Friday, January 16, 2004

Decoding Mayan

Looking through some back issues of Indian Country Today, I found an interesting two-part article [Part 1 | Part 2] by Philip Burnhan about the Maya Hieroglypic Database Project (MHDP). Much of the article focuses on Martha Macri, who is of Cherokee descent and who was taught Cherokee syllabics by an uncle. Macri founded the database project.
"My interest and prime motive for making the MHDP is to really study dialect differences and language differences that were present during the Classic period [300-900 AD]," said Macri, who teaches at the University of California/Davis. Though "language always changes over time," she cautioned, the era of the ancient Maya isn’t as long ago as we think.

"It is still possible to identify which currently spoken Mayan languages are closest to the languages of the script," Macri noted. Some scholars identify the Chortí [Ch'orti'] tongue of eastern Guatemala, given its conservative grammar, as the most similar. After working for years on a Tzeltal dictionary, Macri added, she is struck how often current speakers using a modern Maya tongue will clarify something written in the glyphs centuries ago.

The glyphs reflect the work of numerous Maya languages, of which as many as 30 exist today. To some people it would be an unruly Babel; to Macri, a linguistic anthropologist, it is a blessing. "It’s a miracle that we have these languages here with us to still study to help us understand what went before."

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