ARCHIVES: Daniel Brinton’s Letter on Landa’s Alphabet 4

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.

Daniel Garrison Brinton, 1837-1899, at age 34, ca. 1871.

Daniel Garrison Brinton, ca. 1871

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.

References Cited:

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.


  1. That’s a fascinating note on Brinton’s early insights. It’s too bad there wasn’t a more open-minded reception of his ideas among scholars; if that had happened, epigraphy would have progressed more smoothly and rapidly. It’s unfortunate when progressive insights are rejected or dismissed without sufficient examination of the evidence being offered.

  2. The french scholar León Louis Lucie Prunol de Rosny proposed in 1876 that Maya hieroglyphic writing was partially based on phonetic signs. In fact, he stated that the Maya script consisted of phonectic signs and logograms. His work, however, also was ignored for over 30 years.

    • I wouldn’t say that de Rosny’s worked was ever ignored. In fact he was among the most recognized scholars of his day, widely cited by his contemporaries and acknowledged as a pioneer by everyone who came later. It’s important to realize that phoneticism was a common topic of discussion among most researchers in the 1870s and 1880s, in the wake of the first publication of Landa’s Relacion. But “phoneticism” meant different things to different people at the time, and the exact application of Landa’s alphabet to the issue remained full of ambiguities. The importance of Brinton’s letter to Rau, I think, lies in its apparent recognition that Landa’s “letras” were misrepresentations of an underlying syllabic(?) system, obscuring “their real purport,” as he says. There the matter ended, more or less. By the 1890s phoneticism was subsiding as a productive analytical model in Maya epigraphy, due in part to poor availability of source material. Research on glyphs soon came to be dominated by more productive work on the ancient calendar system. In fact, Brinton himself focuses on such themes in his 1895 Primer of Mayan Hieroglyphics.

  3. I agree with you that Rosny was among the most recognized scholars of his time and that he was cited by his contemporaries, especially for his work on Japanese and Chinese languages. There is no doubt at this time that Rosny, Cyrus Thomas and Daniel Briton were true visionaries but I feel that their contributions on phoneticism were recognize only well after they passed away. I really was stunned when I read in your post that Briton wrote “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…” He absolutely nailed it!

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