Speaking Ancient Maya

  • By David Levin
  • Posted 04.08.08
  • NOVA

Barbara MacLeod speaks Maya—as in ancient Maya. How do you resurrect the sound of a language spoken long ago? Some dialects still spoken in Central America can offer clues, MacLeod believes. "We can only make guesses as to how those Maya languages actually sounded," she says, "but we base them on performance characteristics of the modern languages, so I think we can get a pretty good idea." In this audio feature, hear MacLeod describe—and speak in—this age-old tongue.


Anthropologist Barbara MacLeod says that studying the ancient Maya language offers a unique window into the past.


Speaking Ancient Maya

Posted March 1, 2008

DAVID LEVIN: You're listening to a NOVA podcast.

BARBARA MACLEOD: tzik haab: bolon pik, lajchan winikhaab, cha'tuun, mih winal, waklajun k'ii...

DAVID LEVIN: Barbara Macleod speaks Maya. As in, ancient Maya. It's not a language you'd normally hear. But she's made a career out of it.

BARBARA MACLEOD: Well, I started in earnest in 1970. So where does that put us? [Laughs] Thirty-eight years.

DAVID LEVIN: MacLeod is an anthropologist who studies this ancient culture's language. But deciphering Maya hieroglyphs is one thing. Pronouncing them is another. How do you resurrect the sound of a language that that's over a thousand years old? Macleod says that some dialects still spoken in Central America can offer clues.

BARBARA MACLEOD: we can only make guesses about how those Mayan languages actually sounded. But we base them upon performance characteristics of the modern languages. So I think we can get a pretty good idea.

The Maya languages aren't exactly easy to learn. They use sounds like...

BARBARA MACLEOD: ...glottalized stops, as, "k'a," "k'e," "k'ee," "k'o," "k'u." The word for sun is "k'in", for example. And so there are a number of those sounds that you're not going to find in any Indo-European languages, certainly not in English.

DAVID LEVIN: Understanding ancient Maya is tricky for another reason as well. Macleod says that even in its day, the language written on Maya temples was likely far more formal than what people spoke in daily life.

BARBARA MACLEOD: they probably included a lot of archaisms; in other words, forms which, at that time, were retained from earlier forms of the language just because they carried power and weight, and they may not have been in common use.

Modern English has an equivalent in something like the King James Bible. That's written in a dialect that we don't normally speak anymore, but can still understand.

BARBARA MACLEOD: We don't go around saying "thee" and "thou," for example. But if we hear someone doing it, we would recognize it. So I would suggest that this particular language, the language of the script, would be that kind of language.

DAVID LEVIN: But could someone who speaks modern Maya actually understand one of their ancestors?

BARBARA MACLEOD: I would like to think it would be possible. Except for the fact that there are going to be differences in vocabulary.

DAVID LEVIN: The modern languages, for instance, have incorporated some Spanish words.

BARBARA MACLEOD: And they've also lost a lot of terminology that the ancient people were concerned with, which would be ritual and religion and politics and astronomy and mathematics, and to a certain extent economics, at least the economics at the elite level.

DAVID LEVIN: So a conversation about bookkeeping or diplomacy might not go over so well. But a conversation using more vernacular terms, like ones that describe farming, would be a different story.

BARBARA MACLEOD: if you were to get ancient corn farmers from 500 AD together with modern corn farmers, I would expect that those people could communicate quite well with each other, because they're talking about things that really don't change. Issues of when to plant and how to care for the young plants, and how to anticipate when the rains are coming by the weather and by the behavior of the birds and animals.

DAVID LEVIN: Since Ancient Maya civilization disappeared over a thousand years ago, that conversation might be a little tough to arrange. But Macleod says that by studying Maya language, researchers have a unique window into the culture's past.

BARBARA MACLEOD: It is almost like having a time machine when you have a lot of modern languages to work with and you have an ancient script to work with. We're now at the point where we can read a good 85 or 90 percent of that script, but there's still that little bit left to be done, and what's left to be done is the hard stuff. So we really need dedicated people to come along and help crack what remains.



(Ruins of Tikal)
© Keren Su/CORBIS

Related Links

  • Cracking the Maya Code

    The story behind the centuries-long decipherment of ancient Maya hieroglyphs

  • Decode Stela 3

    Read Maya hieroglyphs carved on an eighth-century stone monument, and hear them spoken aloud.

  • Deciphering Maya: A Time Line

    Trace key discoveries in the effort to understand the Maya script.

  • Maya: Expert Q&A

    Archeologists Bill Saturno and Tom Sever answer questions about the mural, using satellites to find lost sites, and more


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