Unusual Signs 1: A Possible Co Syllable

Over the coming weeks and months I will be offering musings on certain rare or usual Maya hieroglyphic signs, some of which haven’t been catalogued or ever discussed in the literature.

The first is what I take to be a syllabic element, appearing in contexts that strongly point to a Co value. Many have probably taken this sign to be three separate elements (a stacking of ma, TAL and perhaps ka) but I suggest it is in fact a single sign, sometimes overlaid by other elements with which it combines to spell roots. I know of four good examples of this mystery sign, although I’m sure others exist out there in the corpus of Maya texts. Here’s a run-down of the four illustrated here, with a sketch of their environments:

Example a (drawing by Peter Mathews): From the inscribed earspools of Altun Ha, in a woman’s personal name. Here it precedes an early form of the lo syllable, topped by NAAL? and a bow-tie knot element below, the reading of which is ambiguous.

Example b (drawing by Sven Gronemeyer): On Monument 8 of Tortuguero (Block G) our sign appears in second position after the syllable mo, and before no? and probably se. The context suggests the entire glyph may be part of the nominal phrase of the local ruler Bahlam Ajaw, named in the following block, but I have no good understanding of the sign sequence.

Example c (drawing by Ian Graham): From Tortuguero, Monument 6 (G11), in what looks to be a transitive verb construction, with the ergative u- pronoun and the suffix –Vw. I take the core elements here to be our mystery sign with lo superimposed over the central portion. This context is key, for all transitive verb roots are spelled synharmonically (CV1-CV1); if combined here with lo, the unknown sign reasonably should be Co as well. The order of elements is not obvious, but I lean to the sequence being U-Co-lo-wa, pointing to a transitive verb root Col.

Example d (drawing by David Mora-Marin): In a text from an Early Classic inscribed celt of unknown provenance, we see the probable sequence U-?(ko), again making use of an infixed element. Once more the order is somewhat ambiguous, though I tend to see this infixed sign as coming in second position. The missing portion of this short text make it impossible to know just what we are looking at here, but it looks to be a possessed noun (u Cok?).

Four contexts do not make for an easy decipherment, but we might be safe in thinking the sign is a syllable of Co phonetic shape, as indicated by it’s clustering with lo, mo, no? and ko in the cases illustrated. But what is the consonant? To begin determining this, we would have to know whether the sign is an alternate version for some Co syllable already identified in the script, or instead if it might fill one of the blanks now in the syllabic grid. This answer isn’t obvious, but I see no evidence to suggest our sign a substitution for some already known element, such as ch’o, bo or jo, and so on. It’s a somewhat subjective call, but I suspect the sign will eventually correspond to one of the missing Co spots of the grid, such as so, t’o, tzo, and tz’o.

This is probably enough speculation for now. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that proto-Ch’olan has the transitive verb root *tzol, “to line-up,” but no transitive roots attested for *sol, *t’ol, or *tz’ol. This quick-and-dirty assessment admittedly means little at this preliminary stage. So it’s time to pour myself a cup of coffee and go back to the dictionaries, and find a few more examples of the sign.

4 thoughts on “Unusual Signs 1: A Possible Co Syllable

  1. Kerry Hull October 3, 2008 / 2:11 PM

    One possible transitive root in Ch’orti’ is t’or-, which means ‘to stack roundish things one atop another’. It is most commonly used for stacking rocks or stacking wood, especially when making a fire. Thus, t’ork’ajk is the term for ‘firemaking’ or ‘firebuilding’. Also, t’ortun is a ‘stone fence’ or ‘stone wall’.

  2. David Stuart October 24, 2008 / 6:19 PM

    Hi Kerry,

    Very interesting! I suppose the Ch’orti’ root t’or- ought to be a verbal cognate to Yuketek t’ol, “row, line.” This was, by the way, Thompson’s term for the visual fields and frames found in the codices. – Dave

  3. Christophe Helmke February 2, 2009 / 5:16 AM

    In browsing through files I have noted one additional example of the sign, or sign grouping in question: Copan, St. 13. There it seems to have a as its main sign (much as in the case of the Costa Rican jade) and these two precede a sign in the glyph block. The subfix looks much more like a in this case and I suspect that is also what is rendered in the other examples. Cheers – CH.

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