Maya writing

The Ancient Maya writing system could express anything that could be said in spoken language. Like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and modern Japanese characters, it had signs for both simple sounds and whole words.  Maya writing combined logographs (symbols representing whole words) with symbols that represented phonetic syllables. The word jaguar (bahlam), for example, could be written as a symbol which looks like a jaguar’s head, or as a cluster of three syllables: ba-la-m(a). (The final “a” is silent.)


Writing Maya glyphs

Hun - “book” the glyph shows a codex style book with jaguar-skin covers.

Ajtz’ib - “the scribe, the painter”

K’an - “yellow, precious”

Way - a “spirit companion” (often an animal) which one remains in communion with throughout life.

An undeciphered glyph for the Maya ball court showing the ball bouncing down the stone steps.

Tz’ib - “writing, painting”

Japay - “portal to the underworld”

Bahlam - “jaguar”

Yune - “his father’s child”

Chok - “to scatter”


There were over 600 logographs but, for reasons of style, the scribes often preferred to use syllabic writing. While the Mayan language had 100 phonetic syllables, there were as many as 200 symbols to represent these sounds. So, for most syllable sounds, there was a range of symbol choices. In an extraordinary mingling of language and art, the Maya scribes selected the glyphs that best fulfilled their aesthetic sense.  The more frequently a word was used, the greater the variation seen in writing it, as the Maya didn’t like to repeat a spelling or design within the same block of text. The symbols below are all possible versions of the sound “ma”.

In syllabic writing, the symbols representing consonant/vowel pairs or vowels were arranged in glyph blocks to sound out each word. In each glyph block the symbols were generally read from top to bottom and from left to right. Here are just a few of the many combinations possible.

Want to know more?

Here are a few links to some great resources:

Cracking the Maya Code: clips of PBS NOVA’s excellent film about deciphering the Maya glyphs.

Writing in Maya Glyphs - Part 1:  An easily digestible guide to writing glyphs. (45 page pdf, 2.96 MB)

Writing in Maya Glyphs - Part 2:  (40 page pdf; 1.2 MB)

Omniglot: overview of Maya glyph writing with Maya syllabary and links to a range of Maya sites.

Ancient Scripts: Writing systems in the ancient world

The Maya Hieroglyphic Codices: A hardcore site with a searchable database of the four codices with translation and analysis.

Prof. Mark Van Stone

demonstrates writing Maya glyphs

Best Books

School VisitsSchool_visits.htmlSchool_visits.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0
Maya MathMayaMath.htmlSchool_visits.htmlshapeimage_2_link_0
Maya CalendarMayaCalendar.htmlSchool_visits.htmlshapeimage_3_link_0
The Maya Pages