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Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play about the Prince of Denmark says:
“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.” (Act 3, Scene 2)
Language is a powerful expression of culture.
Writing systems, words, and phonetics convey meanings that reveal beliefs and cosmologic views of the people using them. The ancient Mayan language, with roots preceding Old English, is present as both oral and visible literature written on ceramic vessels, painted on murals and wall friezes, carved on stone monuments and wooden
lintels, and in the few books (codices) that survived burning by Spaniards. Over 2000 years of Mayan literature tells stories with two overlapping strands—one following events on the surface of the earth, the other following events in the sky or underworld. This reveals the inter-dimensional cosmology of the ancient Mayas, where worlds of people, Gods, ancestors, and demons intersect regularly.
Shakespeare’s language is far from modern English, but few would suggest paraphrasing his great works. The cadence, style, and choice of words create a period feel and bring readers into those places and times. Mayan language can also invoke their culture and environment, but is difficult to express in English. There could hardly be a more “foreign” type of writing and language to English-speakers.
Classic Mayan hieroglyphic writing.
In use for 2000 years beginning around 300 BC, Classic Mayan was a single “prestige” language, highly formalized throughout the Maya regions. Phonetic decipherments in the
late 1980s and 1990s showed it related to the Cholan subgroup of Mayan languages, with Ch’orti and its ancestral language Cholti the closest relatives. Maya hieroglyphs represent word signs (logograms) or syllables (syllabograms), combined into glyph blocks. Every part of the glyph block contains meaning, some markings signaling qualities of speech such as
glottalization, aspiration, or vowel length. Single blocks often contain multiple words, with considerable artistic license in visual design and format. There were multiple ways to express words, and repeated images for emphasis. Over 100 years were necessary for Western epigraphers to decipher Mayan writing, due to its complexity. About 80% of hieroglyphs can now be read, giving us direct entry into ancient Mayan literature.
The basic word order for Mayan clauses was verb-object-subject (VSO). English follows the subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. Many Mesoamerican languages follow VSO, along with Celtic, Afroasiatic, Austronesian, and Salishan languages.
Examples of these differences:
SVO “She loves him.” “Tutuum Yohl K’inich plants the stone.”
VSO “Loves she him.” “Plants the stone Tutuum Yohl K’inich.”
Language was infused with sacred itz, life essence, to the Mayas.
They valued poetic and courtly uses of language, believing the Gods were both honored and pleased when words were well spoken. This was especially important in the high culture of Maya courts, a central institution in their hierarchical society. Mayan poems typically used the device of couplets, the repeating of key words and phrases in consecutive lines, also called parallel verse. While many consider it heresy to paraphrase a finished English poem, the Mayas used paraphrase to construct poems in the first place. For them, this was a process taking place inside a language, viewing poetry itself as translation. It gives a lilting quality to Mayan language.
“Kajuljutik, kachupchutik, pa ri q’ekum, pa ri aq’ab’.”
“It shines, it shimmers, in the blackness, in the night.” – 2000 Years of Mayan Literature
“So then they began their songs, their dances.
So then all of Xibalba arrived,
the spectators crowded the floor.
And they danced everything:
they danced the Weasel,
they danced the Poorwill,
they danced the Armadillo.” – Popol Vuh
Speak the Speech in Mayan
Writing historical fiction about Classic Period Mayas, I grappled with making the language reflect their unique, lyrical speech patterns. I wanted readers to immediately experience a different, courtly culture so I avoided use of contractions and created some flowery speeches for characters. From time to time, I constructed sentences following the VSO order but this didn’t always sit well with readers. An example from the first book in the series about Yohl Ik’nal drew criticism: “Just because characters talk like Yoda doesn’t make them wise.”
“Concerned I am about your daughter,” the priestess said.
Actually, the ancient Mayas spoke this way centuries before Yoda came onto the Star Wars scene. To make Yoda wise and exotic, Lucas borrowed Mesoamerican sentence structure. But I relented and switched to SVO—“I am concerned about your daughter”—because it was the first sentence of dialogue in the book. Whenever it worked, however, I continued to have characters “Speak the speech” in their native pattern. The VSO speech pattern has persisted into contemporary times, at least among traditional Mayas. Hunbatz Men, Itzá Maya elder and daykeeper was my main teacher while I lived in Yucatan, Mexico. When he wanted to make a point and get our attention, he often used this passive voice phrase:
VSO: “Now comes something important.”
SVO: “Something important now comes.”
Ancient Mayas often used passive tense, which adds to the poetic quality of their narratives. The Popol Vuh, a 16th century book based on ancient sources, was written in alphabetic script using phonetic interpretation of K’iche’ Mayan. The beginning relates how the Gods first created the world:
“It takes a long performance and account
to complete the lighting of all the sky-earth
the fourfold siding, fourfold cornering,
measuring, fourfold staking,
halving the cord, stretching the cord,
in the sky, on the earth,
the four sides, the four corners, as it is said
by the Maker, Modeler,
of life, of humankind.” – Popol Vuh, Sam Colop version
Read culturally authentic Mayan stories in my novels about ancient Mayan queens.
Dennis Tedlock. 2000 Years of Mayan Literature. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2010.
Sam Colop & Luis Enrique. Popol Wuj: Versión poética k’iche’. Cholsamaj, Guatemala City, 1999.
John Curl. Inca, Maya & Aztec Poetry: Translations and Biographies of the Poets. Bilingual Press, Arizona State University.
Wikipedia. “Classic Maya language and Verb-subject-object.” Accessed 3/31/18.
Danny Law & David Stuart. “Classic Mayan: An overview of language in ancient hieroglyphic script.” In Judith Aissen, Nora England & Roberto Zavola Maldonado (eds). The Mayan Languages. Routledge Language Family Series. New York, 2017.
Exploring The Writing Process With Leonide Martin.
In this new series of posts, I’ll be taking a look at The Writing Process. Whenever I’ve done an author interview, one question always asked is how I navigate the process of writing. Every author follows a personal writing process, so no single formula fits for all. There are common steps we all go through in conceptualizing, developing, planning, researching, writing routine, revising, editing, and publishing. This series will explore each step in the writing process, using my own experiences as examples.
The book I most recently completed is The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque. This is the third book in the Mists of Palenque series about four remarkable ancient Mayan women. Released in 2017 as an ebook, it’s now in the process of getting into print with publication date March 1, 2018. The Mayan Red Queen is the example through which I’ll dissect my journey through The Writing Process.
Inspiration for The Mayan Red Queen Story
My husband and I bought a house in Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico in 2005 and lived there for five years. Our main purpose was for me to become immersed in Mayan culture and history to better write historical fiction about this great civilization. Yucatan was a perfect location, peppered with Maya ruins and infused with a vibrant modern Mayan culture. I had already written my first historical fiction about the Mayas before we moved to Mérida, and now had a new book in mind. The first book, Dreaming the Maya Fifth Sun: A Novel of Maya Wisdom and the 2012 Shift in Consciousness, is a story of two women separated by centuries yet connected by
a web of history, whose destinies intertwine as the end of the Maya Calendar on December 21, 2012 approaches. Of course, the Mayas never predicted the calendar—much less the world—would end in 2012. For them, one great cycle rolled over into the next. This perspective is dramatized in the story.
While visiting Mexico during the years before we moved there, I’d been captivated by the ancient city Palenque located in southern Chiapas. I’d already done considerable research to write the first book, but was spurred to delve more deeply into the archeology and history of Palenque. Several famous archeological things happened there: John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood wrote their Incidents of Travel books that became international best-sellers in the mid-1800s and put Palenque on the map. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier excavated the tomb of famous ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal in 1952; it compares in riches to King Tut’s of Egypt. The series of Mesa Redondas conducted by Linda Schele and Merle Green Robertson during the 1970s brought together Mayanists from several disciplines; their combined skills deciphered the “king list” of Palenque rulers. Excavations by Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz and Fanny Lopez Jimenez uncovered the tomb of a royal woman in 1994, her skeleton permeated with red cinnabar; it was the first queen’s burial ever found among the ancient Mayas.
Here is where the inspiration for my next book about the Mayas began. As I stood in the narrow passageway and peered into the chamber holding her empty sarcophagus, I wondered who this woman was. Her bones had been removed to Mexico City in a museum for preservation and study. Her burial adornments were in the Palenque museum; a jadeite mask, jade diadem, jade and stone jewelry, ceramics, tools, symbols of status. The partially restored pyramid housing her tomb (Temple XIII) adjoined the huge burial monument for Pakal (Temple of the Inscriptions); this made researchers think there was a relationship. By pure luck, I was browsing through Dante Books in Mérida and came upon a book about her: La Reina Roja by Adriana Malvido. I’d never have found this book unless I was in Mexico; I’d never been able to read it unless I had continued studying Spanish while there.
La Reina Roja: El secreto de los mayas en Palenque was written in 2006 by a journalist from Mexico City, working in consultation with INAH, Mexico’s institute for preserving national culture and history. It read like a novel yet contained extensive factual information about the archeological excavation and historical background. I learned that the woman whose red bones were interred might be Pakal’s grandmother, mother, wife, or daughter-in-law. At that time, good techniques for analysis of teeth and bones were not available. It took over ten years for scientists to determine that the Red Queen’s skeleton and Pakal’s skeleton did not share DNA, and their teeth had different strontium isotope signatures. This eliminated his grandmother and mother; making his wife
most likely to receive such an honored and richly adorned burial.
Reading Malvido’s book, I learned about the other candidates for the burial and became fascinated by this lineage of royal women. Pakal’s grandmother Yohl Ik’nal was the first Mayan women to rule independently, causing a shift in dynastic succession. His mother assumed the throne after her brother was killed in Palenque’s worst defeat. She weathered opposition and chaos to keep the throne until her son Pakal came of age. His wife was from another city, lived many years in Palenque and bore him four sons. His daughter-in-law kept the dynasty going although she married his youngest son; the older sons had no surviving heirs.
The Nucleus of a Story Emerges
It was simply evident that I had to tell the stories of these four great Mayan queens. At first I conceptualized a single book in four parts, did lots more research and made an outline. While in Mérida I began writing about Yohl Ik’nal, but the writing process was difficult. Anyone who has lived the ex-pat life knows how many distractions abound. Eating out at fine restaurants was inexpensive; there was abundant good wine; too many parties and musical performances; endless excursions to interesting sites around Yucatan; discussion groups and teas and local fiestas and carnivals. Serious writing had to wait until we returned to the States and then I discovered there was too much material for one book. The result: The Mists of Palenque series of four books, each dedicated to a queen.
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Precolumbian Art Research Institute. PARI Online Publication. Palenque Round Tables 1-8. (Mesas Redondas). 1973-1993. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/round_table.html
Precolumbian Art Research Institute. PARI Online Publication. The First Mesa Redonda of Palenque. 1973. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/RT01/RT01_00.html
Adriana Malvido. La Reina Roja: El secreto de los mayas en Palenque. Conaculta/INAH, Mexico City, Mexico, 2006.
John L. Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Volume I. With illustrations by Frederick Catherwood. Dover Pub., Inc., New York, 1969. Originally published in 1841 by Harper & Brothers, New York.
David Stuart & George Stuart. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 2008.
Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz. The Red Queen. Mesoweb Online Publications, 1994 excavations of Temple XIII, Palenque. http://www.mesoweb.com/palenque/features/red_queen/text.html
Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz. La Reina Roja, una tumba real en Palenque, 2011. (Wikipedia)