De Landa alphabet

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Reproduction of the page from Diego de Landa's Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, which gives a purported correspondence between letters of the Spanish alphabet and Maya glyphs, and which has become known as the de Landa alphabet

The de Landa alphabet is the correspondence of Spanish letters and glyphs written in the pre-Columbian Maya script, which the 16th century Bishop of Yucatán, Fray Diego de Landa recorded as part of his documentation of the Maya civilization during his tenure there. With the aid of two Maya interlocutors who were familiar with the script, de Landa made an attempt to provide a transcribed "A, B, C" for the Maya script with the intent of providing a key to its decipherment and translation. Despite its inaccuracies, the information provided by de Landa would much later prove to be crucial to the mid-20th century breakthrough in the decipherment of the Maya script, starting with the work of the Russian epigrapher and Mayanist, Yuri Knorozov. Comparable to the Rosetta Stone for Egyptian hieroglyphs or the Behistun Inscription for Babylonian cuneiform, de Landa's notes effectively put scientists on a track which would eventually lead to the recovery of the long-lost ability to read many of the Maya inscriptions.[clarification needed]

The "alphabet", along with some passages of explanatory notes and examples of its use in Maya writing, was written as a small part of de Landa's Relación de las cosas de Yucatán ("Account of the matters of Yucatán"), in which he also documented many aspects of the culture and practices of the indigenous Maya peoples he had seen and been told of when he was living among them in the Yucatán Peninsula. His work was actually written after he had been recalled back to Spain to face trial by Inquisition for allegations of improper behaviour while there, and he wrote it as a defense of his mission there. The work was soon thereafter all but forgotten and was lost to scholarship for several centuries, until an abridged copy of it was rediscovered by the French antiquarian scholar Brasseur de Bourbourg.

When the Relación was rediscovered in the 19th century, a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to use its de Landa alphabet passages to decipher the then completely unknown script, because the De Landa script was an alphabet, but the extant Maya texts are logo-syllabic. It has been theorized that De Landa might have unwittingly created a spurious writing system owing to a fundamental lack of understanding of how logo-syllabic writing systems function combined with tenuous access to reliable sources.[1]

It should also be noted that the preexisting establishments, such as the Mayan religious order, were all destroyed by invading Spanish belligerents, such as De Landa, to make way for Christian enlightenment. In furtherance of this goal, the Mayan texts were nearly completely destroyed in deference to writings that conform to biblical doctrine.[citation needed]

It was not until the early 1950s when Knorozov published his landmark paper analysing it and other inscriptions in a new light that substantial progress began to be made.


  1. ^ Elizabeth Hill Boone, Walter Mignolo (1994). Writing without words: alternative literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-1377-4.