Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How to Read Maya Hieroglyphs by John Montgomery

A comprehensive grammar, not a dictionary
Want to read the oldest literature in the Western Hemisphere? First you’ve got to learn the language. John Montgomery’s 2004 book How to Read Maya Hieroglyphs is a good first step toward doing just that. This book is a grammar of sorts that explains how the Mayan written language works. It is not a dictionary, so it’s not going to provide you with every character you’re ever going to find in a Mayan inscription. (Montgomery has published a Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs, which is available for free online at the FAMSI web site.) The topics of this Mayan grammar include the structure of glyphs, the order in which they are to be read, calendrical dates, numerical expressions, proper names and titles, familial relationships, major life events such as births and deaths, locations and objects, deities, and the syntax in which all these elements fit together into historical or literary narratives. In its comprehensive breadth and methodical structure, the book is an impressive achievement.

There’s no doubt that Montgomery is extremely knowledgeable about his subject. The question is, how well does he get that knowledge across to his intended audience? In his introduction, Montgomery states that this book is intended as an introductory text on the Mayan written language for beginners and the general public. That may be optimistic. In truth, this book is not for the light-hearted dabbler. I have enthusiastically studied a few languages, among them written Chinese, but I found portions of this book to be extremely difficult to get through. Part of the problem is that Mayan script is partially phonetic, so you need some basic understanding of spoken Mayan just to get your bearings. Beyond that barrier, however, Montgomery does at times seem to be addressing an audience of professional linguists, and his explanation of the Maya calendar has to be one of the most complicated and confusing takes on the subject that I’ve ever read.

One can’t be too hard on the author, however, for failing to write a simple survey of a subject that’s so complex it can’t be surveyed simply. After reading this book, I don’t feel fully equipped to dive right in and start translating Mayan texts, not even the simplest of the practice samples included in the appendix. Nevertheless, I now feel like that goal is within my reach, if I’m willing to work toward it. With the knowledge I’ve gained from this comprehensive overview, I am now at least in a position to intelligently pursue further study on the subject. What’s more, it’s given me a greater appreciation of the dazzling complexity and sophistication of the Maya’s scriptural achievements. For the amateur Maya enthusiast, reading this book is at times like sitting in on a symposium of epigraphers as they debate the interpretation of a centuries-old stela. Much of the discussion defies understanding, but that doesn’t stop it from being a really cool experience.

Even though the Kindle edition is well-constructed, this may be one book in which owning a paper copy would be better than an e-book. Some of the drawings are reproduced uncomfortably small on the Kindle, even when magnified. Often illustrations are referred to on distant pages, so there’s a lot of flipping back and forth. If you want to browse for some unknown glyph, it would be a lot faster to flip through paper pages the old-fashioned way. For many Mayaphiles, Montgomery’s book may just be the one much-loved, dog-eared, salsa-stained text that protrudes from your pocket as you reverently wander the stunning ruins of Palenque or Tikal.

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