Decipherment of Maya writing began in the early 19th century with Constantine Rafinesque’s recognition of Maya numbers.
Later in the century, Ernst Förstemann proved that Maya numbers could be used to perform complex calculations.
But beyond numbers and the calendar, the script resisted decipherment.  Part of the difficulty came from the complex ways in which Maya scribes combined the signs.

Confusion over the nature of the Maya glyphs also held back their decipherment.  Many scholars thought they were mystical symbols with no relation to language.

In fact, all writing systems are based on signs representing the sounds of human speech.  The number of signs in an unknown script gives a clue as to how it encodes these sounds. 

All writing systems are mixed systems, combining more than one type of sign.  As Russian linguist Yuri Knorosov realized in 1950, Maya is no exception.
We now know that Maya glyphs are a mix of signs for whole words and signs for syllables.  They can express all the sounds of spoken Maya.


Want to know more about the Maya glyphs? Go to Resources.