ARCHIVES: Daniel Brinton’s Letter on Landa’s Alphabet
Most readers of this blog are probably aware of the fundamental insights of Yuri Knorosov, who in 1952 first published his breakthrough observation that Maya writing was in part phonetic, employing syllabic elements to spell words and grammatical constructions. The key for Knorosov was to see Bishop Diego de Landa’s “alphabet” as a misrepresentation of a syllabary.
What few may realize is that Knorosov was not the first to hold this view. I was fascinated to come across clear evidence that Daniel Brinton, the famed American linguist and anthropologist, had pretty much the same view as early as 1879. Brinton’s insight seems to have gone largely unnoticed these days, perhaps because it was published only as an excerpted letter within a somewhat obscure book on Palenque’s Tablet of the Cross by Charles Rau (1879). In fact Brinton was an early advocate of the view that Maya writing was phonetic and quite sophisticated, even if decipherments were few and far between at the time. His thinking evolved over the decades, but at least by 1879 he seems to have had much the same fundamental insight about Landa’s alphabet for which Knorosov is now famous:
Excerpt of letter from Daniel G. Brinton to Charles Rau, dated March 4, 1879:
“My later reading has led me to doubt whether De Landa’s alphabet is really an alphabet in the proper sense of the term, that is, representing elementary sounds of the language by written characters. It appears more likely that the figures he gives represent compound sounds, syllabic or partly so, and that they are but fragments of a large repertory of phonetic signs, never reduced to the elements of sound, used by the Mayas of that age. He evidently very positively considered them phonetic and not ideographic, and he could not have been mistaken on such a point, I should suppose. In his endeavor to arrange them according to the analogy of the Latin alphabet, he obscured their real purport, and I think we should reject the whole of his theory of their use in this manner.” (Quoted in Rau 1879:52-53).
Here Brinton nails it, noting that Landa had fundamentally misunderstood syllable signs as alphabetic elements. What’s odd is that Brinton didn’t follow up his own assessment of Landa’s glyphs as “compound sounds.” It seems he could have taken things a step or two further and applied his thinking to specific glyph readings, in the same way Knorosov would decades later. Interestingly, just a year after Brinton’s letter to Rau, much research on Landa’s alphabet would be roundly criticized by Philipp J. J. Valentini, who declared it to be a “Spanish fabrication” (Valentini 1880). Perhaps this discouraged Brinton from taking up the matter further. Brinton also may have stepped aside to allow Thomas to delve into the atomistic details of Maya epigraphy. Both men saw the same tantalizing clues of phoneticism, but only Thomas went ahead and proposed actual readings. Unlike Brinton, Thomas considered some signs to be possible consonants or “elementary sounds.” While he made a few good insights, Thomas’s specific arguments tended to fall short on many counts, and their weakness eventually exposed the overall phonetic approach to a good deal of criticism from the likes of Eduard Seler and others.
I wonder too if Brinton, a remarkable polymath, might have simply had too much on his plate to focus his mind on Maya glyphs — in ’79 he would soon embark on editing and contributing to many volumes of the Library of Aboriginal American Literature that would appear between 1882 and 1890. For whatever reason Brinton himself didn’t move forward on teasing out the patterns of phoneticism in the script, despite having described the abstract nature of Mayan writing with what we can see now as remarkable accuracy.
Rau, Charles. 1879. The Palenque Tablet in the United States National Museum, Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 331. Smithsonian Instituion, Washington City.
Valentini, Philipp J.J.. 1880. The Landa Alphabet: A Spanish Fabrication. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, no. 75, pp. 59-91. Worcester, MA.