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Breaking the Maya Code (1992)

by Michael D. Coe

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682933,696 (3.9)29
In the past dozen years, Maya decipherment has made great strides, in part due to the Internet, which has made possible the truly international scope of hieroglyphic scholarship: glyphic experts can be found not only in North America, Mexico, Guatemala, and western Europe but also in Russia and the countries of eastern Europe.The third edition of this classic book takes up the thorny question of when and where the Maya script first appeared in the archaeological record, and describes efforts to decipher its meaning on the extremely early murals of San Bartolo. It includes iconographic and epigraphic investigations into how the Classic Maya perceived and recorded the human senses, a previously unknown realm of ancient Maya thought and perception.There is now compelling documentary and historical evidence bearing on the question of why and how the "breaking of the Maya code" was the achievement of Yuri V. Knorosov--a Soviet citizen totally isolated behind the Iron Curtain--and not of the leading Maya scholar of his day, Sir Eric Thompson. What does it take to make such a breakthrough, with a script of such complexity as the Maya? We now have some answers, as Michael Coe demonstrates here.… (more)
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This is certainly not a book for casual reading for it is the story of the several people behind the ultimate decipherment of Mayan writing. Detailed and chronological, the author tells of the collegiality and animosity among the deciphers who singularly and separately gathered the myriad knowledge needed to break the Mayan code. The author has great admiration for the Mayan for they were the first to create a written language in North America.

The author is quite clear that all ancient writing systems rely on a complex combination of phonetic and semantic signs while there are three great classes of writing systems: logographic, syllabic, alphabetic. The pillars for decipherment are:
1. The database must be large enough, with many texts of adequate length.
2. The language must be known, or at least a reconstructed, ancestral version, in vocabulary, grammar, and syntax; at the very minimum, the linguistic family to which the language of the script belongs should be known.
3. There should be a bilingual inscription of some sort, one member of which is a known writing system.
4. The cultural context of the script should be known, above all traditions and histories giving place names, royal name and title, and so forth.
5. For logographic scripts, there should be pictorial reference, either pictures that accompany the text, or pictorially derived logographic signs.
Both Mayan and its grammar are unlike any other language Westerners learned for there was no Rosetta Stone, no point #3 to light the way to decipherment.

The author does not whitewash Mayan history; “Notwithstanding the pious claims of a past generation of archaeologists, blood and gore were the rule not the exception among the city states of the lowlands…. favourite themes of Classic Maya reliefs are the stripping, binding, trampling, torture, and decapitation of captives.”

I was hoping the book would be along the lines of The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone by Edward Dolnick with more pictures of word and sentence composition but on the whole, the book was a fine read. ( )
  ShelleyAlberta | Feb 21, 2024 |
it lost its way in the middle of the book, throwing names and dates around like the worst high school history book. The last third, which focused on a few researches in a short span of time, was much easier to read and more enjoyable. One does get tired of constant bashing of the book's villain, Eric Thompson, who if you take the author's word for it, was the most racist (ancient Americans could never have developed writing! ) and near sighted (why learn the language of a culture you are studying? ) scholar to have existed. ..
Despite these shortcoming, the author's enthusiasm for the subject shines through, and in the end it truly is a fascinating topic and story. ( )
  zizabeph | May 7, 2023 |
Unlike the other reviewers, I found the gossip to be the most interesting part of this story. The decipherment process itself was too technical for me to follow. In any case, this is much worse written than the other two decipherment books that I have read recently, Dolnick's "The Writing of the Gods," and Fox's "The Riddle of the Labyrinth."

> by the young British architect Michael Ventris in a radio broadcast of 1952. In June of the next year, a leader in The Times, which brought this discovery to the attention of the world, significantly coincided with the conquest of Everest by Hillary and Tensing. Ventris’ achievement was the cracking of Linear B, a kind of Everest of the mind, if there ever was one, and made even more poignant by the brilliant decipherer’s untimely death at the age of thirty-four in a car accident

> tenses: they really don’t exist in Mayan languages like Yucatec, or at least there are no past, present, and future of the kind familiar to us. In their place are aspect words or particles, and inflections; these indicate whether an action has been completed or not, whether it is just beginning or ending, or has been in progress for a while. As adverbs, they stand in front of verbs, and govern them. To talk of events in the past, you must differentiate the remote past from the more recent past; and to deal with the future, the particular aspect word which you must use depends on how certain it is that something will happen – there are the indefinite “I will walk,” the definite “I am going to walk,” and the very certain statement “I will walk.”

> is just not possible in Mayan to use an imperfective verb (referring to actions or events in the past, present, or future that have not been completed) without sticking a date or a temporal aspect adverb in front of it. The Maya are, and have always been, very, very particular about time

> As English-speakers, we take it for granted that one can speak of, say “four birds” or “twenty-five books,” but this kind of numerical construction is impossible in the Mayan languages – between the number and the thing counted there has to be a numerical classifier, describing the class to which the object, animal, plant, or thing belongs. We have a glimmering of this sort of construction when we talk of “two flocks of geese” or “a pride of lions,” but this is pale stuff compared to the richness of Mayan classifiers. Colonial Yucatec dictionaries list dozens of these, but only a handful are still in use in today’s Yucatán, yet even these have to be interposed even when the number itself might be in Spanish. If I see three horses in a pasture, I would count them as ox-tul tzimin (ox, “three”; -tul, classifier for animate things; tzimin, “horse” or “tapir”). However, if there were three stones lying in the same pasture, I would have to say ox-p’el tunich (ox, “three”; -p’el, classifier for inanimate things; tunich, “stone”).

> Mayan is fairly gender-blind: there really are no masculine, feminine, or neuter constructions in most of the grammar. One and the same pronoun is used for “he,” “she,” and “it.” Nonetheless, male and female personal names and occupational titles are often prefixed by special particles indicating sex. In Yucatec, these are aj for men, and ix for women. Thus, we have in our early Colonial sources aj tz’ib, “scribe” (= “he of the writing”), and lx Cheel, the mother goddess (= “Lady Rainbow”).

> For the ancient Egyptians, the order of a sentence with a transitive verb would have been verb-subject-object, or VSO, so that to express a sentence which in English would be “The scribe knows the counsel,” a denizen of the Nile would have had to say “knows the scribe the counsel.” We would use the SVO construction for this. But the Mayan languages generally use the order verb-object-subject or VOS (“knows the counsel the scribe”); moreover, with intransitive verbs which take no object, such as “the lord is seated,” the verb still precedes the subject. ( )
  breic | Dec 21, 2021 |
Excellent and interesting. At the time I read this, I was all set to learn Mayan hieroglyphs. Then I realized that I would have to learn Mayan. Eesh. Chan Balam - Sky Jaguar. That's about as far as I got in my notebook I was keeping. Then I adopted an iguana and suddenly got very, very busy. The book however - it was great. Love reading about ancient languages and translations of ancient scripts. ( )
  Chica3000 | Dec 11, 2020 |
Very interesting! Particularly in the later sections as you find out more about the Maya - for instance the fact that they seemed to love 'tagging' everything with their names. 'His cup, his bowl', fine, but also 'his bone' (inscribed on a bit of bone in a tomb) and so on.

Now I want to read the updated version to find out what the research in this area since 1994 has revealed. ( )
  comixminx | Apr 4, 2014 |
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To the memory of Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov
ah bobat, ah miatz, etail
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It was 12 cycles, 18 katuns, 16 tuns, 0 uinals, and 16 kins since the beginning of the Great Cycle.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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In the past dozen years, Maya decipherment has made great strides, in part due to the Internet, which has made possible the truly international scope of hieroglyphic scholarship: glyphic experts can be found not only in North America, Mexico, Guatemala, and western Europe but also in Russia and the countries of eastern Europe.The third edition of this classic book takes up the thorny question of when and where the Maya script first appeared in the archaeological record, and describes efforts to decipher its meaning on the extremely early murals of San Bartolo. It includes iconographic and epigraphic investigations into how the Classic Maya perceived and recorded the human senses, a previously unknown realm of ancient Maya thought and perception.There is now compelling documentary and historical evidence bearing on the question of why and how the "breaking of the Maya code" was the achievement of Yuri V. Knorosov--a Soviet citizen totally isolated behind the Iron Curtain--and not of the leading Maya scholar of his day, Sir Eric Thompson. What does it take to make such a breakthrough, with a script of such complexity as the Maya? We now have some answers, as Michael Coe demonstrates here.

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