The Maya Hieroglyphic Writing System

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The Maya were one of the Mesoamerican societies that left a huge impact on the history and culture of Central America. The Maya were more advanced than their neighbors in many areas, such as agriculture, architecture and astronomy, but what has fascinated explorers and archaeologists the most is their unique hieroglyphic writing system, which they invented more than 2,300 years ago.

The Maya glyphs are very advanced, visually striking and complex. Their calligraphic style and sophisticated phonetic system are different from any other writing system in the world. This is because the ancient Maya invented their writing system independently from the rest of the world.

The Mayan Writing System

It is one of the three systems in the world that have nothing common with any other writing system – Sumerian and Chinese being the other two. Even though the system is called hieroglyphic because it visually resembles the system used in ancient Egypt, the two systems have nothing in common and are not related in any way.

Deciphering the Code

Another interesting fact about the Maya hieroglyphic writing system is that it was the last of the three systems to be deciphered. The first attempt to decipher this system started in 1950, with a major breakthrough occurring in the 1970s, but even now there are still ongoing projects in this area and not everything has been deciphered.

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Even though the Maya hieroglyphic writing system is based on phonetic signs, it is very different from the phonetic system as we know it. Compared to the writing system the Maya used, the system most western countries use today seems much simpler.

Most countries in Europe and North America use the Latin alphabet, which consists of 26 signs. Some Slavic countries such as Russia and Bulgaria use the Cyrillic alphabet, but even that has no more than 33 signs.

The contrast between the 26 to 33 signs we use, in comparison with over 800 signs the ancient Maya used when forming their words, is breathtaking. The list of signs the Maya used is called the Syllabary, because each sign in their language represents a full syllable.

Mayan Vowels and Syllables

In the syllabary, the sound is formed by combining a consonant with one of the vowels; there were a total of five vowels in the language of the ancient Maya. The Maya used a different glyph for each syllable, which is why there were over 800 glyphs to choose from when writing. Some of the glyphs when deciphered were found to have more than one meaning (polyvalent glyphs).

The ancient Maya wrote their glyphs in columns and rows, similar to the way we write today. However, the way their texts are read is different. If the text has just two columns, the way the text is read is left to right as we normally read today. If the text has more columns, different rules apply:

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Texts with an even number of columns are read like this: first the first two columns are read left to right; then the second set of two columns are read left to right and so on until there are no more sets of two columns left.

Texts with an uneven number of columns are read like this: the first column is read on its own top to bottom; then the second two columns are read together left to right.

See for yourself

There is a lot more than can be said about the ancient Maya and their unique writing system; however, the best way to experience this is to find out for yourself by visiting the ancient Maya ruins in Central America and listening to the guides telling the story of this civilization.

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Some Great Mayan Ruins Tours