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Title: The Ancient Phonetic Alphabet of Yucatan
Author: Brinton, Daniel Garrison, 1837-1899
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Transcriber's Note

A number of typographical errors have been maintained in this version
of this book. They have been marked with a [TN-#], which refers to a
description in the complete list found at the end of the text.


  Ancient Phonetic Alphabet





  New York:







Most readers are quite familiar with the fact that a well-developed
method of picture writing, or "didactic painting," as it has been
appropriately named, prevailed through Mexico and Central America for
centuries before the conquest. But that, in the latter country, there
was a true phonetic alphabet, is one of the more recent discoveries of
American archæology, and certainly one of the most interesting, as it
promises to restore to us the records of the most cultivated nation of
ancient America for a number of centuries previous to the advent of the
white man.

It is well-known that the forests of Yucatan conceal the ruins of cities
and palaces built of stones covered with inscribed characters. All
travelers who had seen these characters were convinced that they were
intended to perpetuate ideas, but the key seemed to be irrevocably lost.
Fortunately, within the last few years (to be exact, in December, 1863),
a diligent antiquarian, the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg, unearthed in a
library in Madrid--that of the Royal Academy of History--a copy of an
unpublished description of Yucatan composed by Diego de Landa, the first
bishop of the country. In this was contained the phonetic alphabet
employed by the aboriginal Mayas, with a tolerably full, but an
intolerably obscure, explanation of their mode of using it. As De
Landa's words are so important, and also not a little difficult to
comprehend, we cannot do better than transcribe them exactly as they
appear in the copy of his work published at Paris, in 1864.

He premises his remarks by saying that the natives used certain
characters or letters with which they wrote in books their ancient
histories and sciences, and by means of these letters, and figures, and
certain signs in the figures, they could understand and teach from these
manuscripts. The missionaries found very many of them, all of which, the
good bishop informs us, proved on examination to contain more lies and
superstitions, and were consequently burned, which pained the natives in
the most marvelous manner (lo qual a maravilla sentian, y les dava

He then continues:--

     "De sus letras porné aqui un _a_, _b_, _c_, que no permite su
     pesadumbre mas, porque usan para todas las aspiraciones de las
     letras de un caracter, y despues, al puntar de las partes otro, y
     assi viene a hazer _in infinitum_, como se podra ver en el
     siguiente exemplo. _Lé_ quière dezir laço y caçar con el; para
     escrivirle con sus caracteres, haviendolos nosotros hecho entender
     que son dos letras, lo escrivian ellos con tres, poniendo a la
     aspiracion de la _l_ la vocal _é_, que antes de si trae, y en esto
     no hierran, aunque usense, si quisieron ellos de su curiosidad.


     Dèspues al cabo le pegan la parte junta. _Ha_ que quiere dezir
     agua, porque la _haché_ tiene _a_, _h_, antes de si la ponen ellos
     al principio con _a_, y al cabo desta  manera:--


     Tambien lo escriben a partes, pero de la una y otra manera, yo no
     pusiera aqui ni trétara dello sino por dar cuenta entera de las
     cosas desta gente. _Ma in kati_ quiere decir no quiero, ellos lo
     escriben a partes desta  manera:--


This is all on the subject the bishop vouchsafes us. Let us now attempt
a free translation of his words, premising that they are so obscure in
parts, and the composition so careless and provincial, that we shall not
take it at all amiss if any reader thinks he can improve our rendering:

"Of their letters, I shall place here an A, B, C, their clumsiness not
allowing more; for they employ one character for all the aspirations of
the letters, and another to denote their repetitions, and so they go on
_in infinitum_, as one may see in the following example: _Le_ means a
lasso and to hunt with one. In order to write with their characters,
although we told them it contains but two letters, they make use of
three, giving to the aspiration of the _l_ the vowel _é_, which is
before it, and in this they are not in error, if they wish to write it
in their curious manner. Example:

  e  l  e  lé

Afterwards they put at the end the part which is joined. Again in _ha_,
which means water, because the letter _h_ contains the sounds a, h, they
place the _a_ both at the beginning and at the end, in this manner:--

  a  h  a

They can write it either with separate letters or united together. I
would not have inserted nor have mentioned this but that I wished to
give a complete description of this people. _Ma in kati_ means _I do not
wish_; they write it in separate letters in this way:--

  ma  i  n  ka  ti ."

From these valuable though too scanty hints we learn that the letters
were employed connected together in a manner somewhat analogous to,
though more intimately than our cursive shrift, and also separately,
as in the Roman alphabet. When the latter was the case, they were
repeated apparently in their connected form. Further, the vowel sound
which is necessarily associated with the enunciation of every consonant
(_la aspiracion_), and which in the Maya language of Yucatan is so
pronounced as to have been called by the Abbé de Bourbourg, "_une
certaine affectation gutturale_," was taken account of, and expressed
in writing. Then there were a number of arbitrary signs, figures, and
symbols, with syllabic values, as we see in the last example given. These
peculiarities, of course, make the system clumsy, but are by no means
insurmountable difficulties in the way of elucidating it.

Immediately at the close of the foregoing extract Bishop Landa gives the
alphabet subjoined, which has been carefully copied on wood, by Mr.
Edward Bensell, of Philadelphia, the arrangement of the letters being
slightly altered:--

[Illustration: 1 _a_]

[Illustration: 2 _a_]

[Illustration: 3 _a_]

[Illustration: 4 _a_]

[Illustration: 5 _b_]

[Illustration: 6 _b_]

[Illustration: 7 _c_]

[Illustration: 8 _ca_]

[Illustration: 9]

[Illustration: 10 _t_]

[Illustration: 11 _è_]

[Illustration: 12 _h_]

[Illustration: 13 _h_]

[Illustration: 14 _ha_]

[Illustration: 15 _i_]

[Illustration: 16 _k_]

[Illustration: 17 _ku_]

[Illustration: 18 _l_]

[Illustration: 19 _l_]

[Illustration: 20 _m_]

[Illustration: 21 _n_]

[Illustration: 22 _o_]

[Illustration: 23 _o_]

[Illustration: 24 _p_]

[Illustration: 25 _pp_]

[Illustration: 26 _x_]

[Illustration: 27 _x_]

[Illustration: 28 _u_]

[Illustration: 29 _u_]

[Illustration: 30 _z_]

Besides these elementary sounds, he gives twenty arbitrary signs, one
for each day of the Maya month, which signs seem also to be used at
their syllabic value in writing words. All of them have the same
peculiar rounded or circular form which is observable in most of the
letters, and which has induced some writers to call this the
"Calculiform" alphabet.

But returning to the A, B, C, let us inquire the meanings of the figures
adopted. Knowing these, we shall be in better position to recognise
their variations on existing inscriptions and manuscripts--for these, as
we expect, are considerable; but not more so, perhaps, than the
variations in the forms of the Roman letters.

_a._ Nos. 1, 2, and 4, are representations of the heads of some animals,
No. 2 being evidently the head of a bird with a long curved beak,
probably a species of parrot. No. 3 has been supposed to represent a leg
or a boot of some kind, but is probably also a rude figure of a head,
(See Plate XXXVI. of the _manuscrit[TN-1] Troano_.)

_b._ Both these letters are supposed to represent a path or way bearing
the marks of foot prints, indicated by the small figures inside the

_c._ This letter should probably be pronounced _ka_ (_a_ as in mate),
and is imagined to represent a mouth displaying sharp teeth.

_ca._ This sign is explained as the jaw of an animal thickly set with
teeth; but a careful examination of its variations leads to the belief
that it is a representation of the eye lashes. (See the _Etudes sur le
Manuscrit Troano_, p. 55.)

_cu._ This has not been identified.

_t._ As there is no d in Maya this character stands for both t and d. It
signifies space, the four marks leading towards the center representing
the four cardinal points, and the phonetic base being the Maya,
preposition _ti_, in, toward, at, in space.

_e._ Probably a front view of the human face, surmounted by the hair,
the dots marking the eyes, nose and mouth.

_k._ Nos. 12 and 13, variations of the same, represent a joint of
bamboo. No. 14 is the guttural h, pronounced _ha_, which word in Maya
means water. The figure represents a stream flowing around some objects.

_i._ This letter stems formed after the analogy of c, but no
satisfactory analysis has yet been offered.

_k, ku._ The k is beyond doubt derived from a head seen in profile. The
upper figure within the circle is the closed eye with its lashes
(compare No. 8); that below on the right is the ear (compare No. 28);
that on the left the mouth. (See the variations in the _Etudes sur le
Manuscrit Troano_, p. 55.) The ku is supposed to be a drawing of the
sacred "medicine bag."

_l._ Neither of these has been resolved.

_m._ This also, is the figure of a head. It is distinguished from the k
by the eye being open, from the p by the absence of dots around the

_n._ Possibly the figure of a serpent.

_o._ Variations of the same, of uncertain origin.

_p, pp._ Again the face in profile.

_x._ The first figure is easily recognised as the human hand, the second
as a face in profile, emitting breath from the mouth.

_u._ The first sign represents the ear, the second is of uncertain

_z._ This seems to be a vase of some kind.

It is evident that many of these signs have received abbreviated and
conventional forms quite remote from their original figures, precisely
as we know occurred in the Phenician and derived alphabets. The
variations are numerous and puzzling.

It will be observed that the basis of most of them is a head seen in
front or in profile. Bearing this in mind, and fixing definitely the
differential marks, which alone were deemed of importance by the native
artists, we could venture with considerable confidence on the
interpretation of manuscripts and inscriptions, did we not meet with
very serious obstacles in other directions.

One of these is the resolution of the groups referred to by Landa as
_las partes juntas_. In these the rounded "Calculiform" letters are
arranged in quadrilateral masses, each representing a phrase, name, or
title. We may seek the origin of this arrangement in what philologists
call the incorporative, or "polysynthetic" character of the Maya in
common with all other American tongues, which tends to the expression of
an idea with all its modifications, in one intricate grammatical
synthesis. These groups must first be separated in their component
parts, and then arranged in proper order. Some of them read from right
to left, and alternately from top to bottom and bottom to top; or, to
illustrate by a diagram, as if we were to write the word _marvelous_,

  O   L   M
  U   E   A
  S   V   R

But the artist had no hesitation in changing this arrangement, if
another would allow him to compose a neater group. Especially is this
the case on the sculptures, where the love of ornamentations constantly
obscures the design and renders the letters almost unrecognisable,
precisely as the fashion is at the present day to adorn the walls of our
churche[TN-2] with inscriptions in ornamental and Gothic characters,
hardly legible to unpracticed eyes.

There is also an obstacle in the very limited number of manuscripts in
this character which have been preserved. Of the vast number found among
the natives at the conquest, only three or four are known to be in
existence. One of these is the "Dresden Manuscript," another the
"Manuscript Troano," the third the "Manuscrit Mexican, No. 2," of the
Bibliothéque Impériale; and perhaps the "Pesth Manuscript" is in the
same shrift. Of these the Dresden Manuscript may be seen in the large
collection of Lord Kingsborough on Mexican Antiquities, and the
Manuscript Troano was published in fac simile by the French government
under the editorship of M. Brasseur de Bourbourg. (_Mission Scentifique
au Mexique et a l'Amérique Centrale, Linguistique._ Paris, 1869.
Imprimeire Imperiale.) There is, however, material almost inexhaustible
in the inscriptions preserved upon the stone temples, altars, and
pillars of Yucatan, which we may with great confidence look to see
deciphered before many years.

The only serious difficulty which is at present in the way is our want
of knowledge of the ancient Maya language. All the published grammars
and vocabularies are extremely deficient and incomplete, and quite
inadequate to serve us in interpreting the inscriptions. But even this
alarming obstacle is only temporary. There exists in manuscript a most
complete and carefully composed dictionary of the Maya, written about
1650, two copies of which are in this country, one in the hands of the
Smithsonian Institution, and which we earnestly hope will shortly be
published under the efficient superintendence of Dr. Hermann Berendt,
the most accomplished Maya scholar living. With it in hand, the
deciphering of the inscriptions of Palenque, Uxmal, Itza, and the other
ruined cities of Yucatan, and of the manuscripts already mentioned, will
become certainly a less serious task than that of translating the
cuneiform inscriptions of Ninevah.

Even without other aids than the limited vocabularies already published,
some antiquarians have boldly set to work on the Yucatecan writings.
Most conspicuous of them is M. Brasseur de Bourbourg, who first
published Diego de Landa's work containing the alphabet. (_Relation des
choses de Yucatan de Diego de Landa. Texte espagnol et traduction
francaise en regard, comprenant les signes du calendrier, et de
l'Alphabet hiéroglyphique de la langue Maya._ Paris, 1864.[TN-3]

His recent edition of the Manuscript Troano is prefaced by an _Etude_ in
which he attempts to interpret several of its pages. It is painful to be
unable to say a single word in favor of his views. They are thoroughly
untenable and groundless. The Abbé Brasseur deserves the highest praise
for his ardor and devotion to archæological studies, but his theories do
not bear a moment's examination. They are so utterly wild that we are
almost afraid to state them. He imagines that these inscriptions and
manuscripts all contain geological reminiscences, chiefly concerning the
submersion of a portion of the American continent and the consequent
formation of the West India Islands. He explains all the letters as
"expressive images of the cataclysm of which they are the phonetic
expression." The culture of the Mayas and Aztecs he regards as the
debris of a far higher civilization, which once extended over most of
the American continent, and _from which_ that of ancient Egypt (!) was
derived. He insists on the identity of the ancient Maya and Aztec
tongues, for which there is not a shadow of proof, and going further,
claims that they are both derived from _Germanic_ roots. Of course, with
such notions as these, his "interpretation" of the Manuscript is an
absurdity, and can never obtain a serious hearing in scientific circles.

A very different student is M. H. de Charencey, long favorably known for
his researches into the Basque language, the dialects of Central
America, and other critical publications. In the first volume of the
_Actes la Société Philologique_ (Paris, 1870) he has an "_Essai de
Déchiffrement d'un Fragment d'Inscription Palenquienne_." He takes for
his subject the famous "bas-relief of the Cross," found on the back of
the great altar at Palenque. It is portrayed in Stephens's Travels in
Central America,[TN-4] and more carefully in the work of Cabrera on the
ruins of Palenque, from a drawing by M. de Waldeck. It seems to
represent the ceremony of baptism, or something analogous to it. The
central figures are surrounded by inscriptions. Immediately above the
bird which surmounts the cross is found this character:--


This he analyses as follows, commencing at the right: h (variation of
No. 13 of the alphabet), o (variation of No. 22 enclosed in a circle),
nab (the Maya word for the palm of the hand which supports the middle
letter), ku (variation of No. 17),=_honabku_. This, in the orthography
_hunabku_, a discrepancy of no great moment, is a familiar Maya name of
divinity, and means _the only_, or _the one God_. The course of argument
by which he supports this analysis is careful and judicious.

The second group which M. de Charencey analyses is this:--


This he resolves, commencing at the right hand upper figure, proceeding
from above downward, and from right to left, into the following letters
of Landa's alphabet:

  u, ku, ku, l, ca, nab,

meaning "it, or those, of the Kukulcan." Kukulcan, however was the name
of the hero god of the Mayas, corresponding to the Quetzalcoatl of the
Aztecs. His worship was introduced into Yucatan subsequent to the ninth
century of the Christian era, and his name means in Maya precisely what
Quetzalcoatl does in Aztec, namely, "the serpent with quetzal feathers,"
the quetzal being a species of parrot with bright green plumage. This
interpretation, therefore, if admitted, fixes an important date in
Central American history; for it proves that the erection of the
extraordinary monuments of Palenque, which were found in ruins at the
conquest, took place subsequent to the ninth century of our era.

It is not our object at present to go into the details of these
remarkable investigations, still less to criticise them at length, but
simply to give their outlines and results. They should excite an earnest
interest in this country, and stimulate our scholars to turn their
attention to the antiquities of our own continent, which thus acquire an
importance quite equal to those on the banks of the Euphrates and the
Nile, which have commanded such profound study from European scholars.


Transcriber's Note

The following typographical errors were maintained in this version of the

        Page  Error
  TN-1   5    _manuscrit Troano_ should read _Manuscrit Troano_
  TN-2   7    churche should read churches
  TN-3   7    Paris, 1864. should read Paris, 1864.)
  TN-4   7    Travels in Central America should read _Travels in Central

The following words were inconsistently spelled:

  Impériale / Imperiale

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