Characters and Glyphs
"The notion that non-alphabetic writing systems mainly consist of ideograms - signs that convey metaphysical ideas, but not their sounds" is and was a popular one. (Breaking the Maya Code. Coe. 1992, p.17.) Think about westerners with Chinese tattoos. No one I've met knows how to pronounce their tattoos, yet they always know the often mysterious and metaphysical meanings. Written language represents spoken language and it is not possible to reproduce spoken words with pictures alone, since there is no possible way to guarantee that any two people will say a group of pictures the same way. If you've ever played the party game Pictionary, you know that precise communication with drawings is difficult at best. Additional problems immediately spring to mind if you think about representing THIS sentence in pictures. Clarity is the entire purpose of written language. In many ways, assuming a writing system is pictographic assumes the written language, if not the spoken language, is primitive. And there is no such thing as a primitive language among Homo sapiens. (The Language Instinct. Pinker, 1994, p.14.)
Pictures can, however, represent sounds. One easily understandable example of pictures as sounds is a rebus puzzle:
In this case, something that is difficult to represent with pictures, the pronoun "I", is represented with a homophone "eye." The heart becomes, through widespread shorthand, an abstract (and non-phonetic) symbol for the word "love." And the letter "U" once again acts as a strict homophone for the word "you." Even English has "pictograms" in a sense: How do you say "1,2,3"? These Arabic numerals are clearly not phonetic, especially when you consider that these same characters are used in a large number of written languages around the world. Say "1,2,3" in Spanish or any other language you know. Or what about "I.O.U. $15"? Again, there are no known written languages that work this way, and there is no evidence that any written languages evolved from primitive rock pictograms through intermediary rebus-style writing and finally to a civilized phonetic system.
"All known writing systems are partly or wholly phonetic." (Coe, p.25) This makes sense when you think about it: writing systems represent language and language is composed of sounds. Some scripts also have semantic characters that have meaning. Ancient written languages such as Egyptian, Hittite and Sumerian have both phonetic and semantic components. Since the early 19th century, we've known that Egyptian hieroglyphs were largely phonetic. This was a great realization and aid when other ancient languages were studied. Mayan writing was not understood until just a couple of decades ago, however, primarily because researches assumed that the ancient Mayans were a primitive people.
So how do partially semantic (mostly phonetic) writing systems (such as Mayan or Chinese) work? First, we might start with the few characters in a language that could be considered pictographic, for example, the modern character for "mountain" in Chinese or "jaguar" in Mayan. Both look (more or less) like what they represent: a three-peaked mountain and a jaguar.
But besides (or in spite of) representing a thing, each of these characters can also be pronounced: "shan" and "balam," respectively. From there, you might consider that the single syllable "shan" is used in lots of places in Chinese, just like single syllables in English (think of all of the words the syllable "shun" is used in: don't forget "-tion" etc.). So, with a little modification for clarity, we can use "shan" as a phonetic symbol as well. These can all be said "shan":
Likewise, Mayan is filled with phonetic symbols. These can all be said "ka":
Of course Chinese characters and Mayan glyphs are not the same thing. Instead, they are two examples (of only a handful) of written scripts with independent origins in the history of humanity. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the discovery and development of writing throughout the world is that, in every case, a phonetic solution was used.
- MED Glyph Catalog - interactive; look up Mayan glyphs phonetically.
- If English was written like Chinese - fabulous explanation of Chinese; well worth taking your brain on this trip.
- Writing Systems (Chinese) - how modern Chinese works.
- Chinese Characters: Mysterious in Origin and Magical in Meaning - an historical overview of how Chinese works.
Michael D. Coe, Reading the
Maya Glyphs (2001).
Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code (1992, 1999).
John Montgomery, How to Read Maya Hieroglyphs (2002).
Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct(1994).