Launching Mayan

Thanks to a confluence of factors:

1. The publication of Johnson's useful textbook on the subject;

2 My experience with using Anki flash-card software in the past few years. Anki's ability to handle images is crucial for this project.

3. Accumulating insights into cognitive strategy;

--I recently took up the study of Mayan glyphs. This is something I have planned on doing for years. In the future I'll travel to Central America to check them out in the field.

I want to make a few remarks on my study system for Mayan. What I will not do in this post is to discourse on the Mayan glyphs themselves, beyond pointing out a few interesting points.

One such being that almost all of the world's scripts trace their origin to pictures (Korean script seems like at least one exception), but most have evolved to the point where it is difficult or impossible to recognize the original depiction. Mayan glyphs hew closely to their pictorial origins, as the sample above demonstrates.

Or look, for example, at a glyph for the syllable "A", taken from a picture of a turtle:

Compare, for example, to the Chinese ideogram for "turtle":

This is quite a bit more stylized, although still vaguely recognizable: legs on the left, carapace on the right, head at top, tail at bottom (and this is as pictorial as modern Chinese characters get).

And by the way, who draws a picture of a "turtle" and stops with the head? It goes to show how culture affects the way we see things in unexpected ways. The Mayans really seem to like pictures of heads; how many can you count in the sample above?

Although Mayan is not a dead language (plenty of folks speaking Mayan as you read this), the glyphs essentially qualify as a dead languagethe ability to read them having been lost and only recovered fairly recently by dint of enormous effort. I am therefore applying my "dead language" policy to this project, meaning that I am concerned essentially with reading, not at all with writing or listening, nor speaking, beyond the bare rudiments of pronunciation. It actually make sense to pay some attention to pronunciation with any language, dead or living, as every script I have come across so far relies at least somewhat on phonetic relationshipsand Mayan glyphs certainly do; a single word can be written in multiple ways, linked only by its pronunciation. Some of the speaking and listening activities I would normally rely on in language study are therefore irrelevant.

Anki software is quite adept at handling a variety of scripts, but I'm not sure whether fonts for Mayan glyphs exist (Unicode does not appear to include a relevant coding standard), but the very idea of a font is rather foreign to the script. Any given glyph appears in at least a a few variants, with great allowance given to the artistic inclinations of the individual scribe. I'm not sure whether any given glyph ever appears twice in exactly the same form.

I therefore rely on importing images into Anki. I can scan or clip source images (such as the turtle-head above) and paste these into Anki flashcards.

A feature of Anki is the ability to associate several cards with a single "fact", which is a set of associated data fields. In this case each "fact" consists of seven data fields:

(1) The image of the glyph.

(2) The pronunciation. Some glyphs may have more than one such, in which case I list them.

(3) The meaning. Some glyphs represent sounds only, in which case this field is void. Others may require a listing of several possible meanings.

(4) The object depicted. This is distinct from the "meaning", in that a glyph which does not mean anything as such may still be designed to resemble a real-world object  (this is the case of the turtle-head glyph above, which does not have an associated meaning but merely represents the 'a' sound).

(5) A mnemonic phrase. I found this extremely useful in learning the Thai alphabet, For example Mr. Turtle Head up there gets the somewhat arbitrary name "Angry Turtle." The "Angry" is to remind me that the sound is "a". Or, again, the glyph

which is pronounced "i" and depicts I-have-no-idea-what, gets the nickname "Icebox." The glyph

which is pronounced "ba", gets the nickname "BAgel". I don't necessarily plan on coming up with a mnemonic for every glyph, but certainly the purely phonetic ones.

So I could use the following cards for each Anki "fact":
1. Stimulus: picture of the glyph. Response: the glyph's reading, with the mnemonic provided as an after-the-fact hint.
2. Stimulus: picture of the glyph, and the reading. Response: the glyph's meaning.
3. Stimulus: picture of the glyph and the reading. Response: the glyph's mnemonic.
This is in line with the principle that the response for any card should be short and sweet as possible. If a card's response consists of two or more pieces of information, it's better to use multiple cards, with one piece of information each. Not every glyph gets every card. If the glyph has no inherent meaning, I skip Card 2. If I don't assign a mnemonic, I skip Card 3.

If previous experience (with, for example, Egyptian hieroglyphs) serves, the more pictorial the script, the more easily is sticks in the mind. In fact for the first 21 cards, Anki reports my success rate is 100% (whereas typical is more like 85%).

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