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The Spoken Glyph

April 19, 2011

by Steve Wing

Click on images to see larger versions.

Steve Wing - Mayan poster

Poster for heiroglyph translation at the Academia Municipal de Lengua Maya in Merida, Yucatán


Steve Wing - trilingual tablet

Translation Spanish / Mayan / English at Labná, Yucatán


Mayan ruins by Steve Wing

The Mirador, Labná, Yucatán


Mayan glyphs by Steve Wing

glyphs from Kabah, Yucatán


In my travels in Guatemala and the Mexican states of Yucatan, Tabasco, and Chiapas, while visiting the Mayan ruins I have been struck by the silent omnipresence of glyphs. These ghosts are reminders of a once vast and now seemingly vanished civilization, and yet there are Mayans living everywhere in the region. And in many places the culture is so strongly preserved and felt that it is like a nation (many nations really) within a nation. The guidebooks tell you that in some villages Spanish is not the predominant spoken language. It is a living and highly visible culture. Many, even most, of the places still bear their Mayan names. It seems impossibly contradictory that the Mayan cities were abandoned and yet the culture remains. That is what one experiences in these places. There is a sort of mental disconnect; how to understand that these builders of mighty cities have transitioned and yet are same as the people living today?

Walking in Merida one day, wandering into a neighborhood, I was attracted by a very old looking church there. Opposite it was a Mayan language school. Seeing the poster at the entrance to the school was as a Eureka! to me. There it was, a connection between the mysterious ancient Maya and the largely colonial Spanish city of today, and the young students learning to read the glyphs that they may translate the old symbols into a spoken language, themselves the concrete sign that the Mayan culture remains vibrant today, their heritage a direct connection to the the pyramids.


Steve Wing is a visual artist and writer whose work reflects his appreciation for the extraordinary elements in ordinary days and places. He lives in Florida, where he works at an academic institution. A regular contributor to BluePrintReview and qarrtsiluni, his images also have appared in Cha, Lantern Review, Melusine, and Counterexample Poetics.

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  1. April 20, 2011 at 11:48 am

    “Concrete poetry”: Glyphs bring another meaning to the idea of words as objects. The semantic interaction, in Mayan glyphs, among phonetic and pictographic elements is fascinating. Thanks for this photo-meditation!

    • steve
      April 21, 2011 at 7:39 am

      Thanks for your comment, Bruce. As you said, it is a fascinating semantic interaction.

      The music we wanted to use didn’t work out, but it is worth a listen if you can find it. It is music from a CD called Axolotl by Vicente Rodriguez.

      I’d like to thank Alex Cigale for his above-and-beyond editorial contributions and help with this.


  2. December 3, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Hola, tu sitio esta genia, gracias por compartir esto

  1. May 9, 2011 at 3:32 pm
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