'Lost' sacred language of the Maya is rediscovered

By David Keys Archaeology Correspondent

07 December 2003

Linguists have discovered a still-surviving version of the sacred
religious language of the ancient Maya - the great pyramid-building
civilization that once dominated Central America.

For years some Maya hieroglyphic texts have defied interpretation -
but now archaeologists and linguists have identified a little-known
native Indian language as the descendant of the elite tongue spoken
by rulers and religious leaders of the ancient Maya.

The language, Ch'orti - spoken today by just a few thousand
Guatemalan Indians - will become a living "Rosetta Stone", a key to
unravelling those aspects of Maya hieroglyphic writings which have so
far not been properly understood. Over the next few years dozens of
linguists and anthropologists are expected to start "mining" Ch'orti
language and culture for words and expressions relating to everything
from blood-letting to fasting.

The Maya were one of the great civilizations of the ancient world - a
civilization that lasted for 2,000 years, roughly from 550BC to
AD1450. They constructed huge cities - some covering 100 square miles
with populations of up to 170,000. Their art, architecture and
culture were extremely sophisticated - and their elites studied
astronomy and mathematics. Their writing system was a complex script
- systemically similar to Chinese. And yet they remained technically
a "stone age" society with no metal tools, no draught animals and no
wheeled transport.

Up till now, scholars had thought that, in spoken form, the ancient
Maya elite sacred language was extinct.

But research by a team led by archaeologist Professor Steven Houston
and linguist Professor John Robertson of Brigham Young University,
Utah, has now shown that Ch'orti evolved directly out of that sacred

The language that Ch'orti is descended from seems to have originally
been spoken through an area of what are now Guatemala, Belize,
Honduras and southern Mexico. Archaeological research has shown that
as the civilization progressed and spread, other Central American
Maya languages came to be spoken. But because of its association with
the first Maya civilization, successive generations of Maya elites
preserved proto-Ch'orti as a sacred language.