NOVA PBS

Time Line of Decipherment

back | 6 of 10 | next

1952

1952
The sounds of the glyphs

While glyph studies languished in the West, a Russian linguist in Moscow was making his own groundbreaking discoveries. In 1952, Yuri Knorosov (above) postulated that the individual symbols in Maya glyphs stood for phonetic sounds, much like English letters do. Knorosov knew that Maya had too many glyphs to be a true alphabet but too few for each glyph to symbolize an entire word. (Maya's 800-plus glyphs compare to the several thousand characters of Chinese, for example.) He determined that written Maya, like Egyptian hieroglyphics, contained a combination of these elements. Because "west," in spoken Maya, is "chik'in," and "k'in" is the word for sun, the hand represents the syllable "chi," as Knorosov concluded. Fortunately, American scholars Michael and Sophie Coe began publishing Knorosov's papers in the U.S. in the late 1950s. Otherwise, his important (though incomplete) findings might have been inaccessible to Western scholars until the end of the Cold War.


Cracking the Maya Code homepage | NOVA homepage

NOVAPBS