12: Visible Speech

Marc ZenderTom talks with Marc Zender, a linguistic anthropologist and expert on Aztec and Maya scripts, about the origins and development of writing.  Marc explains that although there is no single origin for the world’s diverse writing systems, they share remarkable similarities.

Marc also assures us that despite some New Age interpretations of the Mayan calendar, the world is not going to end in 2012.


Listen to Episode 11 Episode 12: Visible Language.

Image Gallery

 View imagesimage #2 image #3image #4image #5image #6 image #7image #8image #9image #10image #11image #12 of some of the scripts discussed in this episode.

About Our Guest

Marc Zender received his doctorate in archaeology from the University of Calgary in 2004, and is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, and a Research Associate of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. He also assists Joel Skidmore in maintaining Mesoweb, one of the premier websites specializing in Mesoamerican cultures and history.

Marc’s research interests include anthropological and historical linguistics, comparative writing systems and decipherment (particularly Aztec and Maya writing), and Mesoamerican archaeology. He has just completed work on a new book, Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture, forthcoming from Thames & Hudson and available for pre-order on Amazon.

Music in this Episode

Intro: “The Remainder,” Rosehips from the album Rosehips.

Intermission: “Your Contemporaries,” The Lindsay from the album Dragged Out.

Outro: “Enough,” Rosehips from the album Rosehips.



Definitions taken or adapted from A Dictionary of Linguistics & Phonetics, Blackwell Publishing.

conventional: the arbitrary nature of the relationship between signs and their meanings (e.g. there is no special relationship between the word “tree” in English and a particular class of photosynthetic organisms that are fun to climb; the link between the two is conventional).

ideogram: a term used for a symbol in a writing system which represents a whole word or concept; also called an ideograph. Ideographic writing is usually distinguished as a later development from pictographic. Ideograms have an abstract or conventional meaning, no longer displaying a clear pictorial link with external reality. Examples include a foot shape representing “go” or a sun symbol representing “wisdom”. 

logogram: in the study of writing systems, a written or printed symbol which represents a word … also called a logograph or a character. The best-known examples of a logographic system are Chinese and its derivative script, Japanese kanji … Logograms in European languages include the numerals (1, 2, etc.) and many mathematical and scientific symbols.

phoneme: the minimal unit in the sound system of a language.

pictogram: in the study of writing systems, a term used for a symbol found in picture writing; also called a pictograph. Pictography is the study of pictorial systems, or an instance of such a system. The pictograms provide a recognizable representation of entities as they exist in the world (e.g. wavy lines representing sea). Modern pictograms are widespread, such as those used in present-day road signs (e.g. crossroads ahead).

script: a method of writing down speech sounds in a systematic and consistent way.

semantic: relating to meaning in language.


Mesoweb is devoted to Mesoamerican cultures, specializing in Maya history. The site is maintained by a team of archaeologist, historians and linguistic scholars.

Visible Language is a year-long lecture series about the origins and development of writing sponsored by The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

You can find a number of Marc’s papers available for free download:

Quilter, J., M. Zender, K. Spalding, R. Franco, C. Gálvez, and J. Castañeda. 2010 Traces of a Lost Language and Number System Discovered on the North Coast of Peru. American Anthropologist 112(3): 357-369.

Zender, Marc. 2005. The Raccoon Glyph in Classic Maya Writing. The PARI Journal 5(4):6-16.

–. 2008. One Hundred and Fifty Years of Nahuatl Decipherment. The PARI Journal 8(4):1-22. 

–. 2009 The Naming Insight: Hieroglyphic Names & Social Identity in the Pre-Columbian Americas. Paper presented at the conference ‘Maya Culture: Identity, Language and History—A Celebration of the Life and Work of Pierre Robert Colas’, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, September 26-27, 2009. 

Books & Articles

Baines, John, John Bennet, and Stephen D. Houston. 2008. The disappearance of writing systems: perspectives on literacy and communication. London: Equinox.

Barthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. 1977. Image, music, text. New York: Hill and Wang.

Boone, Elisabeth Hill. 1996. Writing without words alternative literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.

Daniels, Peter T., and William Bright. 1996. The world’s writing systems. New York: Oxford University Press.

DeFrancis, John. 1989. Visible speech: the diverse oneness of writing systems. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1976. Of grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Houston, Stephen D. 2004. The first writing: script invention as history and process. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, W. J. T. 1986. Iconology: image, text, ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Page, Raymond I. 1999. An introduction to English runes. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

–. 1987. Runes. Reading the past. London: British Museum Publ.

Robinson, Andrew. 1995. The story of writing. New York: Thames and Hudson.

–. 2009. Writing and script. Oxford University Press.

Senner, Wayne M. 1991. The Origins of writing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Smalley, William Allen, Chia Koua Vang, and Gnia Yee Yang. 1990. Mother of writing: the origin and development of a Hmong messianic script. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stone, Andrea, and Zender, Marc. 2011. Reading Maya art: a hieroglyphic guide to ancient Maya painting and sculpture. Thames & Hudson.


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