For those of you out there interested in Mayan archeology and culture, or even those out there interested in how linguists crack codes, tomorrow night PBS’s NOVA will be airing a special on how the Mayan language was deciphered. The show is called, “Cracking the Mayan Code.” It airs tomorrow night at 8 p.m. on most PBS stations, but to double check what time it plays on your local PBS channel use this little applet to find out. The about page for the program describes the documentary as an inside story of how the decoding was done.
The problem with figuring out Mayan language has been that there really isn’t anything to compare too. Unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Mayan writing system does not really have an equivalent Rosetta stone to help compare and contrast meanings behind the symbolic hieroglyphs. Actually, that’s a bit misleading… most Mayan texts were destroyed by mandate from Bishop Diego de Landa. But the good bishop did leave some element of translating written Mayan language… when he was composing his Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, he included a very sketchy and rather erroneous “summary” of Maya hieroglyphics. That summary hasn’t been really by useful, because the Bishop assumed the symbols were used as an alphabet, and just documented the phonetic representation of some of the symbols. So in a way he unwillingly preserved for us a source to begin figuring out how the written language sounded when spoken.
Some critical breakthroughs were made by J. Eric Thompson and Yuri Knorosov in the mid 20th century. While their conclusions were largely opposing, they both made headway in explaining how the Mayan writing system used symbols to represent signs and concepts. Thompson thought that the glyphs only related to astronomical affairs, while Knorosov contested that conclusion. She understood the written language as an amalgamation of signs for complete words and symbols for syllables. She believed the system was capable of conveying any word in the Maya language, and much more robust than Thompson’s understandings. Tatiana Proskouriakoff, also helped figure out commonalities in the Mayan language. She looked at stellae, and was able to figure out repeated symbols. To her, these repeated symbols were the names of rules.
In the early ’80’s, David Stuart made some monumental discoveries in deciphering Mayan written language. He currently runs a weblog called, Maya Decipherment, where he writes on deciphering the language. You should definitely check it out and add it to your RSS reader. He’s also announced the airing of this PBS show too. I’ll be interested to read what he thinks of it, since it seems as if his work will make a cameo on this show.
Oh yeah, Simon Martin, one of the coauthors of this book, “Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya,” is also gonna be commenting on Maya inscriptions. As will the late Linda Schele of the University of Texas at Austin, Peter Mathews of the University of Calgary, and Michael D. Coe of Yale University…. so it seems like there will be a thorough representation of all the great minds in Mayan linguistics. Unlike many History Channel and Discovery Channel specials, I trust NOVA ones… and I think this one will be a very complete and informative documentary to watch.
As always, if you do end up seeing it, please don’t hesitate to write a comment on this post’s thread about your thoughts and opinions.