Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The De Landa Abecedario

Enough already about how Apocalypto doesn't mean 'new beginning'. Did we think it did? If Gibson wants to create a new beginning out of an apocalypse, so be it.

What is more interesting is that on Language Log I read that Gibson gained inpsiration from "texts by 16th century bishop Friar Diego de Landa y Calderon, who wrote the book 'La relacion de las cosas de Yucatan' (The relation of things of the Yucatan)."

So who was Diego do Landa? He is best known for two separate accomplishments in his life. First, in about 1560 he recorded information about Mayan religion, language and culture, capturing the sounds of the Spanish alphabet in Mayan glyphs. He recorded these signs in relation to letters of the alphabet but the glyphs were eventually more correctly interpreted as representing syllables.

Second, de Landa was personally responsible for destroying as many Mayan books as he could get his hands on, possibly only 27, but maybe many more. Since many others have perished in the moist environment, this leaves 4 perserved manuscripts written in Mayan glyphs. While de Landa may have been witness to Mayan child sacrifice, he is himself known for his exceptional cruelty in a very cruel time.

Diego de Landa (1524-1579) was a Franciscan friar who arrived in Yucatán in 1549, and twelve years later became the Franciscan Provincial. He recorded many details of the Maya culture through the native informants Gaspar Antonio Chi and Nachi Cocom. His report, Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán ("Account of matters in Yucatán"), was written in 1566 after he was forced to return to Spain in 1563 by Bishop Toral, who had complained to the Council of the Indies about Landa's treatment of the Indians, including his burning of 27 Maya hieroglyphic codices at Maní in 1562 in protest against child sacrifice. Landa returned to Yucatán as Bishop in 1573, replacing the now-deceased Toral

The Relación provides an essential chronicle of Maya life, reporting on their houses, farming practices, religious ceremonies, and calendrics, plus detailed information on Maya hieroglyphs including a partial syllabary. The manuscript for the Relación was probably seen by late 16th century Spanish historians Lopez de Cogolludo and Herrera y Tordesillas (Thompson 1963), and was rediscovered in 1863 by the French antiquary Abbe Brasseur de Bourbourg in the Madrid Biblioteca de la Academia de la Historia. This highly important source, first published in 1864, three centuries after Landa compiled it, has been central in deciphering Maya script. Athena Review

If you have time for a little more history, here is a short take on the decipherment of Mayan by Michael Coe,

Why did it take such an unconscionably long time before we could actually read the writings of the most brilliant civilzation of pre-Columbian America? The fact of the matter is that a true "Rosetta Stone" key for the Maya decipherment challenge had been available since the mid-1860's when Bishop Landa's sixteenth-century account of the script was rediscovered in a Spanish archive. Recounting the testimony of his native informants, Landa had claimed that the system was based upon an abedeceario (sic), an alphabet, and he gave examples of how sentences could be written with it. Unfortunately, when this was applied to the then-known Maya codices, the results were ludicrous and were dismissed-along with Landa's "ABC"-by serious scholars. Michael Coe in Difficult Characters ed. by Mary S. Erbaugh

Until 1952 scholars interpreted Mayan glyphs as nonphonetic ideographs. It was Knorosov who showed that the Maya writing system was not an 'alphabet but a syllabary' ... 'similar in structure to other early scripts such as Sumerian, Egyptian, and Chinese'.

Athena Review
Journal of Historical Review
Canadian Museum of Civilizaation

Paranthetical: In Coe's article, 'abecedario' is actually spelled 'abedeceario'. Does this reflect a simple typing error, an inability to sequence the phonological syllables, or an ideographic relation between an idea and a word written in the English alphabet, bypassing the phonological processing route altogether?

What speaks against its being a typing error is the additional 'e' following the 'c' which has been added to make the word conform to English spelling rules. I have no idea who it was that made this error, but I remark on it only as a curiosity.


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