ARCHIVES: The syllable sign tza

tza signBelow is a page from one of my old notebooks, giving some of the evidence I was considering in 1989 for the decipherment of the tza syllable sign, a version of which is shown at right. The reasoning was pretty tentative back then, but it was bolstered in my own mind by considering more examples of the sign in the spellings of tzu-tza-ja and TZUTZ-tza-ja, for the passive for of the verb tzuhtzaj, “it is finished” (See Stuart 2001). Shortly after this page was jotted down I came across completive forms spelled 2tzu-ji-ya (with the tzu syllable doubled) for tzuhtz(a)jiiy, “it was finished,” which made the tza reading fairly certain.

The tza syllable sign is not a very common sign. It crops up in only a handful of other spellings, such as tza-ka or tza-ku for tzak, “to conjure, manifest (a god)” — a reading otherwise familar for the “fish-in-hand” logogram (TZAK).

Reference Cited:

Stuart, David. 2001. A Reading of the “Completion Hand” as TZUTZ. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, No. 49. Center for Maya Research, Washington, D.C.

DS tza notes

ARCHIVES: Daniel Brinton’s Letter on Landa’s Alphabet

Most readers of this blog are probably aware of the fundamental insights of Yuri Knorosov, who in 1952 first published his breakthrough observation that Maya writing was in part phonetic, employing syllabic elements to spell words and grammatical constructions. The key for Knorosov was to see Bishop Diego de Landa’s “alphabet” as a misrepresentation of a syllabary.

Daniel Garrison Brinton, 1837-1899, at age 34, ca. 1871.
Daniel Garrison Brinton, ca. 1871

What few may realize is that Knorosov was not the first to hold this view. I was fascinated to come across clear evidence that Daniel Brinton, the famed American linguist and anthropologist, had pretty much the same view as early as 1879. Brinton’s insight seems to have gone largely unnoticed these days, perhaps because it was published only as an excerpted letter within a somewhat obscure book on Palenque’s Tablet of the Cross by Charles Rau (1879). In fact Brinton was an early advocate of the view that Maya writing was phonetic and quite sophisticated, even if decipherments were few and far between at the time. His thinking evolved over the decades, but at least by 1879 he seems to have had much the same fundamental insight about Landa’s alphabet for which Knorosov is now famous:

Excerpt of letter from Daniel G. Brinton to Charles Rau, dated March 4, 1879:

“My later reading has led me to doubt whether De Landa’s alphabet is really an alphabet in the proper sense of the term, that is, representing elementary sounds of the language by written characters. It appears more likely that the figures he gives represent compound sounds, syllabic or partly so, and that they are but fragments of a large repertory of phonetic signs, never reduced to the elements of sound, used by the Mayas of that age. He evidently very positively considered them phonetic and not ideographic, and he could not have been mistaken on such a point, I should suppose. In his endeavor to arrange them according to the analogy of the Latin alphabet, he obscured their real purport, and I think we should reject the whole of his theory of their use in this manner.” (Quoted in Rau 1879:52-53).

Here Brinton nails it, noting that Landa had fundamentally misunderstood syllable signs as alphabetic elements. What’s odd is that Brinton didn’t follow up his own assessment of Landa’s glyphs as “compound sounds.” It seems he could have taken things a step or two further and applied his thinking to specific glyph readings, in the same way Knorosov would decades later. Interestingly, just a year after Brinton’s letter to Rau, much research on Landa’s alphabet would be roundly criticized by Philipp J. J. Valentini, who declared it to be a “Spanish fabrication” (Valentini 1880). Perhaps this discouraged Brinton from taking up the matter further. Brinton also may have stepped aside to allow Thomas to delve into the atomistic details of Maya epigraphy. Both men saw the same tantalizing clues of phoneticism, but only Thomas went ahead and proposed actual readings. Unlike Brinton, Thomas considered some signs to be possible consonants or “elementary sounds.” While he made a few good insights, Thomas’s specific arguments tended to fall short on many counts, and their weakness eventually exposed the overall phonetic approach to a good deal of criticism from the likes of Eduard Seler and others.

I wonder too if Brinton, a remarkable polymath, might have simply had too much on his plate to focus his mind on Maya glyphs — in ’79 he would soon embark on editing and contributing to many volumes of the Library of Aboriginal American Literature that would appear between 1882 and 1890.  For whatever reason Brinton himself didn’t move forward on teasing out the patterns of phoneticism in the script, despite having described the abstract nature of Mayan writing with what we can see now as remarkable accuracy.

References Cited:

Rau, Charles. 1879. The Palenque Tablet in the United States National Museum, Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 331. Smithsonian Instituion, Washington City.

Valentini, Philipp J.J.. 1880. The Landa Alphabet: A Spanish Fabrication. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, no. 75, pp. 59-91. Worcester, MA.

Leaf Glyphs: Spellings with yo and YOP

by David Stuart

yo sign
Figure 1. The sign yo or YOP. (Drawings by D. Stuart)

Decipherment’s progress isn’t always measured by big leaps forward, nor marked by completely new readings of signs or radically new analyses of spellings. More often our work involves fairly small refinements of things we “thought we knew” but which turned out not to be quite correct. A good example might be the familiar sign I long ago proposed as having the value yo (Stuart 1987) (Figure 1). This reading is now widely accepted, but after many years I realized that the syllabic yo reading wasn’t always quite workable in certain contexts. Over a decade ago I came to the realization that the same sign might carry the related logographic value YOP on certain occasions, forcing a few adjustments to readings that had already made their way into print and the epigraphic literature. For students of Maya epigraphy it’s probably a bit confusing to come across this sort of minor tweak or change to seemingly established readings, especially when the arguments behind them remain unpublished, usually circulated as emails among colleagues. Here, therefore, I’ll discuss the yo and YOP values, clarifying how the sign is used in some distinct settings.

yo-yop Fig 2
Figure 2. The yo sign as a prevocalic possessive pronoun. (a) yo-OTOOT-ti, y-otoot, “his/her house,” (b) yo-OHL-la, y-ohl, “his/her/its heart/center.” Drawings by L. Schele and I. Graham.

Most familiar uses of the yo syllable are as a sign prefix, to indicate the pre-vocalic third-person pronoun y- before a word beginning in o-. Thus yo-OTOOT for y-otoot, “his/her dwelling,” or yo-OHL-la for y-ohl, “his/her heart” (Figure 2a and b). On rarer occasions the yo sign is used in non-initial

syllabic yo
Figure 3. The syllable yo in final position. (a) from Comalcalco, Bone Pendant 17A (drawing by M. Zender), (b) from Pomona-area panel (drawing by N. Grube)

position as part of spellings of certain roots (Figure 3a and b), as in xo-yo, perhaps for xoy, “round”(?), or po-mo-yo for the place name Pomoy, an unknown site in the lower Usumacinta region (the toponym is based on the noun pomoy, attested in modern Ch’ol as “capulín cimarrón” (small shrub-like tree, possibly a trema) (Aulie and Aulie 1978:211).

yop Fig4
Figure 4. Spellings of yopte’, “leaf”. (a) yo-po-TE’-NAL, yopte’nal, “leaf place(?),” (b) AJ-YOP-TE’, aj yopte’, “Yopte’ person.” (Drawings by D. Stuart and I. Graham)

Many years ago I noted an interesting use of yo in the glyph yo-po-TE’-NAL, written as part of a caption on the large stucco frieze from Tonina (Figure 4a). This is surely for yopte’, “tree leaf,” with -nal perhaps being a place name suffix. Yop and yopte‘ is a widespread root for “leaf” in Ch’olan langauges, and no doubt the leaf-like form of the yo sign has its origin in this word. This is surely related to another glyph from an early inscription at Yaxchilan (Figure 4b), where the leaf element is combined with TE’ in a personal title. Here, flanked by two logograms, reading the leaf as syllabic yo value seems unlikely (AJ-yo-TE‘); rather it seems natural to see the sign here as a direct logogram for YOP, “leaf,” in the sequence AJ-YOP-TE’, aj yopte’, “he of yopte’” or “the yopte’ person” (here Yopte’ is most likely a place name). There is a reasonable chance therefore that the leaf sign is both the logogram YOP and the syllable yo, depending on context.

Such a direct connection between a logogram and a syllable is not terribly surprising. The use of the simple “fish” sign for ka as well as for KAY/CHAY is perhaps a good parallel, as is the “gopher” logogram BAAH used at times as the syllable ba (although usually in late settings). But in the case of yo and YOP it has led to some misunderstandings and confusions about certain readings, especially this important element we find within royal names at Copan, Quirigua, Naranjo and elsewhere (Figure 5).

yop Fig5
Figure 5. Names of the Copan ruler Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. Note the substitution of the YOP-AAT-ti/ta glyph by the Chahk-like deity in final position. (Drawings by D. Stuart and L. Schele)

For many years, the final glyph on this sequence — evidently the name of an important deity related to Chahk — has been read as yo-AAT, although never precisely translated. Aat is “penis” and yo never made much sense as its prefix. If however we read this grouping as YOP-AAT we at least have a more comfortable juxtaposition of two logograms (even if the inescapable translation “leaf-penis” doesn’t make much sense to our ears). For this reason, I have long preferred to read the sequence in such royal names (i.e. the final two glyphs in Figure 5a and b) as CHAN-na YOP-AAT-ti/ta, “Sky Yop-aat.”

Figure 6. Yop-aat headdress from Naranjo St. 13. (Drawing by I. Graham).

One more interesting bit of information supports the YOP-AAT analysis. As just noted, Yopaat seems to refer to a deity with close relations to Chahk, the god of lightning and storms. Visually he seems identical, with the exception of having curved dotted elements on his head — perhaps representations of clouds or mist — and a hammer-like stone in his upraised hand. Yopaat is often represented in the ritual costumes of kings, for example as a small figure dangling from a belt, or else as an elaborate helmet or headdress (Figure 6). Intriguingly, the Yopaat headdress seems to be mentioned in the Yucatec Diccionario de Motul, where the entry yopat is glossed as “una manera de coraza o mitra que usavan los indios antiguos” (Martinez Hernández 1929:456).

I hope this clarifies what might seem a very minor issue over  alternate readings of a single sign, one syllabic and the other logographic. There are a number of other signs that similarly have two related values with different functions, one syllabic and another logographic. While subtle, the case of yo and YOP demonstrates how small changes used in the methods of decipherment over the last couple of decades can lead to slightly better and more refined notions of just what the Maya were writing down.


Aulie, H. Wilbur, and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol-Español, Español-Ch’ol. Mexico, D.F.: Instituto Linguístico de Verano.

Martinez Hernández, Juan. 1929. Diccionario de Motul. Mérida: La Compañia Tipográfica Yucateca.

Stuart, David. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, no. 14. Washington D.C.: Center for Maya Research.

The 584286 Correlation

Simon Martin and Joel Skidmore have recently published in The PARI Journal and posted on Mesoweb their intriguing new analysis of the age-old correlation question — that is, how we best reconcile the ancient Maya and Gregorian calendars. They offer the possibility that the standard Goodman-Martinez-Thompson (GMT) family of solutions so widely accepted by nearly all Mayanists for many decades may be off by up to a few days.

Here’s the link to their article on Mesoweb.

Maya Spooks

K’ahk’ U Ti’ Suutz’, “Fire-Mouthed Bat,” a common wahy demon on Classic Maya vases (Drawing by D. Stuart).

Around this time of year I often give my “Maya Spooks” lecture to students here at UT-Austin, highlighting the grisly and fright-filled demons (wahyoob) of Classic Maya art and religion. The lecture title is “Spooks, Witchcraft and the ‘Dark Side’ of Maya Art and Rulership (a.k.a. The Halloween Lecture).”  This semester I’m teaching on the Aztecs, so in lieu of lecturing I hereby post my brief treatment of the subject written back in 2005. This write-up was part of the larger sourcebook I put together for the Austin Maya Meetings that year, devoted to “Glyphs on Pots: Decoding Classic Maya Ceramics.”

My own thinking on wahy beings keeps being refined somewhat. I still see them as animate dark forces wielded by court sorcerers, perhaps even rulers themselves, in order to inflict harm or disease on others. But wahyoob can be exceedingly complex and multi-layered, and they certainly aren’t really the benign, shamanistic “animal companion spirits” as we often described them a couple of decades ago. I’m hoping to find time write something more in-depth on the fascinating topic of royal sorcery one of these days, perhaps even as a book on Classic Maya witchcraft.

In the meantime… boo!

“The Way Beings” by David Stuart (pdf file)

Excerpt from: David Stuart, 2005. Glyphs on Pots: Decoding Classic Maya Ceramics. Sourcebook for the 2005 Maya Meetings at Texas. Department of Art and Art History, UT-Austin, Austin.