Phonetic Writing Systems

FIGURE 3. Syllabary of Linear B, from page 23 of Michael Ventris and John Chadwick’s 1956 _Documents in Mycenaean Greek_.

FIGURE 3. Syllabary of Linear B, from page 23 of Michael Ventris and John Chadwick’s 1956 Documents in Mycenaean Greek.

FIGURE 4. “A Maya Hieroglyphic Syllabary,” from pages 46-47 of David Stuart’s 1987 _Ten Phonetic Syllables_.

FIGURE 4. “A Maya Hieroglyphic Syllabary,” from pages 46-47 of David Stuart’s 1987 Ten Phonetic Syllables.

FIGURE 5. Alfonso Lacadena’s Nahuatl Syllabary.

FIGURE 5. Alfonso Lacadena’s Nahuatl Syllabary.

Phonetic writing systems allow their users to record precise sequences of sound. They are often used to record spoken languages. As was mentioned above, alphabetic writing is one type of phonetic writing. You are probably reading this very sentence silently, but if you wanted to, you could open your mouth and pronounce it out loud. However, not every phonetic writing system records everyday speech. A number of phonetic writing systems record archaic “prestige languages,” ancient tongues seldom spoken aloud or used in everyday interaction. Examples of prestige languages include Renaissance Latin and the language recorded in Maya hieroglyphs.8

One way to categorize different types of phonetic writing is to count the number of signs that different systems use.9 Alphabetic writing systems break languages down into consonants and vowels that correspond to discrete sounds. Alphabetic writing systems usually have between 20 and 35 different signs or letters. The twenty-first-century English alphabet has 26 signs:


The sixteenth-century Castilian (Spanish) alphabet had 27:


A second type of phonetic writing system is syllabic. Here, languages are broken down into signs representing vowels (such as a, e, i, o, u) as well as signs representing syllables (usually consonant-vowel pairs such as ba, be, bi, bo, bu; ca, ce, ci, co, cu; etcetera). These different signs or symbols are combined to form full words, just like alphabetic signs. Syllabic writing systems usually have between 40 and 90 different signs, each corresponding to these meaningful sounds. Linear B, a syllabic writing system used to record an ancient form of Greek, has 87 signs. Linguists and epigraphers often arrange the signs of syllabic writing systems into charts called syllabaries. Figure 3 shows a syllabary for Linear B created by Michael Ventris, who deciphered this writing system in the early 1950s. Like most syllabaries, this chart has one axis for vowels, and another for consonants. The top row of signs within the grid represent vowels: a, e, i, o, and u. The remaining twelve rows show the signs for different consonant-vowel combinations. For example, the second row shows the signs for d- values: da, de, di, do, du. The third row shows the signs for j- values: ja, je, ji, jo, ju. The last row shows the signs for z- values: za, ze, zi, zo, zu.

A third type of phonetic writing system is logographic. Here, signs represent complex strings of sound that form whole words. As a result, logographic writing systems have hundreds or thousands of signs. Sumerian has over 600 signs; Middle Egyptian has over 2,500; Chinese has over 5,000. Significantly, although many “pure” alphabetic and syllabic writing systems exist (that is, systems that use only alphabetic or syllabic signs), logographic writing systems often incorporate syllabic and alphabetic signs in addition to their logograms. As we will see below, this mixture helps the reader to decipher often-opaque logographic signs. In other words, most “logographic” writing systems are actually mixed “logographic-syllabic” or “logographic-alphabetic” systems. Egyptian hieroglyphs, as we saw above, mix logograms with a hieroglyphic alphabet, as well as a series of syllable-like signs.10 Maya hieroglyphs and Central Mexican writing also use mixed logographic-syllabic sign systems.

In the same year that Gelb declared phonetic to be writing absent from the New World (“the so-called ‘Maya and Aztec writings’”), and at the same time Michael Ventris was deciphering Linear B, Soviet linguist Yuri Knorosov published an essay on Maya writing called “Ancient Writing of Central America.” Knorosov argued that Maya hieroglyphs were a phonetic system of writing. He offered syllabic translations for a number of words recorded in Postclassic Maya screenfold books (similar to the Codex Nuttall and Codex Selden in Mesolore) dating from between 1250 to 1520. Knorosov’s essay was soon translated from Russian into English, and was initially controversial. In the decades which followed, however, Knorosov’s work set the foundations for a revolution in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs. A particularly important essay, Ten Phonetic Syllables , was published by David Stuart in 1987.

Stuart deciphered the phonetic values for ten syllabic signs in Maya writing: ts’i, pi, wi, tsi, yi, xa, xi, yo, lo, and hi. In addition, Stuart used these signs to propose readings for longer hieroglyphic words, including terms for scribe ( ah ts’ib ), mountain ( wits ), and “to play ball” ( pits ). At the end of the essay, Stuart included a syllabary (Figure 4). Like the syllabary for Linear B shown above, one axis is for vowels (this time on the vertical axis) and one axis is for consonants (the horizontal). Most of the empty spaces in this chart have since been filled in, and in newer versions the individual cells are much more crowded, because variations for different syllabic signs have been discovered.11

More recently, Alfonso Lacadena has published a syllabary for Central Mexican writing (Figure 5).12 The layout of this chart is much like that for Linear B: vowels form the horizontal axis, and consonants form the vertical axis. Like Stuart’s chart from 1987, this syllabary has a number of blank spaces, indicating signs that have not yet been identified. Although incomplete, this chart already allows a many Central Mexican phonetic texts to be read.

The sections that follow provide a basic introduction to the use of syllabic signs in Central Mexican phonetic writing. As a point of comparison, Late Postclassic and colonial texts from Central Mexico are discussed along with Late Postclassic Maya texts from the Yucatan peninsula.

Primary Sources: Paintings and Stones >

8 Houston et al 2000, 336.

9 Coe 1992: 41.

10 Egyptian “biliteral signs” represent two sounds, and “triliteral signs” represent three sounds; Gardiner 1927, 38, 44.

11 An excellent syllabic chart is provided at the end of Coe and Van Stone 2005; I have used this to verify the phonetic readings of Maya glyphs in this tutorial. Coe and Van Stone’s book is a good, general introduction to reading Maya hieroglyphs.

12 Lacadena 2008a, 23.