and that leads to twenty (remember the twenty base for the shilling up to its decimalization by Margaret Thatcher that got rid of the shilling altogether). It is surprising John Montgomery did not see that. It is a very common problematic in all counting systems in the world.

The second element that will irritate you to the utmost, though it is a very good pedagogical means (yet not meant as such by the author) since it forces you to use the dictionary all the time: very often the various elements of a glyph (or writing block) are not properly identified. Either the transcription is given for the whole block and not specified as for the elements in the block corresponding to the elements in the transcription mostly specified by the author with dashes. Or the various glyphic elements are actually identified phonetically as the various elements of the transcription but the T numbers are not provided, which makes it difficult to use the dictionary then because the various affixes can have many glyphic realizations and we do not always know which one is concerned because of the great variations on the real glyphic realizations. At times too in that line a vowel is attached to its preceding consonant though it should be attached to the following consonant, or vice versa. Finding then the real glyphic realization is not that easy. Or, third possible trap, he does give us the T number composition of the particular word, but since his dictionary does not have the full list of T numbers you are lost in a jungle: you cannot find the glyph corresponding to this particular T number.

You end up for some simple affixes turning all the page and screening all the glyphs in order to find the proper one in the dictionary and then have the T number of it. In other words it is done for beginners as he constantly repeat, but for obstinate and persistent beginners who will spend hours on one page of this supposedly simple manual. I would personally have organized this manual differently and have systematically identified the glyphs or glyphic elements with the visual realization, the phonetic transcription and the T number with a dictionary giving first all the affixes in alphabetical order of their transcriptions and with their real names when they have one, the meaning of the glyph that it still is or from which it is derived, and the semantic or syntactic value it has in the language. Too often in the manual but also in the dictionary of the same author these affixes, and at times simple fully autonomous glyphs, are just specified as being vowel or phonetic sign, and yet some after this “phonetic sign” specification are provided with one or several semantic meanings and no explanation is given about using the moon sign in four different though similar or connected forms as the “phonetic sign” of /ja/. If in its use in the composition of glyphs it retains its “moon sign” value, how does it do it, and then the language is agglutinative. If it has lost all its “moon sign” value in its phonetic use then the language is synthetic. Maybe we can’t answer such a question but it HAS TO BE ASKED.

I will make only one more remark. It is quite obvious this language is ergative in many ways. But is it purely ergative or something else. The fact, and Montgomery is not the only one to say so, there is a passive suffix is surprising since the reversal of an ergative sentence by a “passive” suffix would produce an active sentence. When we know this passive suffix is used with the verb meaning ‘to die’ which is normally intransitive meaning that the “subject” is also the element that carries the ergative value, its passivization seems to imply that this ergative “subject” is not only the theme of the action but the real agent of it as if the sentence was a transitive sentence like “X dies (a real good death)” becoming “(a real good death) is died by X” and X is the agent of that death, of his own death. The cultural value of such a structure frequently found in the various inscriptions considered by Montgomery is extremely far-reaching and it goes the same way as all he said about “letting blood” or “blood letting” or “self-mutilating/scarifying one’s own penis in order to shed blood” leading to the understanding that the prisoners so often represented on the temples were supposed to die in and by shedding as much blood as possible as slowly as possible in as long a time as possible. This leads me to another question: is the language the result of the blood letting practices or are the blood letting practices the result of the language? Since my idea about any language is that it is produced, invented, developed by human beings and human communities from the very start in Africa, I believe Homo Sapiens was practicing blood rituals very early in his history (meaning when he started emerging 250,000 years ago) as a way to communicate with the spiritual forces he could not completely identify, as a way to bring the community together in ritual suffering or painful rituals all turning around blood, or sperm, or urine, or water. In Maya the four of them are connected in many words meaning dripping, shedding, letting flow.

And that is universal. In the same way as /ja’/ means water constructed on the vowel /a/ and then connected to blood, urine, water and sperm in /ch’a/ which then develops into /ch’ul/ meaning the soul in connection with blood, and then the ritualistic scarification of the penis to shed blood gets to its full meaning. In Sumerian in the same way the word /a/ means equally water or any fluid, hence sperm and even father as well as the irrigation canals running at the top of the levees protecting and defining the fields, hence the property of the master of this field, hence his house and household rendered by /en/ or /in/ with /e/ meaning the temple. In the same way blood rituals existed in Sumer dedicated to the goddess Inanna, unification of /in/ the estate, the master and water as the base of the master’s power and authority, and Nanna, the God of the moon who is the father of Inanna: the blood rituals were centered on a castrating knife used by the priestess of Inanna to impose respect for the goddess to reluctant men who became slaves in the temple. The same way as /ja/ water is quite close to /ja’/ the moon in Maya. This universality as Joseph Greenberg would say of the sound /a/ meaning water is all the more important here if we see on many glyphs the representation of blood and blood letting as a chain of drops and we find these in /a/ or /aj/ T228 and 229, masculine, agentive pronoun third person also used as an agentive prefix which is not necessarily agentive but is personal like in the case given by Montmgomery: /aj naab/ meaning /he of water/, and yet it is the second person pronoun of the ergative set when it marks the subject of the verb. This second person is necessarily the theme of the speaker’s utterance, hence the non agentive person in the communicative act, and yet the subject of the ergative verb meaning it is in-between being the originator of the action and the receiver of the same action. He is there dealing with something that has to do with the soul, the ritual of blood letting, the self-submission to it in order to serve the community and to save himself by communicating with the gods.

In this language we have a lot more than Montgomery says. This language was spoken for many thousand years before it was written and the writing system that we can follow in its evolution must have taken millennia to become fully developed and significant, and it must have develop slowly along with the architectural ability and the technology to provide surfaces where to write it, material media without which the written medium will never reach people several thousand years later. The Sumerian writing system took at least 5,000 years to emerge and it was rather simple when compared with the extreme intricacies of this written system. But saying that means that these Mayas are the descendants of people who must have arrived in the Americas a long time before the Clovis hypothesis that is maybe valid for northern American Indians but does not work for the highly sophisticated civilizations of Mesoamerica and Southern America. We have to come to another hypothesis that gave these people at least 15,000 years or more to devise their architecture, language and writing system, not to speak of their religions and of the cultivation of their god Maize, often know as Corn or Atole, T278, Tnn, T630, T630v and a few others all standing for /sa/.


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