Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Code of Kings, Mayan Culture and Language

Culture is much more than just the language. It is the architecture, the general mindset of the people, the relationships with others, the many factors. It's hard to separate one from the other because their influence is felt in so many ways. As a linguist, I'm astounded just how complicated the word 'culture' really is.

I'm reading The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs by Linda Schele and Peter Mathews. The Mayan Empire stretched across parts of Mexico, Guatamala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. It lasted from about 1000 BC to 1697 AD, when the Spaniards conquered the last independent Mayan kingdom. Archaeologists have discovered many tantalizing glimpses of Mayan life and culture.

The Mayans arranged their temples and holy spaces in geometrically precise layouts. In many cases, new rulers simply designed new buildings on the remains of old ones. They considered open spaces as sacred ground, so most of their religious ceremonies took place in plazas and ballcourts (similar to modern jai alai or basketball courts). Architects designed elaborate friezes and wall decorations to tell the histories of the great cities. Wherever you turned, you were reminded of your past and what was expected for the future.

The seven cities featured in this book are Tikal, Palenque, Copan, Seibal, Chich'en Itza, Uxmal and Iximche'. These places were all important centers of the Mayan Empire, but each city had its own unique style. Each place had its own history, its own triumphs and tragedies. The language used logographs (single signs), syllabic signs, or a combination of both. There were several ways of writing a single word, depending on the sounds involved and how it was used. These stylized pictures tell each city's story, from their earliest rulers to their eventual conquest.

Here is a brief sample of the Mayan language and how to pronounce words.

The word "lord" can be spelled ahaw, ahau, or axaw, depending on the translator. Like Chinese's pinyin or Egyptian hieroglyphs, there can be many different versions of the same word. Some sounds don't exist in English or Spanish; I've marked those with (*). The 'standard' orthography is:

a=pronounced a like 'father'
b=b like 'ball'
c=k like the English 'k'
e=e like 'set'
h=h like 'hello'
i= ee like 'see'
j= hard h sound, like the Spanish j (jabon, jai lai)
k= hard k, but with closed glottis (i.e. don't let the sound vibrate in your throat)
o= o like 'hold'
pp or p'= p with closed glottis
*q= (k deep in the throat. The closest equivalent is the 'r' in Arabic. There is no equiv. in English)
th or t'= t with closed glottis
*tz= no equivalent in English
*dz is pronounced tz'
u= oo sound in 'zoo', or it can stand for the letter 'w'
x=sh sound like 'shell'
z= s sound like 'soon'

All original writing and art copyright A. Dameron 2000-2011

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