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FROM SIR ERIC (THOMPSON) TO REAL EPIGRAPHY

Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU

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He had blocked for at least forty years all research about Maya writing because for him all these signs and carvings and paintings and decorations in stone, in paint, on walls, on pots, on plates, on bark-paper, all those monuments in the jungle were not writing, were not the written form of an oral language that had been in existence for thousands of years, but was the aesthetic beautiful artistic expression of no scribes but visionary shamans of some kind able to see beyond the surface of things and able to express directly the depth and beauty of the soul of the shamans, of the artists, of the Maya people. It was decreed by this Sir Eric (Thompson) that apart from the mathematical glyphs with numbers and long count, short count or whatever, all the rest was in no way linguistic and the dates and mathematical symbols were only the sign of the absolute addiction of the Maya to numbers, mathematics, time, and other figments of their somewhat troubled imagination during the long bouts of absolute drunkenness (drunken coma?) they enjoyed by enematic injections. They might even be astrologers, you know, these people who are predicting your future from the stars, telling you your horoscope in two sentences for the day, the week, the month, the years to come, even your life, though then they need a crystal ball or a pack of tarots cards. And mind you for them the planet Venus is supreme, male and vindictive in HIS request for blood. In other words, they were — and still are — barbarians according to these intellectuals who must be attracted to the subject by the scent of blood.

The damage was so deep that it took twenty years for the epigraphers, ethnographers, archaeologists, and linguists, plus a myriad of other scientists or undergraduate and graduate students to finally recognize the truth that was first said and published in 1952 by a Soviet linguist in Leningrad, Yuri Knorozov, the truth that Maya writing was comparable to Egyptian hieroglyphs: on the basis of some logographs (glyphs that represented an object, an animal, a person or a god, and at times something more abstract, like the sun, the moon, sunrise and sunset) that have kept their recognizable forms, the writing system developed as a phonetic system whose architecture was that of a syllabary. And that had been suggested in the 16th century by Landa, the monk and later on a bishop who had thousands of Maya books burnt up in an autodafe.

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We are luckily far beyond this sorry phase of the forty years of feudal and aristocratic dictatorship from one single man, Sir Eric (Thompson). Kukulkan, please, bless the child! If that had not happened the Maya might have been able to resist against the last episode of genocide and ethnocide they had to suffer in Guatemala at the end of the 20th century, not to mention the systematic segregation they are the victims of everywhere in Mesoamerica since they pretend to speak Maya languages, they consider Spanish as a second language, and they identify to Christianity because in a way Jesus Christ is Quetzalcoatl, aka Kukulkan. D.H. Lawrence said that in the 1920s with his famous novel The Plumed Serpent, (1926). Let’s hope this resurrection, restoration, renascence of an ethnocided, genocided and ecocided culture will bring La Malinche back into the light, the interpreter of Hernán Cortés who has been diabolized and Satanized by the Mexicans.

You will find here the long study on Michael D. Coe’s essential book on the saga of how Maya script was finally deciphered, and Coe knows what he is speaking of since he was a direct witness of the whole dys-adventure because he managed to get a modest position in academia in Thompson’s time and he remained modest in his suggestions that could not, had not to appear like a challenge. He informed the “Master” about Yuri Knorozov, he did his own thing under the table, and he let the “Master” exorcize the communist devil from Leningrad. And that lasted from 1952 to 1975. That was the Cold War in academia. That was, plain and simple, intellectual academic McCarthyism. Really God, please, Kukulkan, pretty please, Quetzalcoatl, with sugar on top, do bless the child and try to save us from the deeply rooted anti-communistic prejudices that reign in the USA so powerful that it makes everyone blind, like some onanistic sin of the past, according to absolute experts about it, viz. priests of any affiliation and confession, who happened to speak of it between two episodes of child molesting.

Enjoy that descent into hell, the hell of the good fundamentalist and sectarian — we would have said Stalinist in my days — academic totalitarianism of the “intellectual elite” of a nation, of the Western world in days of globalization.

MICHAEL D. COE — BREAKING THE MAYA CODE — 1992–1999–2012

Michael Coe is American and as such ignores Europe and particularly European linguistics. He speaks of Sumerian but does not quote the French linguist who was the first to collect all, or nearly all, Sumerian written symbols, though he makes the common mistake of mixing up this third-articulation synthetic language (that he declares agglutinative) with the first-articulation Semitic root language Akkadian. The mistake is common, but it is a mistake and it is the result of the fact Sumerian scribes were not Sumerian by culture and language. They were Akkadian. But the mistake is not justified. But after all, this is a side remark though I will have to come back to Sumerian later on.

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The first important remark is that this book contains no phylogeny of language in general and Maya in particular, though it reasserts the simple fact that writing is a very late invention as compared to language. We can consider that Homo Sapiens started developing articulated language on the basis of pre-articulated languages existing among previous Hominins like Homo Erectus, and even beyond among Hominids like monkeys and apes. Homo Sapiens just brought the oral practice of language to a new level of articulation, three articulations in fact, whereas before him there probably was only an embryonic first articulation and not yet the full rotation of vowels and consonants that it implies. But true enough Homo Sapiens emerged around 300,000 years ago and started then to develop this human language on the basis of physical and physiological mutations that made him a long-distance fast bipedal runner, and, as a side-effect, provided him with the larynx, subglottal development, breathing and articulatory apparatus that enabled him to produce a set of twenty or so consonants and six or so vowels (a potential of 64,000,000 possible words, 20 power 6). But a full writing system will only be attested among Homo Sapiens around 3500 BCE, though some clay tablets carrying some “primitive” imprinted signs seen as the antecedents, the roots of the cuneiform writing system have been found in Romania and were dated as around 6000 BCE. This to say that a writing system is long to emerge fully, and it is practiced on light and perishable media for a long time. We only have today the writing system of languages when the people speaking these languages felt or thought they needed some kind of sustainable and durable written expression to keep and transmit some message or knowledge. Still working on durable means of expression, on stones, we can date the paintings and the “scribbling” in caves as going as far back as 50,000 years ago all over the world: that’s the need to represent things humans think and about which they speak, but how long had they practiced it on non-durable media before, knowing that giving a name to an object is the first human form of representation, and that is oral, and it probably started some time around 300,000 years ago, and not from nothing. So far, so good, will I say! We might come across new elements and older forms in parts of the world that have not been excavated archaeologically, and here I am thinking of Africa, Asia, South and Mesoamerica.

This is essential, and it has consequences of importance.

First, a written language has nothing to do with road signs that are visual symbols that have to be understood as full messages that have to be obeyed at once and with no delay. A written language has nothing to do with the practice of some cultures, like the Incas, or keeping the memory of things with knots on strings. What the knots represent can only be kept in memory. If you do not remember (not to mention know) what is supposed to be remembered and known knot after knot, you cannot “read” the knots which are nothing but mnemonic means. It has nothing to do either with cave painting and even the geometric scribbles found there that we can consider as being symbols and even the beginning of the intentional recording of things for future generation to know about what they represent. But once again these paintings and these geometric forms are mnemonic tools even if these symbols, between thirty-five and fifty, were attached to precise messages, just like road signs, and could be considered as the expression of the desire and intention to transmit some knowledge to people you cannot or will not be able to speak to. We have lost the memorial dictionary of these signs a long time ago. All that has to do with logo-symbolism but not writing per se. Coe is aware of this but does not clearly state it. If he had tried to formulate this simple idea that phylogenetically writing could only come a long time after articulated language had been invented and developed, as a new need for permanent records of facts, ideas, numbers, etc., he would have come to another approach he apparently ignores.

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And this new approach is Canadian and comes from Marshall McLuhan. Writing is the cutting up of the oral continuous flow of sounds into some units that are visually represented on some material medium. The objective is to produce something durable and thus that will last for a long time. It also targets sustainability meaning that anyone who knows the “code” can read the message and understand it — if they understand the language — and thus acquire some knowledge, henceforth transmitted from one person to another, from one generation to the next over long periods of time. But the writing system of a language depends on the articulatory principle of various languages. And here we have to take into account three articulations.

The first articulation of consonants and vowels produces languages that are constructed on the basis of roots, and actually, those languages are all of a vast Semitic family and the roots or consonantal. Then those roots can be written phonetically with only consonants and the vowels are nothing but discursive elements added onto the consonants and the roots to produce discursive words. In Semitic languages, you can even omit the diacritic elements added over or under the consonants to specify the vowels. Hebrew, for instance, omits these signs in print. The context specifies what the consonantal roots stand for in the various sentences. It is clear that Maya is not a root language only based on the first articulation.

The second articulation is that of isolating or character languages like Chinese. The Chinese writing system takes this fact into account. The monosyllabic characters are specified in category as either spatial (what Indo-Europeans call nouns) or temporal (what Indo-Europeans call verbs). They are invariable, may contain some semantic categorization too, but all other elements, number, gender, function for “nouns,” and tense, voice, mode for “verbs,” are added around the basic characters, even with specifiers, classifiers or determiners like the case Coe gives page 31.

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The characters are nothing but the transcription of the oral words behind and all the specifying elements are also the transcriptions of elements necessary to understand the utterance. Those specifiers might not be pronounced at all, but the basic element is understood in writ as referring to one particular element implied by the specifier. I insist here that these specifiers, these elements necessary for the understanding of the sentence, be they mute or pronounced, are outside the characters, before or after but never inside the characters. When some languages like Vietnamese use the Latin alphabet, it is only a phonetic transcription of the language. That phonetic transcription is also common in Mandarin Chinese for international communication. That would have led Coe to the idea that a writing system depends on the culture carried by the language and the objective of this writing system. It is also important to see that in a society where writing is the privilege of a small class of people, the scribes, or the mandarins, or whoever is supposed to write and read, the writing system becomes a “mystery” as the English called printing in the sixteenth century, that is to say something that can only be practiced, understood and even read to listeners by a narrow class of privileged people, just like printing was attached to the copyright privileged in the 16th century in England and that privilege was the sole property of the Stationers’ Company of London bringing together printers from the owners of the printing shops to the lowest laborers in the printing shop.

And of course, when we come across Maya inscriptions, it is a real mystery for us because the Maya have forgotten to attach the user’s guide to their inscriptions. But what is important here is that Maya is not an isolating or character language.

That’s where we come across the third articulation that produces two big families of languages. agglutinative languages on one hand and synthetic-analytical languages on the other hand. Both are based on what we generally call words, but these units are mostly multisyllabic, and they are specified in category (spatial versus temporal) but these words cannot be used in discourse if they do not systematically integrate many other categories and particularly functions for spatial elements and tense-mode-voice for temporal elements. The main difference between agglutinative and synthetic-analytical languages is the fact that in the former group the verbs carry marks corresponding to the functional nominal elements that carry this verb. On the other hand, synthetic-analytical languages reduce such agreement” rules between the nominal elements and the verbs to mostly an agreement rule between the subject and the verb in number and person mostly. All other elements are exterior to the verb and carried by the nouns themselves (various flexions) or exterior to these nouns (prepositions, articles, etc.). And that’s where Coe could have reached the conclusion that Maya is not an agglutinative language even if it might have had a certain level of agglutination a long time ago, but the Maya we find on the monuments, on pots and plates, in codices is essentially a synthetic language, at times very synthetic, exactly by the way like Sumerian in the following example page 27:

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We can see how the sign changes by adding an element onto the basic one and it produces new signs that actually lose the initial element in the pronunciation. It is though the integrated element that is the basic element of the new term. The following example shows how Maya works.

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We can see how the K’IN glyph is inserted in the glyph for CHI. Then the third glyph LI is added under the first two. The two procedures are normal in the Maya writing system. The first one is comparable to Sumerian. The second one is standard analytical composition. We can note too that when a glyph is integrated into another the reading can be optional. Montgomery writes in square bracket the element that is integrated into the other one. In the same way, when he gives the T numbers of the glyphs, he only uses a single dot between two glyphs that are concatenated at the same level from the left to the right, and a semicolon for a glyph that is under the previous one or ones.

At this moment we can say Maya is not an agglutinative language but a synthetic language probably moving towards analyticity. Since these inscriptions are in stone, hence were carved a long time before the arrival of the Spaniards, the influence of analytical Indo-European Spanish has not yet worked. We do have then a picture of what Maya was at least in the Classic period. The writing system is both synthetic and analytical. The composite glyph covers a word in its totality, but it does not imply the function. The verb will be agreed in number and person, but the nouns get their functional understanding from the order of words. Maya is a VERB-OBJECT-SUBJECT language. The only elements that are before the verb are the various temporal elements, dates, and others. This, by the way, is an important element that shows time is extremely dominant in Maya culture. Coe’s book gives quite a few examples though he does not insist enough on this particularity: temporal elements come first in a sentence and the nominal elements come afterward. The last element we can say is that the example we have just given shows the first element (CHI) is definitely logomorphic, and yet that is not the logic of the language in its classic or advanced form because the “hand” is lost in composition and “K’IN” takes over. We can only speculate on the value of this hand, in fact, the back of the hand and its connection to the sun moving west and going to set. The back of the hand is the end of the day and the setting of the sun. This is logographic again though we cannot verify with a living Maya who would speak and write the Maya of the 13th century. Personally, I believe the artists who are members of the aristocracy and can even be kings, freely use their own imagination to write what seems logographically beautiful, interesting, meaningful.

But that’s where Coe’s approach is deficient linguistically. He should have gone back to Saussure and his semiology in which a linguistic sign is composed of two elements, the Signifiant (Signifier) which is the outside form and the Signifié (Signified) which is the meaning, including the referential meaning of the sign. But Saussure was working within Indo-European languages and as such considered that the writing system did not change a thing since it is mostly phonetical. This is even true by the way of Semitic languages that only writes the consonants. With a writing system like the Maya writing system, and even more than with the Sumerian writing system which is arbitrary as for the written signs, we have to take into account three levels in these written words and that makes the reading and understanding very complex.

1 graphic signifier (monography),

over several phonetic signifiers (polyphony)

over several signifieds (polyonymy).

If we consider Saussure paradigmatic dimension one graphic signifier can cover a great number of phonetic signifiers that can crisscross with many signifieds. When confronted to a glyph you cannot know. That’s why the scribes added, before or after the main glyph, phonetic signs that specified the initial consonant or the final consonant, thus specifying which phonetic signifier was to be chosen and thus reducing the possible signifieds to even maybe only one.

1 graphic signifier (monography)

over 1 or several phonetic signifiers (poly- or monophony)

over 1 or several signifieds (polyo- or mononymy).

That’s the case that is probably most complex because we cannot know out of the blue if the phonetic signifier or the signified are singletons or multiple.

1 or several graphic signifiers (mono- or polygraphy)

over one phonetic signifier (monophony)

over one signified (mononymy).

This case s delicate because we seem to be working on the principle that two different graphic units imply multiple phonetic signifiers and multiple signifieds. This principle is ineffective here. Any syllabary table of Maya shows that for most syllables you can have several, at times many graphic glyphs, not to mention the great variations on the glyphs due to the various styles of the various scribes.

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We could go on with these phenomena, but I have given the main idea about it and Coe probably does not want to make his students swoon with vertigo because it is not simple to know which graphic element is used here and there and which phonetic and semantic (or referential) elements have to be considered.

That’s where Coe does not quote Chomsky and he is so right about it. Chomsky cornered linguistics into a blank position as for real life. He cut off language from the real use of it in communication that occurs in a great number of various discourses from poetry (that he rejected as ungrammatical: the famous Peaceful Green Ideas That Sleep Furiously) to scientific or technical formulistic languages that sound at times like gibberish. He rejected all diachrony which makes language anti-historical, all phylogeny which makes language totally unhuman (only things that can evolve and adapt to real living conditions are human) and even all psychogenesis which makes his approach totally inadequate to explain how children learn one, two or more languages. All linguists are cornered into a dark technocratic cell by the declaration of language as being innate. I know he says the ability to speak or use language is innate but in fact, he thinks language because otherwise he would have to state some kind of a source to language and that would, of course, be in a way or another some kind of secular god, and his innateness of language prevents that question, hence that development: It all is Darwin’s fault. He went even further in this cornering, and this element, he does not seem to understand it. He declared that this ability to use language is, in fact, his universal grammar locked up in some black box that no one, of course, has ever found in the brain or body of any human. But the point here is “universal grammar.” Since Homo Sapiens had only one nest some 300,000 years ago, we can assume with Joseph Greenberg that all languages come from the same mold. But we have to assume too that there were three vast migrations out of Black Africa, starting probably more than 200,000 years ago to first go to Northern Africa and the Sahara. Then, another that went to Asia something like 130,000 years ago. And finally in two waves the last one that went to the Middle East and then Europe and Central Asia up to Siberia and Finland long before the peak of the Ice age, leaving black Africa some 75,000 years ago, and the second wave went to Iran and stayed on that plateau till after the peak of the Ice Age to go down in two migrations: one west to Europe along two routes (Anatolia and the Caucasus) and the other to Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent. These migrations out of Black Africa produced respectively

1- Semitic root first articulation languages;

2- 2- isolating second articulation languages,

3- agglutinative and synthetic-analytical languages.

We have to say as loud as possible that most of what was said about Proto-Indo-European is a pure myth, especially when it turns into Indo-Germanic.

Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is maybe well adapted to a non-historical approach of synthetic analytical languages like Indo-European languages, but very badly adapted to all others, including of course Hebrew and other Semitic languages. When linguists were needed in the 1950s and 1960s in Mesoamerica, there was no one available because they were all climbing up and down their derivational trees. It sounds a lot like the common representation of scribes in Mayan codices or inscriptions as monkeys. But here we are. That phase is out, and we can finally forget about Chomskyan trees and consider real Mayas, real societies, real languages, real discourses.

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ut the most important element in this book is the heavy eulogy to someone Coe compares to Champollion deciphering Egyptian Hieroglyphs. That linguist, and he was a linguist specializing in many old languages like Egyptian hieroglyphs, was Yuri Knorosov and he made his whole career in Saint Petersburg after the Second World War where he took part in the fall of Berlin. In 1952 he published a first article on Maya and suggested that Maya writing was just that, the writing of an oral language, an oral language in written form and that this written form was essentially phonetic, in fact on the basis of a syllabary with an older level of logographic elements. The “Universal Grand-boss” (you know Chomsky’s UG) of Maya studies, not yet but would-be and will-be Sir Eric just declared this Soviet linguist to be a ranting and raving Marxist who wanted to prove to the world that only communism can solve problems. That was mean and ignorant. Unluckily Coe does not know why and/or does not say.

After the Soviet Revolution in 1917, under the guidance of Lenin and his life partner, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, who was responsible for education, all linguists, among them Voloshinov, Bakhtin and many others, started a vast action in all the republics and autonomous zones in the USSR to provide all languages with a writing system so that educational books could be printed for the children. That policy was to last with no difficulties up to 1928 when Stalin took over. Very fast a new star comes up in the sky of Soviet linguistics, Marr, who asserts that language is a superstructure and it has to be controlled like all superstructures, and what’s more it is the locale of direct class struggles against the bourgeoisie and the working class has to take over and impose their own language, meaning discourse. At the same time, Marr asserts that since communism is the future of the world the language of the USSR has to be the Universal Language (UG of course) of the communist world of tomorrow, and that language was declared to be Russian. That will produce some changes in universities and some linguists who were standing on the previous line were eliminated (that’s the proper word) or side-tracked. Bakhtin was happy enough to concentrate on discourse analysis and he was clever enough to center on the rivalries between various discourses that are connected to the rivalries between, various social groups. Marr just pushed a little bit further and advocated that the language of the workers and the kolkhoz farm workers had to become the true language of the Soviet Union. In 1934–1936 Marr’s campaign was totally victorious and Stalin adopted his point of view. But Stalin was Georgian for one, and after the Second World War he had other fish to catch and languages was a real problem. In Ukraine how could he accept the fact that millions of Ukrainians supported Hitler? Was he supposed to ban Ukrainian, the language? What about all the Caucasus communities who speak a whole array of agglutinative languages? What about the Central Asian republics who are also speaking agglutinative languages? And what about Armenia and the Baltic Republics? Stalin at times was a realist and under the advice of Vinogradov he changed sides and starting around 1947 and reaching the main point in 1950, he went back to a more Leninist position: languages are not superstructures. Languages are tools for daily communication among people who identify as members of a community because of the language they speak and share. And Vinogradov was back. It is in that context that Knorosov defended, about Maya, a very similar position. Maya was a language used for communication and the writing of it was essentially for some kind of communication and on these monuments, it had to do with the kings and queens, and with various events. And he projected onto this language the same ideas as those defended by Champollion: on the basis of some logographic glyphs the writing is basically a phonetic system working with some kind of syllabary. He went back to the “alphabet” collected by Landa and reworked it into a syllabary.

Coe says this was THE ULTIMATE revolution needed in Maya Studies. Yet it took twenty-three years for the main guru and sectarian academic defending some kind of dreamlike language of the god, secularized into the language of the soul, to die and free the field so that other teams could come in. And yet it will take at least twenty more years for Coe’s central idea to be recognized as true, for Knorosov’s main concept to be accepted as a true working hypothesis on whose basis people could start working.

The change is radical. All these inscriptions are written language and the language is Maya. Like all writing systems, this Maya writing is basically phonetic because it transcribes an oral language for communication, for telling stories. Then we have to decide what is logographic and what is purely phonetic, knowing that anyway and in the end, we have to trans-oralize this writing back into the language that was spoken at the time by the people who were writing, an extremely narrow aristocratic elite. But behind them, there was a massive people who could understand their aristocracy when they spoke. That means that Maya used two simple principles: a written symbol that represents something, connects the meaning and the pronunciation of the word that carries this meaning. This is logography. And then the fact that to widen the writing system and cover all the various elements of the language they have to use some symbols for the phonetic sounds they carry. We will probably never know what the meaning of the object was represented and the sound to which this object is now attached, but that does not matter anymore when we know what sound is attached to the symbol. For one example: does it matter to know while the vowel “o” is represented by a feather, what’s more, two feathers like:

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When we know the importance of birds in Maya society, there must be some relation with the famous good Quetzal who is not a day of the tzolk’in calendar, and the other two Men (Eagle) and Kib (Vulture) who are the fifteenth and sixteenth days of the tzolk’in calendar.

Conclusion

Up to Knorosov (1952), and even so, up to the death of Eric Thompson, no real progress could be really achieved because of the academic environment.

1- Feudal academic dictatorship from very few people who are in power positions.

2- Careers were discouraged and even broken or blocked.

3- Some people were rejected just because they happened to disagree with “Sir Eric.”

4- Many unoriginal people and projects were promoted just because they agreed with “Sir Eric.”

What’s more, it had been a pattern that had been reproduced over two centuries or more starting with the forced Christianization of the Mayas and culminating in the autodafe of all available Maya books considered satanical and diabolical, hence pagan and heretical. But along such lines, Sir Eric Thompson in the 20th century was one of the grossest cases of abuse of power for his own interest crowned just before his death with a knighthood.

At the same time as that was happening in the fields of archaeology and even anthropology, the linguistic court was not where it should have been. They were fighting their own Universal Grammar battle within the Cold war of you know who. In 1952 a Soviet linguist could not even be listened to politely since the USA was engaged then in their famous McCarthy’s crusade against anything communistic or Soviet. In 1955 the New Linguistic Testament was published as the Matrix of modern linguistics, and the machines could finally work towards conquering the whole world with one theory that did not come from the Soviet Union. The damage caused by this Universal Grammar to linguistics in the world is incalculable. It closed the doors of diachronic and historical linguistics since it was only interested in producing a theory that could make money with telephones, translating machines, computers, etc. It closed the door to the phylogeny of language since language was innate and could not be the result of a slow and long emergence. It closed the door to diversity since all languages have to be cast in the same universal grammar that is so Europe-centered that I do not see how they could explain the difference between a root Semitic language like Hebrew and Arabic and an isolating Asian language like Chinese, not to speak of agglutinative languages like Basque or Turkish where the verb and only the verb carries marks representing all the nominal phrases functionally connected to it, which explodes completely the Verbal Phrase that is supposed to be equal to the subject Nominal Phrase in the UG sentential tree. When you compare with Marr under Stalin before the Second World War, you can — and may — wonder if UG is not the linguistic expression of capitalistic democracy.

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The final “Ite missa est” is then a call for a lot more research on and about Maya civilization with the following questions, both open and diverse:

1- When did oral Maya emerge?

2- Where did the Maya come from?

3- What language did they speak before the emergence of Maya language?

4- Where does the writing system come from?

5- How long did it take to invent such a complicated writing system?

6- How did the maize revolution happen and when?

7- Why didn’t the Maya develop intensive agriculture?

a. no terraces like other Indian tribes around

b. no draught animals

c. no rotation of crops

d. no fertilization, only slash and burn

e. no real systematic irrigation and water saving

8- What was the consequence of their being limited in space with no animal transportation?

9- Why did they not develop any political unification?

10- Why were they totally submissive to a religion that was a totalitarian vision and practice of social life with the gulag in the closest “cenote” from which you could not return?

11- Why were they so obsessed by blood-shedding, self-sacrifice and sacrifice, from the top to the bottom, for sure, but definitely more lethal for the bottom?

12- Why did they develop total submission to the power and authority of the “gods,” bad or good or plain ambiguous and contradictory?

13- How could they develop such an absolutely lethal feudal system so close to the worst slave system we could quote, like the one in the USA up to 1865?

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Human sacrifice was common in all civilizations in the form of rituals (think of Abraham and his two sons), the death penalty (still wildly practiced in some countries), torture (so much liked and loved by so many people), etc. But with the Maya, we seem to reach a vision that states you cannot live if you do not sacrifice your blood to the gods and their divine aristocratic representatives.

That sounds like:

“One litter of blood any time the tzolk’in calendar says so.”

And for some entertainment get to the following video:

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JASON WILLIAMS — MAYA: THE BLOOD OF KINGS — 1995

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But the documentary is by far old now because in the 23 years since it came out the research that was already going strong in 1995 has become a real archaeological and anthropological, even linguistic tsunami. The film then knows all these carved inscriptions are the writing system of one or rather a few Maya languages. The film also knows Maya is still spoken in Mesoamerica, and we still have a few Maya languages that are being used today to push the deciphering of this old written language forward. In fact, this old writing system is logographic, I would say originally in its older forms, progressively turning syllabic with glyphs that are phonetic on the normal basis of Consonant-Vowel and a few variations. In the later period (the Maya civilization lasted practically 2000 years), the language could be entirely written with this phonetic syllabary, but they kept some of the older logographic glyphs that were synthetic (covering two or three syllables, very representative and hence very aesthetic. There must have been some nostalgia and some conservatism among the scribes behind this survival of those glyphs, many head glyphs particularly.

The most striking visual fact of these written texts, either carved in stone or painted on bark paper, is the way a text develops. There are apparently two possibilities. Either on lintels over doors or around the edge of a plate or cup or at the top of a page, a horizontal line of glyphs that could be read from left to right. Such unitary lines of glyphs can also be found vertical and they are generally read from top to bottom. At times, in the codices, you may find series of glyphs all around on the edge of the page in clockwise rotating order, though there might be some examples of anticlockwise rotation. This is often true of the disposition of the twenty day-glyphs. Otherwise the text is generally presented in columns that are read in pairs, first from left to right the top glyphs of the first two columns, then from left to right the two glyphs that are just under, end so on till the end of the first two columns, and then the reading starts at the top with the next two columns and in the same way as before.

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But the writing itself is in square glyphs that are most of the time composite except when a glyph is only one head of a god, an animal, or whatever. The composition of a square glyph can vary very much, and it can be read in various ways, generally starting at the top left corner and ending at the bottom right corner. But the reading order between these two corners can vary tremendously. Then the reading needs to know the context and to know a few rules that are applied in this writing. But I will have to stop here and shift to other questions about this documentary.

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The first one is that this civilization absolutely believed that humanity (and they knew they were not the whole of it, hence they meant the Maya) had been created in several stages because at least three of them failed, and they were created by some divine beings who came in pairs of male twins who had to be confronted to the lords and gods of the underworld, Xibalba, be tortured by them and finally be sacrificed, though the exposed head of one of the first pair (Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu) will be able to impregnate the daughter of a lord of this underworld and she will deliver the second pair of twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque who will defeat the two main lords of the underworld by playing tricks on them, particularly one of the twins will sacrifice the other and revive him straight away, after having done that to some animal, and the two main lords will ask for the twin to do it with them and of course the twins will sacrifice the two lords but will never revive them. And it is only then that the Maya were created.

To maintain this life the Maya, have to go through various blood rites and rituals. The documentary is clear about the rituals but a little bit elliptic. Blood has to be drawn from the king and queen, from the top aristocracy to enable the Maya to survive, the rain to come and the maize harvest to be successful. This shedding of royal blood is the promise and guarantee that everything will be good. The film insists also on the shedding of blood and the sacrifice of all kinds of people regularly. First prisoners are the best victims, especially if they are members of the aristocracy of the “enemy” group which is always Maya because the blood of non-Maya sacrificees is valueless, at most it has the value of the blood of a dog or any other animal. But the Maya were also sacrificing slaves who could be prisoners but some time, even a long time after their capture, or orphan and handicapped children. This blood shedding and sacrifices had to be long, very long. It means it was torture that could last weeks or even more, on the basis of the Tzolkin calendar that is 260 days long. Nail pulling, finger maiming, genital maiming and castration, all kind of limb amputation, any amputation that did not kill, plus partial or quasi-total flaying, the skin being then worn by the priest or king that had performed the flaying, and of course the three supreme torture: disemboweling, heart extraction and beheading. The rituals had to follow the Tzolkin calendar and be performed from one ominous day to another to push back the ominous context and bring a positive event. As for the ball games being the first part of some collective sacrifice, we cannot really say. There are elements here and there in the courts that seem to imply this end, but we do not know who was playing against whom. Some say the local team against a team of prisoners who will have to lose anyway, but nothing is sure about that because we do not have the books that were destroyed by the Spaniards, led by a frantic bishop mind you.

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But the most important element in this film and the most debatable element in the film is the idea that one day, rather suddenly the Maya just left their cities and escaped to the jungle. It is clear that the cities stopped being built and since all building are dated, we know exactly the date of the last building in every city, but we have no proof that the population went away. On the other hand we know that Maya agriculture was able to feed a certain level of population and that at the end of the classic period of each city that population was beyond sustainability because they did not rotate crops, they systematically pulled the forest down and burn everything to cultivate it without any natural fertilizer and without any draught animal for a maximum of three years, maybe four years when they could irrigate. Apparently, they did not support the flank of the hills with terraces, causing thus serious erosion and these hillsides became sterile. And every three or four years they had to let the earth regenerate all by itself, hence remain fallow, till the forest had taken over again, and they moved to another section of the forest that they slashed down and burned. Due to the feudal structure of the society, every farmer had to cover the needs of his family and the needs of a certain number of people in the aristocracy. Since the weather was very unstable with spells of drought and spells of excessive rain, since they did not have any real storage structure, and the weather, hot and damp, subtropical and even tropical, did not permit storage for a long time, since they had no animal transport they could not cultivate beyond a walking distance of one hour, at the most one-and-a-half hours, that is to say within six to nine kilometers away from the city at the most, they were bound to fail. The cultivation of modern maize (that cannot sow itself without the help of a human hand) and we do not know how they managed to produce it from the wild plants that still exist, plus the cooking of this maize with ashes to make it edible for man, and we do not know how they managed to invent this procedure, enabled the Mayas to probably live slightly longer but also to procreate more children and raise them, at least for some time, one or two centuries, and then overpopulation came, and then sacrifices were necessary and then war was necessary to capture prisoners, but all kinds of sacrifices were necessary to bring the population down, not to speak of the self-sacrifice of men who pierced they penis with a jade sacrificial knife, which had the effect of reducing procreation and we apparently know now they had special medical means to cure the infections that could end up with gangrene and death.

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This documentary is thus a good introduction to the Maya and their blood obsession that probably brought them down since they locked themselves up in some kind of ideology that prevented them from simply devising better agriculture that could have supported their population better. The main shortcoming of the film is the reference to a Maya empire. There never was any kind of real Maya empire, only some alliances between a few cities and those alliances were opportunistic and could be reversed or rejected any time with a bout of war. Since all the cities were in the same situation and since they did not have any kind of means of transportation, their commerce could only be rather reduced and for very valuable goods, and food was probably not the most valuable good imaginable. It is though a good way to enter the Maya in a rather modern approach that has eliminated all the archaic directions that blocked the research on them for more than one century, and definitely up to 1975, and the passing away of the tyrannical academic chap who assassinated and burned alive all those who dared go against his totally archaic approach that all the carved, painted and written inscriptions, here and there, were not a language and were not like all other written languages in a way or another phonetic. He was British, made his whole career in the USA and died just after receiving his knighthood from the Queen and thus passed away as Sir Eric. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. And the Latin “Vanitas” means “emptiness” and “fruitlessness.” You can pass away with many honors, and yet leave nothing behind.

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Written by

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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