The Ancient Maya writing system could express anything that could be said in spoken language. Like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and modern Japanese characters, it had signs for both simple sounds and whole words. Maya writing combined logographs (symbols representing whole words) with symbols that represented phonetic syllables (for example: ma, me, mi, mo, mu).
The word jaguar (bahlam), for example, could be written as a symbol which looks like a jaguar’s head, or as a cluster of three syllables: ba-la-m(a). In slylabic systems like Mayan the final vowel (in this case the “a”) is often silent.
There were over 600 logographs but, for reasons of style, the scribes often preferred to use syllabic writing. While the Mayan language had 100 phonetic syllables, there were as many as 200 symbols to represent these sounds. So, for most syllable sounds, there was a range of symbol choices. In an extraordinary mingling of language and art, the Maya scribes selected the glyphs that best fulfilled their aesthetic sense. The more frequently a word was used, the greater the variation seen in writing it, as the Maya didn’t like to repeat a spelling or design within the same block of text. The symbols below are all possible versions of the sound “ma”.
Want to know more?
Writing in Maya Glyphs - Part 1: An easily digestible guide to writing glyphs. (45 page pdf, 2.96 MB)
Writing in Maya Glyphs - Part 2: (40 page pdf; 1.2 MB)
Omniglot: overview of Maya glyph writing with Maya syllabary and links to a range of Maya sites.
The Maya Hieroglyphic Codices: An advanced site with a searchable database of the four codices with translation and analysis.
An example of Maya writing
(To battle against)
(the younger brother)
K'uhul Bahlam Ahaw
(Divine Jaguar Lord)
(An aristocratic title)
Dr. Mark Van Stone draws Maya glyphs