The verbal complex in classic-period Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions: its implications for language identification and change

Access full-text files




Wald, Robert F.

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Classic-Maya writing-system signs have been divided into syllabograms and logograms. However, examination reveals that not all function neatly within that division. Selections from both types are categorized by pictorial content and function in practice. Evidence is examined indicating that some logograms depict something different from what they write. Theories proposing grammatical logograms are evaluated. Evidence suggests that both groups depend upon reading strategies tied to phonetic rather than semantic criteria. A functional view suggests that the language provides the semantic, morphemic, and grammatical information while the signs serve as the medium that records it. Among the data are verb forms and other morphemes that interact with them. Several are examined because of their importance as evidence for later conclusions. These include verb forms uninflected morphologically for tense or incompletive-completive aspect in closely related languages. Among them are forms no longer attested in direct descendants but only in two close cousins, Tzotzil and Tzeltal. The texts also attest a temporal morpheme appended to virtually all types of verbs in specific contexts. Some have interpreted it as a completive or past-tense marker, but detailed evidence identifies it as an ungrammaticalized cognate of a temporal adverbial enclitic attached to numbers and time-period nouns in Mayan languages. Critical evidence comes especially from 16 Century Acalan Chontal which attests it as a sentential enclitic rather than one limited to specific word classes as in later Ch’olan languages. With this identification, no other viable candidate for incompletive-completive aspect or present-past tense remains in Classic Ch’olan. Subsequent Ch’olan languages take different approaches to developing aspects, thereby strengthening the evidence for their more recent origin. Identification of Ch’olan as the language of the Classic Mayan texts has been securely established elsewhere. The question addressed here is whether it represents an immediate ancestor of all or just one branch of the Ch’olan languages. Evidence is presented favoring it as ancestral to all of them. Each language has preserved different elements of Classic Ch’olan. Interpretations limiting the ancestral language to just one current Ch’olan language fail account for likely rapid change under the stress of occupation and relocation.