Let Thy Glyphs be Few: Abbreviations in Maya Writing

by Stephen Houston and Simon Martin

“Let thy words be few,” says the Bible.  Yet concision is not a description that ordinarily applies to Maya texts.  Some inscriptions preserve the lush cadence and structure of formal orations. A few stretch across a dozen columns or more. But, undeniably, many Maya inscriptions are terse.  This feature arises from several things: a reliance on set formulae that communicate little more than essential information (date, event, “arguments” in the linguistic sense); restrictive formats that are inhospitable to prolix writing; the role of ancillary images in fleshing out a story, especially in descriptive detail; and the basic, innate challenge of being too prosy in bas-relief carving.

Terse texts can also be understood as ways to achieve “textual completeness,” i.e., the state resulting from the question, “what information is necessary and sufficient in this particular text?” What set of words in sequence is neither too much nor too little, in this place, at this time?  Someone had to make that deliberation as part of the compositional process. If textual economy were a consideration, there might be a further impulse to shorten the text. For clarity, however, the compositor might still signal the presence of a particular element by the expedient of abbreviation. By this orthographic alchemy, a word or sound is removed yet its presence implied.  A vacancy exists that the compositor asks the reader to fill.

English is full of abbreviations.  Presumably, these helped save expense at the typesetters or, in the yet more remote past, reduced copy-time for scriveners and economized on expensive materials like vellum. Thus, in English, a university might record “A.M.” for the degree of artium magister, and more formal writing would employ “et al.” (et alii, “and others”) or “e.g.” (exempla gratia, “for the sake of an example”).  Such abbreviations serve as sociolinguistic gates, at multiple levels. The reader must decode the notations by connecting them to words and meanings in fuller form. Ideally, in a fine display of erudition, that act would link one language, Latin, to another, English. In point of fact, few readers today would recognize the ablative case or masculine plural in Latin. The terms have become word- or idea-signs that launch directly into English.  But they still convey a surface gloss of more refined knowledge.

An ongoing debate in Maya glyph studies is the extent to which there were “underspellings” in the writing system. These would be examples where the compositors could not be bothered to add a final consonant or to include a certain pronoun or verbal suffix.  Such underspellings certainly existed—the variable presence of the ergative U in Glyph F is a case in point—but another essay would be needed to address whether they were rampant or systematic.  Interestingly, they are most common in personal names—in many cases surely because their local recognition factor was high, although this could not be true where foreigners were concerned.

What interests us here is an example of abbreviation that appears to date to the final years of the Late Classic period (c. AD 769 to 799).  This is an underspelling at the level of an inflected word.  It elides a pronoun and focuses on a relatively late homophone or near-homophone, the terms for “4” (kan/chan), “sky” (ka’n/cha’n), and “snake” (kaan/chaan) (Houston 1993; Robertson et al.  2007:43, 44) (Endnote 1). The context is the still-enigmatic “captor/guardian/master” expression that specifies a relationship between a captive and a captor. In two cases, it identifies a person looking after a royal youth, rather like our terms, “governor” and its female equivalent, “governess” (Dos Pilas Panel 19, and, on K7055, with a woman).

There are several examples of this abbreviation. The favored form always uses “4” or, in one case, ‘SKY’ in place of U-‘SNAKE’. To put this another way, the marked, more unusual forms (‘4’ and ‘SKY’) occur in these shortened spellings, not the older, more established glyph (‘SNAKE’). One kind of marking, for near-homophones, lends itself to another kind of marking, for abbreviation:

1) Tonina Monument 159 (F5) gives ‘4’-AJ-chi-hi, the name of a person from Pomoy who was captured on 2 Muluk 12 Ch’en (Julian July 13, AD 789). The name recurs on Tonina Monument 152 at A1-A2 as ‘SKY’-na-AJ chi-hi and in an unabbreviated spelling on Tonina Monument 20 at E8-F1 of U-‘SKY’-na AJ-chi-*hi (Figure 1). These forms make it clear that the captive was himself the captor of another figure known as Aj Chih.  Monument 159 itself dates to AD 799, Monument 20 to AD 790 (Monument 152 is undated).  See discussion in Martin and Grube (2008:188-189) (Endnote 2).

Fig. 1. Captor of Aj Chih from TNA Mons. 159, 152, and 20 (photograph by Stephen Houston, inkings by I. Graham and L. Henderson, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard Univ.).

2) An unprovenanced panel from the kingdom of Yaxchilan (at A4) gives ’4’-TAJ-MO’ (Stuart and Houston 1994:Fig.89). This text is dated to 1 Kawak 2 Wo (Julian Feb. 18, AD 769), although the date of carving may well be rather later. The same form is also found on El Kinel Monument 1 at A6 with ‘4’-TAJ-MO’ (Golden and Scherer 2006:fig. 13), this time placed to, Julian Oct. 7, AD 790 (the same date as Tonina Monument 20). Both refer to Shield Jaguar IV’s most notable captive Tajal Mo’, and can be contrasted with several texts at Yaxchilan and Bonampak where the name is rendered with the ergative pronoun—illustrated here by a fragment of Yaxchilan Stela 29 (Mathews 1997:Fig.7-12) (Figure 2).

Fig. 2. Captor of Tajal Mo’ on an unprovenanced panel, El Kinel Mon. 1 (drawings by S. Houston), and Yaxchilan St. 29 (drawing by P. Mathews).

3) Room 2, Bonampak, in a building dated to AD 791, Captions RM II-23, 26, 30; cf. a fuller version on a shield RM II-13 (Figure 3).  These can now be seen as abbreviated versions of “captor” expressions, as in the example of RM II-30, *U-‘4’ BAAH-AJAW. Most occur in Room 2 of the Murals Building, the chamber dedicated to martial exploits.

Fig. 3. Captions from Bonampak Structure 1 (Murals Building), II-13, 23, 30. (Infrared images by S. Houston and G. Ware, painting by H. Hurst after sketch by S. Houston, Bonampak Documentation Project, M. Miller, Director, Yale Univ.).

What is striking about this set of abbreviations, all seemingly restricted to displays of relations to captives, is their narrow chronology. Aside from the outlier on the unprovenanced panel from the area of Yaxchilan, all date to within a little more than a 10-year span.  For unknown reasons, the Maya sought concision in these cases, at this time, and let their glyphs be few.


Endnote 1. In an unpublished paper, still in progress, Daniel Law and others (n.d.) propose from glyphic and linguistic evidence that the shift from the velar stops k/k’ to the affricates ch/ch’ was fairly late, an areal diffusion rather than a shared inheritance. A more established model places the shift at the inception of “Greater Tzeltalan,” presumably many centuries prior to the Classic period (Kaufman and Norman 1984:83).

Endnote 2. David Stuart (personal communication, 2010) suggests that a similar construction with ‘4’ may occur at Tonina: ‘4’-ma-su, with a captive, perhaps from La Mar (Monument 72:A2 and Monument 84:G1, CMHI 6:114).  The agentive AJ, rabbit-head of the pe? sign, and the ‘e are quite clear in both spellings, although the TUUN is missing, likely because of breakage in the inscriptions. Monument 91 at Tonina also records a conflict with La Mar, in this case against a higher-ranking lord of the site, one NICH-TE’-MO’ (CMHI 6:119). Monuments 72 and 84 are probably from c. AD 700, decades prior to the other examples cited here.  Monument 91 is not securely dated.


Golden, Charles, and Andrew K. Scherer. 2006. Border Problems: Recent Archaeological Research along the Usumacinta River. The PARI Journal 7(2):1-16.

Houston, Stephen. 1984. An Example of Homophony in Mayan Script.  American Antiquity 49(4):790-805.

Kaufman, Terrence S., and William M. Norman. 1984 An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary. In John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, eds., Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, 77-166. Publication No. 9. Albany: Institution for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany.

Law, Daniel, John Robertson, Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Marc Zender. N.d. Drift, Diffusion, or Genetic Inheritance? The Notorious Case of Velar Palatalization and Fronting in Certain Mayan Languages.  Unpublished ms. in revision.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. Thames and Hudson, London.

Mathews, Peter. 1997. La escultura de Yaxchilán. Colección Cientifica 316. México City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Robertson, John S., Stephen D. Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2007. Universals and the Logic of the Material Implication: A Case Study from Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, Number 62. http://www.utmesoamerica.org/pdf_meso/

Stuart, David, and Stephen Houston. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 33. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

6 thoughts on “Let Thy Glyphs be Few: Abbreviations in Maya Writing

  1. Yuriy Polyukhovych January 17, 2011 / 10:26 PM

    An interesting point is Fig. 3b, here we have CHAN-sa-ya ba-pa-ka-la. Transliteration can be [‘u]-chan say ba[h] pakal or [‘u]-chan sayab pakal. It can be translated as “the master of Say, the principle shield” or “the master of Sayab, the shield”. Also there is a possibility that name was Chan Sayab Pakal because it sounds exactly as part of the name of a settlement of modern Lacandones: Lacanha-Chansayab. Coincidence?

  2. Stephen Houston January 17, 2011 / 10:40 PM

    Actually, that is a [ma], not a [ya] sign. The same form appears elsewhere in the murals.

    • Yuriy Polyukhovych January 17, 2011 / 10:59 PM

      Oh, now I see. There was hope with Chansayab which would be super cool.

  3. Alexandre Tokovinine February 12, 2011 / 6:36 PM

    Great paper! Yes, abbreviations are probably more common than we would like them to be. instead of on Yaxchilan throne supports is a good example of an abbreviation in a royal name (nicely kills any hint that it could have been a participle, by the way). Naranjo abbreviations of royal names are also pretty extreme with the whole name cut down to just the first word. Place names are routinely abbreviated, possibly for the same reason personal names are – everybody would recognize it anyway…

    • Alexandre Tokovinine February 12, 2011 / 6:37 PM

      (previous post somehow lost the actual spellings I wanted to quote: che-TE’ instead of che-le-TE’)