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MESOAMERICAN WRITING SYSTEMS

The Automatic Language Translator
(Espanol,Deutsche,Francaise,etc)

INTRODUCTION

Writing systems can be classified into several types, including: pictographic, ideographic, logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic (Sharer 1994:604). Pictographic writing systems are designed to "represent words, ideas, or groups of words or ideas by means of elements that visually portray their associated meanings (for example a box for a house, or a stick figure for a human being)" (Id. at 605). Ideographic writing systems represent words, ideas or groups of same "by means of elements whose relationship to their meanings are less, or not at all obvious" (Id.). Logographic writing systems "represent whole morphemes or words" (Id.). Syllabic writing represents syllables with signs. Alphabetic writing systems "represent the individual distinctive sounds, or phonemes, of language" (Id. at 605). English is an alphabetic writing system based upon phonetic signs. Many writing systems are combinations of different writing systems. Ancient Sumerian, for example, is a logosyllabic system (Id.).

Index to this topic: |Maya |Mixtec |Zapotec |Aztec |Photo |Similarities and Differences |Recitation Literacy |Other Topics|

MAYA WRITING SYSTEMS

Structure
There are only about 30 phonetic sounds in the Maya language so a purely phonetic alphabet could in theory be written with 30 signs. It was originally thought that Maya writing was purely logographic because of the many hundreds of different glyphs. After a long period of attempts to decipher the Maya glyphs, it was discovered that the system was logosyllabic and became increasingly phonetic over time. Maya writing uses a syllabary made up of glyphs rather than a pure alphabet and is a mixed system. Many of the glyphs are polyvalent and have two or more meanings (Id. at 621). Glyphs have been identified that correspond to verbs, nouns, adjectives,and particles (Id. at 628). Maya writing is structured around glyphs and glyph groups. The glyphs are pictures. Main signs are larger and more central in a group. Affixes are joined to the main sign and may be prefixes (left), superfixes (above), subfixes (below), and postfixes (right) depending upon their position. Affixes can also be fused within the main glyph and are called infixes (Id.). Main signs can be compounded of two or more signs. Although there are exceptions the usual order of reading the glyphs is prefix, superfix, main sign, subfix, and postfix. There are about 800 glyphs that are known at this time and each has a catalogue number starting with "T" (in J. Eric Thompsonís system), and many have nicknames. If there are only two columns of glyphs, text is normally read from left to right. For even numbers of columns the first two columns are read left to right and the next two columns are read left to right, etc. For odd numbers of columns the order is down the first column and then left to right for the next two columns or left to right for the first two columns and then down the rightmost column. In the Paris Codex where recognizable faces appear the reading order on a few pages is right to left. Yucatec codices are often ordered verb-object-subject as in the language. Like English the final syllable may be silent.

Principal Subject Matter

The principal subject matter on public buildings, tombs, and stelae seems to be historical and sociopolitical "propaganda" regarding rulers histories, state histories, conquests and genealogies - including dates, place names and captives that were conquered and then sacrificed. Some codices are also astronomical and astrological in nature. Ceramic writing seems to indicate the name of the owner and sometimes the function or purpose of the object - which interestingly did not always correlate with the archaeologistís pre-decipherment taxonomic classification of the objects function or purpose. Emblem glyphs, first identified by Heinrich Berlin in the 1950ís, are main signs that are "practically unique" to a particular site (Id. at 610). As Sharer notes, "the best hypothesis seems to be that they represent a founding lineage firmly associated with a particular site (Id.). Peter Mathews has suggested that they refer to polities rather than centers (Id. at 618). Peter Mathews, David Stuart, Stephen Houston, Karl Taube, and others have determined that name tagging of personal objects that identified the owner and sometimes the function of the object occurred on ear spools, incised bones, ceramics, and other kinds of vessels (Id. at 618). Stephen Houston and David Stewart have deciphered the meaning of an ahau ("lord") face half covered with a jaguar pelt, as the phonetic equivalent of the word way which is a supernatural spirit companion. This glyph is fairly commonly portrayed in stone and pottery and Classic period texts (Id. at 619).

Kinds of Information Documented

Glyphs of historical and social events have been identified including emblem glyphs, glyphs for birth, accession, death, titles, capture, captor, titles, captive, marriage, numerical position in the dynastic line, dates, personal names, genealogy, lines of sucession, astronomical and astrological events.

Media Used

Glyphs appear carved into stone (and sometimes on wood) on the side of buildings, on the lintels over doorways, on wall panels and on stelae and altars. They were also painted on ceramics, portable objects made of stone, bone or pottery, on stucco walls and were painted in color on codices or books made of one long strip of paper folded like a long screen and coated with a fine white lime finish (Id. at 604).

Change over time in the subject matter of the texts

Some of the glyphs had their origin in Cholan writing but the origins of Maya writing is still not clear and may have come from Guatemala, Oaxaca, and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Id. at 621-22). The subject matter of the texts changed over time and appear to be concerned with divination, astronomy, horoscopes, almanacs, a katun sequence, patron deities, ceremonies, the zodiac, and little history. The murals, stelae, and carved stone lintels, etc. from the later periods increasingly are concerned with wars and the conquest and sacrifice of the leaders of neighboring polities. Eventually, the subject includes the conquest of territory.

Use by archaeologists of writings in reconstructing ancient societies

Archaeologists have used the decipherment of Maya writing to change their reconstruction of Maya societies from peaceful, cerebral astronomer-farmers, to more bloody rulers who went to war to capture and sacrifice neighboring leaders in order to keep the cosmos running and the food supply of maize coming. The breakthrough in deciphering the Maya glyphs has made the Maya a "historic" culture with an additional major tool for archaeologists reconstructing the political, social, economic, and religious aspects of Maya society. Stephen D. Houston (1989:1) has pointed out that: "textual references assist in dating archaeological features and help identify rulers that commissioned architecture. Maya script also touches on matters as diverse as Classic Maya folk classification, the average life spans of the elite, and the attribution of provenance to looted monuments. More generally, decipherments reveal the composition and spatial organization of Classic Maya polities, now shown to be smaller than previously supposed."

A Maya Syllabary(Maya Glyphs at the Tzuk Te website)

Index to this topic: |Maya |Mixtec |Zapotec |Aztec |Photo |Similarities and Differences |Recitation Literacy |Other Topics|

MIXTEC WRITING

Structure

According to Mary Elizabeth Smith the Mixtec writing system is a logographic system that "uses signs principally to record names of persons and places. The remainder of the story is conveyed through symbols and pictorial conventions that appear to have only occasional relationship to language. In addition, as far as can be determined at the present time, the signs utilized to express names are based on whole words in the Mixtec language rather than on syllables or single sounds (phonemes)" (Smith 1983:238). The signs represent one or more Mixtec words, usually names of persons or places. The symbols are motifs that are not language dependent and may be found in other regions of Mesoamerica, such as the speech scroll that is emitted from the mouth of a human or animal to represent speech or a sound. These symbols are ideographs or ideograms. Mixtec pictorial conventions have little to do with language but are found in many Mesoamerican areas where different languages are spoken and include conventions such as "a mummy bundle to indicate a dead person, the confrontation of a male and a female figure to indicate marriage, and the grasping of the hair of one person by another to indicate conquest or prisoner-taking" (Id. At 239).

Principal Subject Matter

The principal subject matter of Mixtec writing is genealogical and historical events, conquest of neighboring polities by rulers, place names, and captive sacrifice. Names of persons may include their calendrical name for the day of their birth and a nickname given to a child at age 7 (Id.). Names often have the rain deity or the fire serpent in them.

Kinds of Information Documented

Dates, people, places, historical, political, and ritual or religious events all appear to have been recorded using the Mixtec writing system. As John D. Pohl has observed: " We know from colonial references that these remarkable art works contained historical and genealogical documentation that was of critical importance to political decision making by the Mixtec and Zapotec kings who ruled Oaxaca between A.D. 1000 and 1521 (Burgoa 1934a:210; 1934b:1:319,352). The paintings thereby represent the longest continuous dynastic records known for ancient Mesoamerica and as such enable us to scrutinize, in unparalleled detail, a truly indigenous form of Indian history" (Pohl 1994:137).

Media Used

Media used includes painted manuscripts or codices. It is not yet known which native languages the stone monuments and wall paintings from earlier periods represent. Carved bones, goldwork, and polychrome ceramics are also in a "Mixtec"style but it is not clear if the language is Mixtec or something else (Id.). The Mixtec codices are "folded books constructed from strips of animal hide and painted in a dazzling array of color with caricatures of people, places, and things" (Id.). Boone states that what she calls res gestae "genealogical-historical screenfolds" record dynastic histories of the Mixtec ruling families; "the deeds or events of specific individuals or groups outline the story, and time and place are often given, but they are subsumed" (Boone 1994:55).

Change over time in the subject matter of the texts

The origins of Mixtec writing is not yet known. Aztec writing may have been based on the Mixtec system (Pohl 1994:239). Mixtec writing forms a long register of genealogical and historical records. However, earlier writings found in Mixtec areas do not necessarily use or incorporate the Mixtec language, so additional research is needed.

Use by archaeologists of writings in reconstructing ancient societies

Mixtec writings have been used by archaeologists to reconstruct political history through the genealogical and historical narratives. Archaeologists have identified "the place signs in the Mixtec Codex Zouche-Nuttall as individual elite citadels or great houses in which a single royal family resided. They lie no farther apart than a few kilometers. . . . In contrast, the place signs in the [Aztec] Codex Mendoza represent entire city states and urban centers, some inhabited by many thousands of people. . . . While both codices use virtually the same symbol system, the different treatment of space and settlement size is a direct measure of the concerns of the societies employing the pictographic system. Clearly the Mixtec need to document the history of alliances and wars among a localized, segmentary elite differed enormously from the Aztec need to document the collection of tribute from entire populations of conquered people" (Pohl 1994:137-8).

Index to this topic: |Maya |Mixtec |Zapotec |Aztec |Photo |Similarities and Differences |Recitation Literacy |Other Topics|

ZAPOTEC WRITING

Structure

The structure of Zapotec writing was a kind of hieroglyphic writing in vertical columns and often with numerals (Marcus 1980:113). Zapotec writing was older than the Maya, Mixtec or Aztec systems and may have appeared as early as 600 B.C. in the Valley of Oaxaca (Id.). "Although some conventions are shared by the four systems [Maya, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Aztec], the languages the systems record belong to three different families: Zapotec and Mixtec belong to the Otomanguen family, Aztec to the Utoaztecan and Maya to the Macro-Mayan" (Id.). The later Zapotec writing system although not fully understood may be partly phonetic and partly ideographic.

Principal Subject Matter

The Zapotec hieroglyphs record the rise and fall of the Zapotec state between 500 B.C. to A.D. 700 (Id.). As Marcus writes: "many of the inscriptions [on monuments of the Valley of Oaxaca] evidently deal with the feats of ancient Zapotec rulers: their conquests, the sacrifice of their captives, their royal line of descent, their marriages, and the names of their important dependencies and tributary districts. The names of many of the rulers are taken from the 260-day calendar, and their territories are defined by toponyms, usually the names of mountains" (Id.).

Kinds of Information Documented

Over 500 stone inscriptions have been found in the Valley of Oaxaca (Id.). In the 16th century the Spanish and some Zapotec scribes recorded the Zapotec calendar, political organization, religion, grammar, vocabulary, genealogies, and some regional maps (Id.). Noble names reflecting the ritual calendar appear on monuments of stone and place signs for landmarks and genealogies appear in a pictorial document, the 16th century Lienzo de Guevea used by Marcus to interpret earlier stone monuments (Id. at 3).

Media Used

"Early Zapotec writing is found primarily in the form of inscriptions on stone monuments and paintings on the walls of tombs in the Valley of Oaxaca" (Id.).

Change over time in the subject matter of the texts

Zapotec glyphs went from a simple early pictorial display concerned with propagandistic "scenes of captives and lists of conquered places," to glyphs concerned with peaceful diplomacy, and finally to a more complex and increasingly informational pictorial system concerned with affirming "royal status," genealogy, and landmarks (Id. at 11). These correlate with the periods of 1) a state that is emerging, 2) a powerful peaceful state, and 3) a declining state (Id.) The first monuments with glyphs appear between 600 B.C. and 200 B.C. when the political organization changed, from a large village surrounded by small hamlets, to a possible confederacy at Monte Alban. Between 500 to 200 B.C. (Monte Alban Period I) over 300 stone monuments were carved regarding military matters. Like other Mesoamerican civilizations, bound and sacrificed captives are portrayed, and the victors are in full costume. Building L shows a gallery of sprawled and probably eviscerated dead people that are sometimes referred to as "Los Danzantes" - the dancers (Id.at 5). Stelae also show calendric and non-calendric "hand gesture" glyphs that may represent verbs (Id.). Between 200 B.C. and A.D. 100 (during Monte Alban Period II) the walls of Structure J, a building designed in the shape of an arrowhead, displayed "conquest slabs" of conquered locations and leaders, calendar dates and some non-calendric glyphs. Codex glyphs that look similar suggest the possibility of a continuity of 1,500 years in the place names between Period II and the 16th Century Aztec Codex Mendoza (Id. at 6). During A.D. 100 to 300 (Phase IIIa), a truncated pyramid was built with eight stone monuments. Six show captives and hill glyphs. Two are of Teotihuacan figures with probable historical and political narratives. These glyphs may record a peaceful political conference or a meeting with ambassadors (Id. at 6-7). Around A.D. 600 or 700 (The end of Phase IIIb and the beginning of Phase IV) a new kind of non-militaristic genealogical register carved into stone monuments appeared that displayed small glyphs that were meant to be read close up. These recorded "the births, ancestry and marriages of the Zapotec rulers and nobles of the time" (Id. at 8).

Use by archaeologists of writings in reconstructing ancient societies

If the hieroglyphs can be deciphered, they may be combined with archaeology to fill in Zapotec history. Marcus believes that all Zapotec inscriptions deal with political history (Id. at 10). As she points out: "We are still a long way from being able to "read" Zapotec writing in the way that Egyptian and even Maya hieroglyphs can be read. Major topics for further study are the lists of places mentioned as important landmarks, the "hand gestures" that may represent verbs of action, the noncalendric glyphs, which appear to be related to political and ritual information, the correlation between the Zapotecand European calendars, the correspondences between Zapotec writing and the Zapotec spoken language and finally the evolutionary relation between the Zapotec system of writing and the systems of the Mixtec, the Aztec, and the Maya." (Id.).

Index to this topic: |Maya |Mixtec |Zapotec |Aztec |Photo |Similarities and Differences |Recitation Literacy |Other Topics|

AZTEC WRITING

Structure

Aztec writing may have been derived from the Mixtec writing system and is similarly logographic. This may have been an advantage since people who spoke many different languages could then read the glyphs. Similarly it is not written in an alphabetic script but uses pictures and symbols to communicate information.

Principal Subject Matter

The principle subject matter was 1) cartographic recording of genealogy and local history, 2) screenfold books that could record dynastic history and be read aloud by elites, and 3) continuous year counts that recorded important events during the year. The representations of persons could become somewhat formulaic because the office, not the individual was what was important, and clothing distinguished the various offices and ranks.

Kinds of Information Documented

The conquests, heart sacrifices, and tribute from different conquered polities were frequently documented along with genealogical and dynastic history. Tribute in the form of clothing appears in the Codex Mendoza, and footprints seem to show the passage of time. From the Codex Mendoza, it appears that food was provided by commoners who carried it to the centers and provided labor as soldiers. The Franciscan Friar Motolinia in 1541 wrote in Historia de los Indios de Nueva Espana that the natives had books that: recorded years and times; days and feasts observed during the year; dreams, illusions, superstitions, and omens; baptism and the naming of infants; rites, ceremonies and omens related to marriage; victories and the conduct of wars; the succession of principal lords, bad weather conditions, noteworthy signs in the sky, pestilences and at what time and under which lord these events occurred (Boone 1994:50) These were the continuous year-count annals that recorded history (Id.). Boone argues that: "Standardization and convention allowed most of the pictorial histories to be intelligible across ethnic and linguistic boundaries throughout and beyond the imperium" (Id. at 51).

Media Used

The Aztecs used colorfully painted screenfold books like the Maya and Mixtec and carved and painted glyphs on walls and monuments, and carved stelae.

Change over time in the subject matter of the texts

The form of the writing changed with the kind of story that needed to be told and forms of event-oriented history, cartographic history, and continuous year-count annals shaped the history told (Id.).

Use by archaeologists of writings in reconstructing ancient societies

The dynastic histories allow a correlation between written texts and archaeological dating methods for excavated objects and settlements. They also allow the reconstruction of place names and the history of the wars, conquests, and dynastic histories.

Index to this topic: |Maya |Mixtec |Zapotec |Aztec |Photo |Similarities and Differences |Recitation Literacy |Other Topics|

SIMILARITIES BETWEEN MESOAMERICAN WRITING SYSTEMS

Broad similarities between Mesoamerican writing systems include the frequent use of writing as a kind of military and political "conquest propaganda" where sacrificed captives and conquered places are often featured. Folded books that could be opened up and hung on a wall to be publicly read aloud to an audience may also have been common. Many of these were burned by the Spaniards or deteriorated in tropical and other environments not conducive to the preservation of organic materials. The use of buildings, walls, and stelae to record dates of a rulers historical, political, and genealogical information is also a fairly consistent theme.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MESOAMERICAN WRITING SYSTEMS

The Mesoamerican writing systems vary in the degree to which a phonetic component is incorporated. The advantage of a phonetic system is that it is a more precise recording method for a particular spoken language. The advantage of a non-phonetic pictorial system is that it can be "read" by speakers of different languages. This may explain why in the Mixtec, Zapotec, and Aztec areas the writing appears to be more of a system of pictorial conventions. Different language speakers could then all read the glyphs. In looking at the differences in Mixtec and Aztec use of similar place symbols, the differences in the treatment of space and settlement size also have become apparent to archaeologists.

Index to this topic: |Maya |Mixtec |Zapotec |Aztec |Photo |Similarities and Differences |Recitation Literacy |Other Topics|

RECITATION LITERACY

Recitation literacy refers to the idea that codices and wall carvings and paintings were meant to be read aloud to audiences in a public way. The persons reading the glyphs would be trained in the their meaning and in some sense already knew what the glyphs refered to, making the glyphs a kind of mneumonic device for specially trained people. The codices could be unfolded and hung on a wall to recount aloud to an audience what was contained therein. In the Aztec case, calmecac, or royal schools educated royal children as priests and warriors, teaching them functional literacy. Aztec writing was primarily concerned with state ideology and fell into three categories: cartographic writing which concerned genealogy and local history, screenfold books like the Maya and Mixtec which recorded dynastic history, and continuous year counts which might describe imporatant events for a year pictorially. As an example, a hypothetical "year of the locust plague" could be represented pictorially by a locust. Only the Aztec elites learned to read and write and the screen fold books were meant to be read aloud.

AUTHORS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE IDEA OF RECITATION LITERACY

As Elizabeth Hill Boone has pointed out: "The Aztec pictorial histories were read aloud to an audience, they were interpreted, and their images were expanded and embellished in the oration of the full story. The pictorial histories were painted specifically to be the rough text of a performance. . . . Those who read the manuscripts had already memorized the histories, the stories, painted therein, and they knew the discourses as familiar roads" (Boone 1994:71). The Colloquies of the Twelve (1524) indicates that Aztec priests recited the codices and one of the Cantares Mexicanos quotes a Nahuatl scholar as singing the pictures of the book and making the codices speak (Id.at 72).

Topics

Index to this topic: |Maya |Mixtec |Zapotec |Aztec |Photo |Similarities and Differences |Recitation Literacy |Other Topics|

Photo may be slow loading EL CASTILLO, CHICHEN ITZA

El Castillo from the west, Chichen Itza (Maya, Yucatan)
Copyrighted photograph taken by Clive Ruggles


Articles © 1997 Kevin L. Callahan

Email: call0031@tc.umn.edu