A Note on Spelling Days and Months

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Readers of Maya Decipherment and of a great many recent articles may have noticed some inconsistency in the way I and others represent Calendar Round dates (those that mark a given day in the 260- and 365-day cycles).  For example, a date such as the one illustrated here (Figure 1) may be represented in one work as “8 Ajaw 8 Woh” and in another as “8 Ahau 8 Uo.”  I have to admit I’ve been very inconsistent in this practice myself, using the former type of spelling in a book on Maya time (Stuart 2012) yet the latter format in more recent writings. What gives? Here I would like to offer an explanation for this confusing situation, accounting for why I prefer old-school spellings over newer ones. I should also note this is really a personal preference that other students of Maya glyphs may not choose to adopt.

Figure 1. Date record (8 Ahau 8 Uo) from La Corona, Element 56. (Photo by D. Stuart)

In spelling the names of the ancient days and months, early Mayanists such as J. Eric S. Thompson (1950) and Sylvanus Morley simply replicated the forms they found in the early documents written in Yukatek Maya, employing a colonial-era orthography that was established by the very earliest Spanish students of Maya language of that time (Hanks 2010). The pervasive presence of such spellings in early vocabularies and indigenous documents exerted a great deal of influence on early Mayanists and on early epigraphic research. Indeed, until the 1970s and 80s, glyph studies reflected a certain degree of what might be called a “Yucatan bias” – not surprising given the relative wealth of printed source material on Yukatek as opposed to Ch’oloan and Tzeltalan languages.

Beginning in the late 1980s and especially in the 1990s, epigraphers backed away from these old conventions. Refinements in comparative linguistics and the direct participation of indigenous Mayan linguists led to more precise orthographies and standards across Mayan languages. Naturally epigraphers came to adopt these practices, and names for the days and months soon came to be represented just like any other term in Classic Mayan.

After many years of adopting what might seem a more accurate and linguistically sensitive orthography, I’ve now gone back to the old ways for writing dates, preferring for example to write “10 Chicchan 18 Uo” instead of “10 Chikchan 18 Woh.” The reason is quite simple. In most instances we have no direct evidence of how day names were pronounced in the Classic period. Was the first day Imix or Imox? Was the thirteenth day Ben, Been or something else? Ancient scribes wrote day names as logographs (word signs) and only rarely presented any phonetic indicators about pronunciation, thus leaving modern students with many questions, and employing the old Yukatek nomenclature should immediately make clear that these are not necessarily the ancient names for these time periods. I would never want a student to automatically assume that the fifth day was pronounced as Chikchan in eighth century Palenque; in fact it probably wasn’t.

Ancient names for the months are usually far more transparent because the corresponding glyphs are often true spellings. The month we call “Uo” (see the example above) is almost always spelled something along the lines of IK’-AT-ta for Ik’at, in Classic texts. In one intriguing  instance it is spelled wo-hi, reflecting an ancestral form of the Yukatek name used at the time of European contact. Not surprisingly even in ancient times there was some variation in these terms over time and space — another reason we should today employ a neutral system for referencing the days and months that doesn’t presume too much. Put another way, our opting to spell the month as Woh or Wooh instead of Chakat seems to preference one known Classic name over another, adding a new and rather messy layer to an already complex issue. Uo will do.

The way we transcribe hieroglyphs into Classic Mayan should be carefully considered, and in today’s rapidly maturing field of Maya epigraphy it almost always is. My point is that when we refer to Calendar Round dates and other calendar terms we cannot always know the original Classic Mayan terminology.  Even when we do, it’s clear that many names could show some regional and temporal variation.  It seems preferable therefore that we indicate such ambiguity by employing the old contact-period names and their spellings as neutral terms of reference, following a long-established convention. When we are certain of ancient names and terms — Ajaw and Chakat are solid reconstructions, for example — we can and should of course indicate those when transliterating and transcribing actual texts.

It is still important to realize that we are still in a relatively early stage in the true decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic system, most of which took place only in the last three or so decades. It shouldn’t be surprising that Mayanists reassess and refine the standards we use for presenting epigraphic source material. It’s a continuous process.

Sources Cited:

Hanks, William F. Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Stuart, David. 2012. The Order of Days: Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancient Maya. Random House, New York.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1950. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C.

One thought on “A Note on Spelling Days and Months

  1. Nicholas Hopkins May 2, 2016 / 12:17 AM

    Kudos to David for adopting a reasonable approach to writing the calendric names, especially when there is no better source for their forms than the Yucatec Colonial documents. Feigned correctness is no correctness at all.