Mixtec — 1200 AD, Mexico

Mixtec writing

The Mixtec writing system is from Southern Mexico, very close to the Mayan civilization in distance and contemporaneous.  The Spaniards only did half as good a job destroying the Mixtecs books — there are a whopping eight pre-Columbian Mixtec books still in existence instead of just four like the Mayan books.

Mixtec doesn’t really look like writing in the way that Westerners think of writing.  It’s not that the shapes of the glyphs is odd — you should be used to that by now if you’ve been following this blog.  Rather, the text seems to be in service of enhancing pictures (mostly with dates and names), while we are used to our writing being mostly text, occasionally with pictures in the service of enhancing the text.

Text serving pictures is not unknown in the Western world.  Go into practically any old church in Europe and look at the stained glass.  You will see pictures that tell stories, with a little bit of text on them to enhance or clarify the pictures (mostly with names).

Now, it might be that the Mixtecs had lots of books where text dominated, but that those were preferentially destroyed, and the only ones the Spaniards left were ones that they felt were just innocuous picture books.

I think that is unlikely.

  • First, the Mixtecs kept writing after the Spaniards showed up.  There are not a huge number of post-colonial books, but it’s more than eight.  These post-colonial books frequently had Spanish annotations/translations written next to the text/figures they represent, so it’s not that we don’t understand the writing system.
  • Second, the Mixtec writing system was strongly logographic: they did not seem to have a syllabary amongst their symbols.
  • Third, many of their symbols are more like what we would think of as picture wordplay than writing.  Many place names, for example, were drawn as little pictures that evoked the name of the place, sort of as if I drew laundry hanging on an electrical cord over a 1000-pound weight everywhere where I wanted to talk about “Washington, DC”  (washing+ton+DC [current]).

Links: Ancient Scripts (excellent), Wikipedia, nice writing sample/example

About ducky

I'm a computer programmer professionally, currently working on mapping applications. I have been interested non-professionally for a long time in the effect on society on advances in communications technology -- things like writing, vowels, spaces between words, paper, etc.
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2 Responses to Mixtec — 1200 AD, Mexico

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