Three scholars are theorizing that the hieroglyphs carved on stone temples and painted on pottery throughout Central America 1,500 years ago represent a formal, prestige language of the nobles.
The writings probably were in a tongue different from those spoken by most of the people in the region, which covered much of Mexico, nearly all of Guatemala and parts of Honduras and El Salvador, according to research by Stephen D. Houston and John Robertson of Brigham Young University and David Stuart of Harvard.For decades, translators have been able to winkle out the meaning of the ancient Mayan glyphs. What is surprising is the evidence Houston, Robertson and Stuart have amassed that the language reflected in the writings was a special one -- a courtly, priestly form.
They compare this to the Latin written throughout Europe in the centuries following the collapse of the Roman empire. When the Catholic Church ruled the continent -- for example, in the year 800 -- a priest from Barcelona would have been able to understand a Mass in London or Venice equally well because it was in Latin.
In that same year, regardless of whether he was from the highlands of Guatemala near the Pacific coast or the lowlands of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula -- whether he spoke Ch'olan, Mamean, Q'anjob'alan or any of several other languages -- a scribe could have read a monument stone erected anywhere in Maya country.
"It seems to be an elite language," said Houston, professor of anthropology at BYU. "We suspect there are some areas where the peasants, so to speak, are probably speaking a similar language.
"But we suspect, in many cases, there was a deep divide between the language being spoken by the royalty and the nobles and whatever language would be used by the peasants who were supporting this ostentatious way of life."
Houston calls himself "an unusual species of archaeologist," a member of the digging variety who is also an expert in deciphering the hieroglyphics written by the Maya in their classical era, A.D. 250-850, and later.
About four years ago, he and Robertson, who is chairman of the BYU linguistics department, began working together to sort out relationships among the ancient written and spoken Mayan languages.
"He hadn't been trained in linguistics, and I really hadn't been trained in the hieroglyphics," Robertson said.
They shared thoughts in each other's offices and by e-mail. They joined forces with Stuart, a former student of Houston's at Vanderbilt who now is assistant director of Harvard University's Peabody Museum in charge of the Maya collection.
They visited Stuart at Cambridge, Mass., where they all bounced ideas off one another.
It was a scientific partnership in which two disciplines meshed, one area of expertise amplifying the other.
"Basically the Maya will put hieroglyphs on any surface out there that would be on public display. You see them on stairways, freestanding stones that we call stele; you see them on panels, sides of doorways, doorway jambs. Just about any surface that somebody might look at would be a candidate," Houston said.
For the past three years Houston has led annual archaeological expeditions to Piedras Negras, a remote jungle region of Guatemala near Chiapas, Mexico. He returned in May after an extensive visit.
"We were attracted to the site because it does have many, many inscriptions. Arguably it has one of the greatest collections of Mayan sculpture . . . and Mayan art," he said.
Besides stone buildings and doorways, archaeologists find glyphs painted on cylindrical pottery vessels and wall murals and carved into bone objects, shells and altars.
The Maya even wrote books in the strange ornate symbols. Many of the codices, written on folded pages of bark paper, survived into the days of the Spanish conquest.
But in 1562 Diego de Landa, the Spanish bishop of Merida, Mexico, gathered all the remaining Mayan books he could find and burned them. Some were extremely old. The destruction happened because de Landa felt "they worshipped those books," said Robertson.
Today, the world has only three or four Mayan codices, dating only from the time of the Spanish occupation.
Yet de Landa also helped save the ancient language, because he was curious about the inscriptions. He asked a Mayan priest the meanings of the symbols and wrote them down.
De Landa wrongly assumed he was getting an alphabet, when actually the information was a fragmentary syllabary, a list of syllables. But he did record information relating to the sounds represented by some glyphs.
Recent scholarship using this information has established that the glyphs are not merely ideograms (basically drawings), but that they have a strong phonetic component.
That means the ancient inscriptions preserve the sound of the original language. As more and more of the glyphs are translated, scholars are comparing the meanings with colonial-era dictionaries of Mayan tongues and with present languages to further sort out the puzzle.
What do the texts mean?
"Generally they will speak about the buildings and the stones that were commissioned by certain kings, they will speak about how certain objects belong to the kings or the nobles," Houston said.
"They'll speak about conflicts. They'll speak about marriages and the movement of these nobles and kings as they move from site to site." Even astronomy shows up in the texts, particularly in relation to the moon and Venus.
In a paper that Houston, Robertson and Stuart have submitted to the journal Current Anthropology, University of Chicago Press, they delve into the intricacies of the ancient language.
In page after page of technical analysis, the three show how the classic Mayan script is related to spoken language. They show how the language of the scripts evolved into Ch'olti', a language recorded in a dictionary during Spanish times.
"Why was classic Mayan 'high' and prestigious?" they wonder. "It may have been the language of preclassic Tikal or Calakmul, cities of abiding stature."
Possibly it was the original language of the Mirador Basin when it hosted the first integrated development of lowland Maya civilization, they add. Maybe classic Maya served as a regional common language for diplomacy and trade.
However it came to be the prestige tongue of written inscriptions, it probably served as a court language inaccessible to all but a class of nobles and priests, Houston believes.
"It would tend to accentuate, I think, the kind of social divisions within language," he told the Deseret News. It could have served as a linguistic buffer between the lower classes and the elite.
"Another possibility that can't be discounted is the language is connected with a way of looking at the world and even religious practices, that a kind of courtly civilization diffused from this area where the language was spoken."
One of the most exciting findings of the three scholars is that a direct descendant of the classic Mayan tongue of the inscriptions is a living language. It is one among many modern Mayan languages, the one spoken by the Ch'orti' Indians.
Houston calls them a "neglected group of Mayan speakers . . . who live on the border between Honduras and Guatemala." Of more than 5 million speakers of Mayan languages, the Ch'orti' number only 30,000 to 50,000.
The impact of the discovery that they are the direct linguistic, and possibly cultural, heirs of the Mayan elite may be important news to the Ch'orti', according to Houston. "This may eventually have consequences as resurgent, native-rights groups become more active in Guatemala."