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Translating Maya Hieroglyphs

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Translating Maya Hieroglyphs
By Scott A. J. Johnson. (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman: 2013. Pg. 320. 69 B & W Photographs, 1 Map, 27 Tables.) ISBN: 978-0-8061-4333-0.

A History in Review Book of the Week Selection

Reviewed by Harry S. Chou - July 8, 2013

Scott A. J. Johnson's new book Translating Maya Hieroglyphs has a problem - the book's title doesn't really give you a sense of just what a wonderful and important textbook this is. For rather than simply being a guide to translating Maya Hieroglyphs, this text is really a complete step-by-step language course that will enable students to not only translate individual glyphs, but to fully understand the grammar and complexity of what it is they are reading. It even provides information on how to convert dates in the Mayan calender into those on the Gregorian calendar, and how to 'do' Mayan math.

Translating Maya Hieroglyphs is geared toward students that do not have any previous experience in reading Maya epigraphy. Nonetheless, even those with some experience in reading Maya glyphs will find this text useful, not only as a reference guide but also as a grammar guide and it gives invaluable tips that Johnson provides regarding translating Mayan inscriptions into English.

Written like any standard foreign language textbook for students of English, Translating Maya Hieroglyphs begins with the basics. It provides the reader with a little background information about Maya history and culture, and information about the history and current state of knowledge about how Mayan glyphs have been, and are, deciphered. The text then moves onto the mechanics of reading the glyphs. The first chapter delves into what exactly Mayan script is, how glyph blocks are formed and the correct reading order both within an inscription and a glyph block. Other topics covered in this first chapter are logograms, syllabograms, numeral classifiers, and more. The second chapter deals with spelling and language, while the third with dates and numbers.

After the first three foundation chapters, Johnson moves onto the mechanics of reading the Mayan glyphs with chapters dealing with basic grammar and verbal grammar. The final chapter, aptly titled Putting it all together, does just that. Using the knowledge gained in the previous chapters, Johnson provides you with the opportunity to practice what you have learned by translating some glyphs, aided by Johnson's copious notes and directions. This essential guide also includes a host of appendices covering a range of topics from tips on how to draw Mayan hieroglyphic texts, to a Classic Mayan to English Lexicon.

Filled with exercises, a wealth of examples, and remarkably lucid explanations and advice, Translating Maya Hieroglyphs is sure to become a classic text for use in the classroom and by professionals in a variety of disciplines ranging from archaeology and art to Latin American and Mesoamerican studies. Its accessible nature and coherent teaching style will ensure that this text will also find its way into the hands of countless Mayan enthusiasts and would be epigraphers who will devour this treasure trove of information!

Related Reviews:

The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing, edited by Stephen Houston, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, and David Stuart.
A collection of forty-eight essays and other writings that chronicle the history of how the Maya hieroglyphs were decoded, as well as the personalities behind the discoveries that led to the Maya writings being deciphered.

The New Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs, Volume 1: The Classic Period Inscriptions, by Martha J. Macri and Matthew G. Looper.
A practical catalog of all known Maya Script, single sign, hieroglyphs from the classic period (app. 150-900 C.E.).

The New Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs, Volume 2: The Codical Texts, by Martha J. Macri and Gabrielle Vail.
A practical catalog of all known Maya graphemes used in the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris codices.

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