The xa syllable as an example of onomatopoeia?

by Stephen Houston

A well-known feature of language is onomatopoeia, the practice of creating and using words to imitate a sound. “Wham!” and “bang!” appear in cartoons, and various languages refer to a dog’s bark as anything from vov vov (Swedish) to bow wow (English).  In Swedish, the language of my childhood, a dog was for this very reason a vov, at least to the very young. Such words can be unearthed in all Mayan languages. Modern Tzotzil, for example, has pom for “bong” or “beat,” ‘o’ for the sound of gagging, even tzan for the sound of a ringing bell (Laughlin 1975:64, 89, 282). Fun, whimsical, evocative: onomatopoeia creates many chances for linguistic play and expression.

It unsurprising, then, that the ancient Maya drew on onomatopoeia in devising their writing system. One possible example is the syllable xa, deciphered by the editor of this blog, after an early, exhilarating view of the newly discovered cave paintings at Naj Tunich. The pa-xa in one text, along with another spelling in the Dresden Codex, nailed the reading of the month name, pax (or, we now know, a harmonic spelling of it, as disharmonic spellings, pa-xi, are also attested).  From the outset, the xa sign probably operated as a syllable, especially when placed within YAX-xa – the earliest versions of “grue” (green-blue, yax) do not have the infix, and, in my judgment, the sign ought to be transcribed as a two-part spelling, at least until the xa became, by Late Classic times, an almost unconscious additive to the logograph.

In the 90s, I began to notice odd ornaments on a few xa syllables, especially at Tikal.  There was, for example, MT30, with what appeared to be YAX-xa-NAL-la (see Figure 1, above left) (see Endnote 1).  Or we had MT9 (above, right), which, as Dave Stuart suggested from the position of the sign, simply spelled “again” or “more,” xa, perhaps in reference to drinking – an early record of a toast?  Another example (Figure 3, below), a probable adjective xa-k’a-la, was recently found at Palenque, on the Temple XXI bench excavated

by INAH and now on display in the Palenque Museum. The depictions of Maya rattles, as on the so-called Deletaille Tripod (Fig. 4, below; Hellmuth 1988:fig. 4.2), make it clear that the xa is, at least in these versions, a rattle with handle. It has tufts at the end, and is pierced by slits to allow the release of resonant sound, rather like the F-hole on a stringed instrument.

The problem is, Mayan languages do not use xa for “rattle.”  Highland languages employ other onomatopoeic terms, like *chij.chijtzojtzoj, and tzujtzuj, (“Eastern Mayan,” K’iche’ and Mopan, respectively, Kaufman 2003:752) or chinchin in Ch’orti (Wisdom n.d.).  A glyphic label is known, too: chikab, attested in Ch’olti’, the target descendant of most linguistic matter in the inscriptions, and on the handle of a rattle looted in all likelihood from or near the site of Naranjo, Guatemala, and now in the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin (Grube and Gaida 2006:213). The musicians in the murals at Bonampak affirm that rattles were usually held in pairs. It can be no coincidence that the examples from the area of Naranjo are in a paired set, the better to perform a syncopated cha-cha-chá with maracas. In modern Mexican examples, I understand that the pairs tend to be configured for different pitches, hence the need for two rattles.

How to explain the xa sign as a rattle?  I conjecture that the glyph could reflect some lost term for rattle or, as a more basic explanation, onomatopoeia itself. The sound of a Maya maraca could easily be imagined as xa, a susurration like the swish of beans or seeds in a rattle. Curiously enough, shac-shac is the traditional name for maracas in Trinidad, so the sound has registered as such in some ears around the Caribbean basin. A glance at other Maya syllables raises the possibility of yet other examples of onomatopoeia. A few years ago, Marc Zender pointed out to me the ‘o bird mentioned in the Ritual of the Bacabs (Roys 1965:138 ) – clearly the source of the syllable with its bird head and tufted feather above the beak. I now wonder about syllables like the pi bird or the ‘i that devours the eyes of jaguars (also mentioned in the Bacabs [Roys 1965:134] as a kind of hawk), and terms like k’uk’, “quetzal,” and mo’, “macaw,” all explicable as Maya perceptions of the squawks, croaks, and cries of bird life in the jungle.

Endnote 1:  The text is on a rattle handle, one of set. (The rattles themselves were almost certainly of gourd and have long since rotted away.) This complicates the reference, in that the sign could be a logograph here, perhaps in reference to a mythic location. I suspect the texts on Tikal MT29 and 30 are central to any understanding of Classic Maya music. They refer to mythic events, including the burning and death of the deity of wind and music. Karl Taube remains the essential source on this being, as discussed in a variety of papers (e.g., Taube 2004).


Grube, Nikolai, and Maria Gaida. 2006. Die Maya, Schrift und Kunst. Berlin: SMB DuMont.

Hellmuth, Nicholas M. 1988. Early Maya Iconography on an Incised Cylindrical Tripod. In Maya Iconography, eds., E. P. Benson and G. Griffin, 152-174. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kaufman, Terence. 2003. A Preliminary Mayan Etymological Dictionary. Accessed June 16, 2008.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1975. The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacantán. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology Number 19. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Roys, Ralph L. 1965. Ritual of the Bacabs: A Book of Maya Incantations. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Taube, Karl A. 2004. Flower Mountain: Concepts of Life, Beauty, and Paradise among the Classic Maya. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 45: 69-98.

Wisdom, Charles n.d. Materials on the Chorti Language. University of Chicago Microfilm Collection of Manuscripts of Cultural Anthropology 28. Chicago.

One thought on “The xa syllable as an example of onomatopoeia?

  1. Gustav August 31, 2008 / 8:53 AM

    very interesting