Saturday, June 18, 2011

On "Breaking the Maya Code" by Michael Coe **

This book would have come much earlier on the psycholinguists list if I'd been able to get a copy. It's been on constant loan from the library since I started the list. It forges a rather odd ending to the list, for the material is really about deciphering an ancient script, a language, something that would have fit in more with the history of reading sections of the list.

The language that is being deciphered is ancient Maya. Coe's book is an account of how it happened and why it took so long. As an entertaining read, it was a bit on the slow and name-dropping side for me; as history, it focuses mostly on the academicians involved and not so much on the history that is gleaned after the code is cracked. I was thinking the book might be like Richard Rhodes's "Making of the Atom Bomb," but I didn't find myself as invested in the discoveries that were awaiting the archaeologists, linguists, and art historians who finally put the pieces together as I was in the physicists who somehow managed to break apart an atom for the first time.

Coe starts off well enough with his first chapter, which explains some of the basics about different writing systems and about language systems, much of which was covered in other books on my list. Still, this was the most interesting part of the book to me. Maya, it was assumed, was ideographic. That is, each symbol stood for a word--much as some think of Chinese or of Egyptian hieroglyphics. But Coe points out that, while such languages may have started as ideographic on some level, they are really logographic. Logographic languages, if I understand correctly, work with symbols for combining ideas, along with some phonetic and syllabic symbols. Purely syllabic languages have a symbol for each morpheme, and phonetic languages have symbols for each phoneme.

At one point, ancient Egyptian was thought to be ideographic as well, but in fact a scholar named Champollion was able to prove in the nineteenth century that the symbols in the writing actually had a function similar to those in Chinese. Hence, for example, an "eye" symbol wasn't necessarily an eye, but perhaps the sound "eye" or the syllable "ide" or the concept of "high" (I'm making these up--if only to note the point). Mayan, it turns out, works on a similar principle. But whereas Champollion took two years to crack the code, Mayan scholars would take over one hundred. Why?

Champollion had better resources: he had the Rosetta stone and some careful preserved artifacts to review. Mayan scholars didn't.

But in fact, they did. One writer from the early Spanish conquest had written out the Mayan syllabary. Scholars, however, assumed he couldn't possibly have been telling things as they actually were. And here, I suppose, is the interesting part of Coe's story--the crux of the tragedy. Mayan wasn't decoded, it turns out, not because materials weren't present but, first, because of preconceptual prejudices and, second, because of academic egos.

An ancient non-Western "barbarian" culture couldn't possibly have had real writing, some great thinkers assumed. Others thought Native Americans prone to mystical thought--not likely to actually bother writing down events around them. Further, the signs themselves--folks assumed--must be ideographic. And so it goes, working with such assumptions, those trying to decipher were blinded by their own preconceptions.

But even worse, they were blinded by each other. One scholar in particular comes off quite badly. So important was it to be right about his own interpretations that when the true answers--that the script in fact had phonetic and syllabic components mixed into it--were exposed he mocked them. And by reputation, his use of mockery transferred to virtually all others in the field. And such competition, Coe points out, continues up to the writing of his book, wherein archaeologists, angry at dollars being given to linguists, downplay the need to "read" what the inscriptions actually say. Each academic is so concerned with his or her own field and reputation that the work of others is run down, and progress on the subject of the Maya is stunted.

Coe's, then, is a book about closed-minded thinking and academic ego, something that unfortunately is all too familiar many in university settings, as well as to many in the political arena. Truth doesn't matter as much as being "right"--even if one is wrong.

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