Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The pioneer of Spanish grammar

Queen Isabella’s explorations started a process of conquering this hemisphere with the sword; Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522) solidified that victory with the word.  Little is known about a fascinating man who was probably essential to the consolidation of the Spanish Empire and the homogenization of the Spanish language.  

Queen Isabella (1451-1504) was born at the renaissance of writing, science and exploration -- a time of an explosion of new ideas. 1492 was certainly the most tumultuous year of her reign with the unification of Spain, through the completion of the Reconquista over the Moors, in January the expulsion of the Jews in March, Columbus sailing west in August.    

Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages into a new world of enlightenment. Lost knowledge in the areas of philosophy, mathematics, science and medicine were being rediscovered; Gutenberg’s printing press, invented in the very year of Isabella’s birth, assured that it was no longer just monks who had access to ancient knowledge.  Imagine the proliferation of printed material!  With printing presses popping up all over the place anyone with a minimum of resources could have their ideas printed on a broadsheet and distributed.  

On another front, by the late 1300's, Spanish and Portuguese seafarers understood that the invention of the compass -- shrouded in mystery with both the Chinese and Arabs claiming its origin -- was a valuable tool for navigation and went on to develop shipbuilding and mapmaking abilities superior to other European countries.  The confluence of these three developments, essential for seagoing exploration, profoundly changed western civilization and led to first Spanish and then European economic dominance of the world.  

The allegorical tale of the Tower of Babylon is instructive of the importance of language and the ability to communicate.  Spaniards came from many different areas, each with its own dialect.  When Spanish exploration began a common language was needed to allow sailors and crew, clergy, military commanders to communicate. 

I thought about this three Sundays ago as I walked in the march led by Javier Sicilia along Paseo de la Reforma and had the opportunity to talk with Jean Robert (yes, Robert is his surname), a disciple of Ivan Illich.  I took advantage of the fact that I had a recorder in my pocket, we had time on our hands, no other place to go, and as participants in a silent march, no slogans to shout.  I asked Robert to refresh my memory about Antonio de Nebrija.    

Robert reminded me that Illich, with an interest in the vernacular, had written about Nebrija, defined as the creator of the Spanish language or the first mother tongue that had to be learned.  What follows is some of Nebrija’s story as told to me on August 14 by Jean Robert.

“Nebrija gave rules to Spanish.  In his youth he had watched the explosion of printing.  Each town had a printing press that printed the strangest of things in the most disorderly manner with no uniformity of language, spelling or grammar.  Nebrija thought, ‘This chaos can not continue.’  So, he came up with the idea of instituting a small manual of linguistic engineering; this kind of book is called a grammar.

“But in those times nobody would have thought of using a grammar book to learn the language that they spoke.  They would say, ‘I speak.  I am the master of my language.  I speak as we do in my house.’  

“A grammar book was something used to study a language that is no longer spoken…  like Hebrew, ancient Greek and Latin.  Using this model, Nebrija wrote a Spanish grammar. He even included proper pronunciation and guides to the chaste use of language.  

“Nebrija wanted Queen Isabella to finance this ambitious project.  He requested an audience and said, ‘Majesty, I have something extraordinary to present to you. We can apply it in all your dominions.  It is a grammar like you used to learn Latin but it is to teach Spaniards how to speak correct Spanish.”  The queen laughed uproariously.  ‘I am the queen of this country.  But with the regard to language spoken at home each subject is king in his own house.’   Nebrija went away saddened.   

“A few years later he learned that Christopher Columbus had obtained financing for an even crazier project.  He returned for a second audience with Queen Isabella. 'Majesty, now that you are preparing to civilize half the world, China, Japan, India (or so they thought) you must understand the importance of a unified language.  A country is conquered with a sword but you maintain power with the tongue.'   She agreed and financed the printing of his grammar.

“It is supposed that those aboard ships sent to colonize New Spain were trained to speak Spanish, according to Nebrija’s grammar.  There is no place in Latin America where a Spanish language other than Castillian Spanish is spoken.  In Spain the various dialects have survived. Though early settlers certainly came from all areas of Spain, boarding  ships speaking Catalan, Gallego, and even Basque they disembarked as subjects of the Viceroy of New Spain speaking Spanish.  It was Nebrija’s grand achievement.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A trio of Mayan Linguists

Yuri Knorosov’s Egyptology studies were interrupted by World War II service in the Red Army.   During the last days of the war he rescued a book from a burning German library.  Serendipitously, it was a book about the surviving ancient Maya codices and sparked a lifetime interest in Maya linguistics.   In the early 1950’s Knorosov published a translation of portions of the Dresden Codex, some of it based on information gleaned from Fray Diego de Landa's Alphabet (referred to in last week's Digs).   The preface of the publication said the reader might be surprised a Soviet linguist published this first translation, but explained it was because he lived in a socialist society -- more conducive to intellectual activity than capitalism.  

That preface eroded Western objectivity.  Scholars searched for errors in Knorosov's work -- in such an ambitious venture mistakes are easy enough to find.  One of his most severe critics was British linguist Eric Thompson, who harshly criticized anyone contesting his views on the Maya.  Knorosov's translation not only eclipsed Thompson's research but also criticized capitalism while Senator McCarthy was on his rampage in the USA.  During Thompson's reign few linguists dared incur his wrath.  A brave exception was Russian-American Tatiana Proskouriakoff who in the 1960's, venturing back to Knorosov's translation, found much of his work valid and built on his foundation, furthering the understanding of written Maya.  

Despite advances made by Knorosov and Proskouriakoff, Thompson's reputation remained undiminished and he was knighted in 1975.  Queen Elizabeth invited him to accompany her on a 1976 trip to Mexico.  Unfortunately for Thompson, he died on September 9, 1975.  Though a sad day for Sir Eric's family, friends, and admirers, for Maya linguistic scholars it opened the floodgates to discussion of many new ideas.  

The 1970's were years of other momentous events for Maya linguistics.  Foremost among them was a trip in December 1970 led by Linda Schele, an art history professor at the University of South Alabama.  She designed a Mexican study trip with the ultimate destination being Cancun.  Academic credit included!  Professor Schele and her students traveled the long way -- following the Gulf Coast.  The agent who sold them insurance at the border asked their destination and produced a spiral bound mile-by-mile trip description for their particular drive.  Palenque was not on their itinerary, but the Sanborn's Insurance guidebook said it was worth a few hours of their time.  Professors and students agreed to visit Palenque and make up for the diversion by driving later into the night.  Schele entered Palenque with an open mind.  She was an artist, not an archeologist, and had no preconceived notion of what she was seeing. Her experience as an artist, and art historian, gave her insights into Palenque's sculpture and writing that archeologists lacked.  Fascinated, she and her group of students spent twelve days at Palenque.  They never made it to Cancun.  Those twelve days transformed Maya linguistics. 

Schele, born and raised in Tennessee, was a folksy, friendly, unassuming southerner; yet a thorough academic researcher and writer.  Similar to the way she walked into Palenque with an open mind, she was oblivious to the politics of Western archeology.  Thompson exercised no sway over her except for whatever validity there was in his research.  Her unusual combination of academic rigor, friendly disposition, and enthusiasm was able to get outstanding researchers into the same room, sitting on cushions on the floor, sharing ideas and discoveries.  She praised their discoveries, diplomatically set aside what didn't seem right, and pulled together ideas which provided breakthroughs in reading written Maya.

Those sessions radically contrasted with the academic archeologists' traditional keeping of information close to their chests until a book could be published.  After face-to-face meetings she kept information flowing on floppy disks exchanged in the mail.  Schele saw dispersing information as much more important than taking credit for it -- something reflected in her many books and publications which, for the most part, she co-authored -- each with a different co-author.  Understanding of written Maya went from 15% to 50%; comprehension went up to 90% in context.During free time one afternoon at the first Palenque Round Table in December 1973 -- only three years after that trip along the Gulf coast -- Linda Schele, Peter Mathews, and Floyd Lounsbury deciphered the names of the rulers of Palenque for a 200-year period and presented them that evening at the Round Table!  Lounsbury later went on to expand the list to 500 years, including names, and even birth defects, suffered by the ruling family after so many generations of intermarriage. 
The University of Pennsylvania has hosted a Maya Weekend each April for a quarter century.  The meetings begin with a tribute to outstanding Mayanists who have died since the previous Maya Weekend.  1998-99 hit Maya studies particularly hard.  Linda Schele died on April 18, 1998; Floyd Lounsbury, twenty-six days later on May 14, and Yuri Knorosov on March 31, 1999.  Schele and Lounsbury were eulogized at the 1999 Maya Weekend.  When I saw that the tributes were over and the first speaker was about to be introduced, I bellowed from the back of the huge auditorium, "The Cold War is over!  We can honor Yuri Knorosov, March 31, 1999."  The master of ceremonies expressed a lame excuse for overlooking him, but tribute was paid to Knorosov in the University of Pennsylvania's Harrison Auditorium, ten days after his death.  Knorosov and Lounsbury were well advanced in years.  Linda Schele seems to have departed before her time.  I like to think the three of them needed to be together for some important reason.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The upside of fanaticism

Early Spanish priests arriving with the conquerors imposed a daunting task upon themselves:  saving the souls of the Indigenous population.  These first Spanish missionaries also assumed the responsibility of eradicating the 'cult of the devil' defined by the Church as anything involving Indigenous religion.  

It would have been unrealistic to expect the Indigenous population to learn Spanish in order to go to catechism class.  Their first task was for the priests themselves to learn the local languages. Each priest, or monastic order undertook that challenge using different methods.  

Fray Diego de Landa (1524-1579) settled in Izamal a major Maya religious center in northern Yucatan dedicated to the cult of the god Itzamná.  Today Izamal is one of the few archeological sites that can be visited any time of the day or night.  It is a contemporary city with its main church right on top of one of the largest Maya pyramids. 

I imagine Landa identifying a scribe in the community and showing this scribe how to make lines with a quill pen dipped in an inkpot on a piece of bark paper.   How much finer a line could be achieved and how much easier it is than using a brush!  He might have let the scribe experiment for a while, but then got serious and, said the first letter of the Spanish alphabet, "ah!" as he passed the pen to the scribe and insisted that he write the letter 'A'.  It didn't mean anything to the scribe, but it sounded like ak, the Maya word for turtle, so he drew a turtle's head.  Landa now had a Maya word he could associate, in his mind, with the letter A.  He then said "bé" and passed the pen to the scribe who immediately drew two parallel lines and, between them, a footprint -- bé in Maya means road.  On through the alphabet Landa went.  For some letters he got several drawings, for others one, and for some none.

By the end of this exercise he had words and pictures he could associate in his mind with letters of the alphabet and was on his way to learning spoken Maya.  

For the scribe these must have been fascinating sessions.  He probably rushed home and made notes of whatever he could remember about this way to write in which with less than thirty symbols, representing sounds, one could write anything.  It was much easier than mastering the 2,500 to 3,000 Maya hieroglyphic symbols, many of which represented syllables rather than sounds.  

However, the scribes soon found they had to be careful with this new knowledge.  Landa and other Spanish priests were clear in getting the message across that this was a Christian alphabet they were using and it was never to be used for anything associated with the cult of the devil. To be caught misusing the Christian alphabet could lead to being accused of being a heretic and to be burned at the stake.  
Landa prided himself on the autos de fe -- acts of faith -- he  carried out, how many Indigenous leaders he admonished, how many vases and images of gods he smashed into pieces, how many books he incinerated. 

Indeed, Landa’s excessive fanaticism became so heinous that he was accused, by other Spaniards, of cruelty to the Indians -- a violation of the Laws of the Indies.  Being a priest he had fuero (legal immunity) and could not be tried in a civil court of law.  He was sent back to Spain to be tried by an ecclesiastical court.  There he assembled the notes he had taken while in this colony, titled them Relación de las Cosas del Yucatan, and presented them as evidence in his own defense.  He was able to convince the court that what was seen by others as cruelty was really righteous evangelical fervor.  He was found not guilty and sent back to Yucatan as bishop.

One of the chapters in Landa’s book describes what is now known as the Landa Alphabet.  His list of Spanish letters of the alphabet are found next to drawings of the equivalent Maya words or 'letters'.  Landa is criticized for his ethnocentricity in having thought that the Maya alphabet would have the same letters as Spanish.  In this case however, the ridicule should be addressed to his critics -- a 16th century educated priest, especially one eligible to be Bishop, not only knew his native dialect, but Castillian and certainly Latin.  Most likely he read Greek and possibly Aramaic.  He certainly did not think all languages used the same alphabet and his Landa Alphabet was likely proposed merely as a mnemonic exercise with which to learn spoken Maya.  Indeed, in the 1950's Yuri Knorosov made use of the sound value of the Landa Alphabet, finding many of the symbols to be hieroglyphs for Maya syllables.  

Another chapter deals with the calendar, the naming of periods of time, and the unusual practice of naming the Katuns (7,200-day periods) with the name of the last day of the Katun.  He admits to not understanding what appears to be a convoluted naming system, but he draws an accurate chart to describe it -- which gave insight to our modern understanding of the calendar. 

Through terrible irony it is to Landa, who prided himself on how many books he burned in huge bonfires, that we owe a lot of what we know about the Maya calendar.  Up until the 1970's only about 15% of written Maya could be understood, and most of that dealt with the calendar, much of it based on Landa's book.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How Mayans divided time

To the basic Mesoamerican system of recording time the Maya added three things:  an era date, periods of time, and the concept of zero.  The era date, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, August 11, 3114 B.C. is the first day of this humanity.

4 Ahau is its name in the Tzolkin ritual calendar of 260 days and 8 Cumku in the Haab or solar calendar of 365 days.  We, too, give names to days from two calendars.  We could say that Sunday 25 December is our era date; Sunday being its name in the calendar of the week and 25 December its name in the solar calendar.     

Like the era date in our contemporary calendar -- the birth of Jesus -- the Maya era date was neither the beginning of time nor was it the first day of a year.  Nor were people using the calendar when it started.   In both calendars events are recorded that occurred before the era date.

A day named 4 Ahau 8 Cumku re-occurs every 52 years -- yet usually, when mentioned, it is referring to the era date in 3114 B.C.  In our calendar we repeat the names of days every 14 years -- at least that’s how many calendars there used to be in the front of phone books, which some readers may remember. 

The Mayas grouped the days that have elapsed since the era date into periods of time.   The smallest is Kin, which means sun -- one sun equals one day.  Twenty Kins equal a Uinal -- a 'month' of twenty days.  The Uinal goes nicely with the Maya vigesimal, base twenty, mathematical system.   (If we got our decimal system from the Arabs counting their ten fingers, perhaps the Mayas came up with their system by counting fingers and toes).  The Haab calendar has 18 months of 20 days and one last month of five days.  The Tzolkin has 13 numbers that combine with 20 names; so the twenty-day Uinal fits nicely with both of the basic Mesoamerican calendars.      

The Mayas would have appreciated a 400-day year; it would have been perfect -- twenty months of twenty days!  Alas, there are only 365 days in a year.  So they took the closest multiple of twenty, 360 Kins, and called it a Tun.  That is the only deviation from their mathematical system.  From then on periods of time increase by multiples of twenty.  Twenty Tuns make up a Katun, 7,200 days.  Twenty Katuns, a Baktun, 144,000 days.  These five periods of time -- Kin, Uinal, Tun, Katun, and Bactun -- can keep track of all the days elapsed since the era date in 3114 B.C. 

In Maya hieroglyphics, periods of time are referred to with numbers written in a vertical column -- the smallest unit is at the bottom.  This is difficult to do in our horizontal system of writing. Therefore, in contemporary books Maya dates are written left to right with the largest period of time first and dots between the periods of time.  Today's date in the Maya calendar is -- according to the Maya ap on my iPod.

That means that between the era date and today, 12 Bactuns, 19 Katuns, 18 Tuns, 11 Uinals, and 0 Kin have passed; and today’s name is 11 Ahau 8 Yaxkin wherein 11 Ahau is the name of the day in the Tzolkin and 8 Yaxkin the name in the Haab.  

Days have names; months do too.  Each Haab 365-day year receives the name of the first day of the year -- allowing individual years to be identified within a 52-year cycle.  Because of the makeup of the calendar there are only four days on which years can begin -- they are called year bearers; interestingly they are days in the Tzolkin.  

Demonstrating a certainty that the period of time will reach completion, Katuns are named the last day of the Katun -- again from the Tzolkin calendar -- always a number from 1 to 13 followed by the name Ahau.

I haven't heard of names for Bactuns -- they are referred to with numbers perhaps because Bactuns are longer than a human lifetime.  We live in Bactun 12. 

There are periods of time longer than Bactuns, each 20 times the previous period, and there are Maya dates carved in stone that include those longer and larger periods.   

The longest Maya date, found so far, is on a stela at the base of the tallest pyramid at Coba on which the era date is recorded, August 11, 3114 B.C.  It is written in a way that recalls the Tzolkin calendar and its twenty cycles (periods of time) set at thirteen:  

The four zeros at the end of that date refer to Katuns, Tuns, Uinals, and Kins.  According to Linda Schele, arithmetically the thirteens are also zeros.  Four hundred Tuns after the era date the 'last' of the thirteens turned over to become 1.   For the largest period of time on the Coba stela to change to 1 will "take slightly under 142 nonillion years, or in our number system, 142 followed by thirty-six zeros."  This is farther into the future than the Big Bang is into the past! 

December 21, 2012, will be a milestone in timekeeping, a day on which a small part of the odometer of time will reset to zeros -- -- but the gods of time will keep on walking with the Sun making their way towards Bactun 14.   Just as there are only 13 names for Katuns, yet it takes 20 to make up a Bactun, likewise these first thirteen Bactuns will be joined by seven more to form the first Pictun.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Calendar explained

We are racing towards December 21, 2012, a perceived crisis promising to be even bigger than that experienced eleven years ago with Y2K.  How and why is this being brought on by the Mayan calendar? 

The basic Mesoamerican system for recording time makes use of two calendars, a 365-day solar calendar called the Haab and a 260-day ritual calendar known as the Tzolkin. 

The Haab, or solar calendar, is similar to the one we use today.  It has 19 named months.  Months are made up of numbered days.  The difference is that 18 months all have twenty days and the 19th month has only five days. The 5 days of the 19th month, Wayeb, are considered unlucky days.  The word Wayeb means straw mat or where the year goes to sleep.  Woe to those born during Wayeb. 

Tzolkin is the 260-day ritual calendar.  It is made up of 13 numbers that combine with twenty names.  The first day has, as its name, the first number and the first name --1 Imix.  The second day has the second number and the second name -- 2 Ik -- and so on.  It has no months.  The numbers and names get scrambled upon getting to the fourteenth day whose name is the first number and the fourteenth name in the list.  Total possible combinations are 13x20=260.
It sounds complicated to have two calendars progressing simultaneously but we do the same thing.  We have a 365-day calendar of the year and a seven-day calendar of the week and we have no problem keeping track of two calendars at the same time.  Indeed the Tzolkin is a bit more complicated than our calendar of the week but Mesoamericans were as accustomed to their calendars as we are to ours and had no more trouble than we do. 

It is the Haab and Tzolkin that together give us the often referred to 52-year cycle.  To understand a 52-year cycle you'll need to remember fourth grade math, prime numbers and lowest common denominators.  If you -- like I did -- wondered "When is this ever going to be of any use to me?”, consider yourself having prepared for today.  The lowest common denominator of 260 and 365 is 5.  Five goes into 260 fifty-two times and into 365 seventy-three times.  If you cross-multiply those numbers you'll get 18,980 for both of them (260x73 = 365x52).   If you start both calendars on the same day, you won't start them on the same day again until 18,980 days, or 52 years, have passed!

Very few ancient Mesoamericans lived to see their fifty-second birthday and thus did not live through a full cycle of time. Every day of their life was ruled by a different combination of gods -- they never repeated the same name of a day. 

The Mesoamerican world is ruled by a council of gods of time making up the name of each hour, day, month and year.  It was as though in our world on this very day the sun is accompanied by the god of Tuesday, the god of 2, the god of August, and again of 2, the god of 0 and the god of 1 who is carrying a double burden and like the god of 2 is probably doing a great bit of grumbling.  As they keep the sun company on his journey through the days and nights, some stick around for only an hour, some a day, some a month.  The sun, on his long journey, can never be late, can never take a day off,  and, on occasion, must put up with the other gods' whining and chit-chat.  He gets very tired and even more bored.

The sun only commits itself to ruling over the earth, and leading the procession of the gods of time, for 18,980 days. The completion of a 52-year period was always cause for fear that the sun would not come back and humanity would come to an end.  The return of the sun could never be assumed. The only reason the sun does come back is because of the rich offerings it is promised by the Mesoamerican priest class. 

Mesoamericans knew that if the sun failed to rise, humanity would die and soon after, with no people to feed them, the gods would also die.  The gods knew this too.  

Four times in the past the sun has decided to give it all up and plunged the world into darkness.  Each time the gods hurriedly gathered in Council and created a new sun and a new humanity. As a result, we live under the fifth sun and are part of the fifth humanity.  The gods knew that for their own existence they need the offerings of people.  It was well understood that people cannot live without gods and gods cannot live without people. 

To all of this the Mayas added their era date -- the day on which this humanity began -- the concept of zero, and periods of time.  Next week let’s continue with the story of the calendar and Mesoamerican time with its implications for December 21, 2012.