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Thinking in Mayan

wicked-mayan-hieroglyphs-mexico-cityI am writing this in Mérida, Mexico, where my husband and I lucked out in avoiding the snowstorm that hit the Northeast this week. We are baking in the Yucatán sunshine and visiting nearby Mayan sites. Our second day here, in a city park, we bumped into a professor of Mayan studies at a nearby college who wanted to practice his English. Many of the edifices in Mérida were built from the five pyramids of the Mayan city that once occupied this site, and he pointed out to us a series of hieroglyphs that were tucked into the façade of a church, unattended and unnoticed by passersby.

I asked him about the Latin-alphabet version of Mayan, in which the translations ubiquitous at tourist sites here are written. That alphabet version of spoken Mayan, he said, was created in the 20th century, but it has little to do with the codices that have been discovered at such impressive sites as Uxmal and Chichen Itza. Those codices, he explained, did not bear any kind of one-on-one relationship with the spoken Mayan languages of the time. The script that experts have decoded from the remains at those sites and others expresses not words but concepts. To read ancient Mayan script is to enter a sort of conceptual space where you apprehend the glyphs as ways toward relationships and ideas, not as written versions of what someone might conceivably say.

At least that was the explanation we got from this one professor. I have no expertise in ancient languages or in the arduous work of decoding texts carved into stone. The information I’ve gleaned online during the evenings here indicates that Mayan glyphs are logosyllabic: combinations that represent words or phrases. So the notion that the writings the professor was referring to were based on concepts, as opposed to the sounds a person makes while speaking, might be oversimplifying the distinctions that matter here.

Still, as we visited the archaeological sites themselves, I found myself thinking about this notion of a language that exists in two separate spheres. In one sphere, that of oral communication, people make sounds that are readily understood by the others in their community and understood to some degree by those nearby whose languages are related. In the other sphere, those educated in the script grapple with the ideas that it represents. They may articulate their understanding of those ideas in words, but no two individuals’ “readings” of a particular codex will match up exactly, because no two individuals express an idea exactly the same way, even if they see eye to eye on it. For instance, the Golden Rule that I learned as a child, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” might be equally well expressed as “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” (the Confucian version). But I read those statements as literally (though perhaps not figuratively) different, while the sort of writings our new professor friend was describing would presumably “write” them exactly the same way.

The idea, I concluded, bore its best relationship to the way I might “read” a painting, an act that we almost always see as involving some degree of interpretation. Between this sort of reading and the sort I do if I read a book aloud to preschoolers, it seems to me, is a difference of kind, not of degree. But that may be because, in addition to not being an archaeolinguist, I am not a semiotician. If I were, I might be able to produce an argument about how our own language, with its multiple roots and connotations, serves as its own complex system of signs and symbols; about how our own reading is never as straightforward as we think.

But I am on vacation for two more days, and not inclined to take things too seriously. After all, many come here wondering what the Mayan meaning is of the word Yucatán. Turns out it most likely came from a misunderstanding. The Spaniards asked the non-Spanish-speaking locals the name of this place, and they replied, quite sensibly, “Uh yu ka t’an,” meaning “Hear how they talk.”

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