Getting to Grips With Maya Glyphs and Grammar

Maya glyphs

Teaching yourself an ancient language is never an easy task and Classic Maya is no exception. Classes and workshops on Maya history and linguistics are hard to come by in most parts of the world, but if you’re up to the challenge and are eager to learn more about this fascinating Pre-Columbian civilisation and its writing system, you can teach yourself to read Maya glyphs using the free online resources listed below.

Essential Reading

Writing in Maya Glyphs: A Non-Technical Introduction to Maya Glyphs – This two-part booklet by Mark Pitts is perfect for absolute beginners and assumes no prior knowledge of linguistics or Maya grammar. Part 1 serves as an introduction to the Maya and their writing system and provides a syllabary of glyphs, guides to reading Classic Maya texts and writing your name in glyphs, some commonly used vocabulary, and tips on how to start writing your own short sentences. Part 2 deals with Maya numerals and the complex, yet intriguing, Maya calendar system, which is still used in parts of North and Central America today.

Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs Workshop Handbook – This handbook by Harri Kettunen (University of Helsinki) and Christophe Helmke (University College London) and while it was designed to be used in their hieroglyph workshops, it may still be useful to independent learners. Kettunen and Helme’s handbook provides a detailed overview of the Maya writing system and the history of its decipherment as well as the orthographic conventions used for transliterating and translating Maya texts. It also covers Classical Maya grammar and looks at the various types of inscriptions and artefacts that Mayanists commonly work with. A glossary of linguistic terminology is provided for those who have only a rudimentary grasp of the subject and suggestions for further reading can be found in the appendices.

Hieroglyphic Decipherment Guide – Inga Calvin’s study guide provides illustrations and translations of hundreds of glyphs commonly found in Classical Maya inscriptions. The guide has been formatted for double-sided printing and consists of five thematic chapters: 1) calendrics; 2) verbs; 3) nouns; 4) titles, emblem glyphs and deities; and 5) pottery text. If you’re interested in Maya history, be sure to download a copy of Calvin’s guide to the Royal Maya Dynasties of the Classical Period, which provides basic biographical data on each of the known Maya rulers and a summary of the stelae their names appear on.

Other Tools & Blogs

Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs – John Montgomery’s dictionary is an online database of over 1,200 glyphs and glyph compounds. Users can either browse the index – which is organised alphabetically – or run a search. Each entry includes an illustration of the glyph in question as well as its phonetic transcription, Maya equivalent, grammatical function, translation, and Thompson number. The dictionary is ideal for those who have some basic knowledge of Classic Maya grammar and wish to develop their translation skills.

Maya Decipherment – Dr. David Stuart’s blog is essential reading for anyone who is interested in Maya epigraphy. You won’t find any lessons on Maya glyphs here but you will find a wealth of articles on Maya linguistics, art, and archaeology as well as links to relevant websites and blogs. With well over a million views to date, Stuart’s blog has more than earned its place in Maya academia and can be enjoyed by scholars and non-scholars alike.


Deciphering the Maya Script: What We Know and What We Don’t Know This two-hour lecture, presented by world-renowned archaeologist and epigrapher Dr. Michael D. Coe, isn’t a lesson on Maya glyphs per se; instead, it offers an insight into the extraordinary breakthroughs made in deciphering this centuries-old script.


And if you’re willing to spend some money on a decent book on the subject, you would be hard-pressed to find a more comprehensive guide than Reading the Maya Glyphs, by Michael D. Coe and Mark van Stone, which can be purchased via Amazon or Amazon UK.


Disclaimer: LinguaHorizons is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and Amazon EU Associates Programme, affiliate advertising programmes designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon UK and Amazon.Com.

Note: Parts of this article were originally written for my article “5 Fantastic Free Resources for Learning Maya Glyphs”, which was published on Tomb Raider Horizons in October 2013. 

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