From Old to New Maya Language

Art, Design, Frida Larios, Graphic Design, Language, London, New Maya Language

This is an excerpt from the book New Maya Language by Frida Larios for


The native Mayas lived in the Mesoamerican region (Central America) from about b.C. 1000 to 1500 a.C. Their intelligent and beautiful written language is quite unknown to the western world, even to Central Americans, because it remained undeciphered for centuries. The Maya scribes had a very privileged position in the socio-political system and were multi-talented — they were artists, sculptors, and calligraphers, and were also believed to be astronomers, mathematicians, historians and royal book-keepers.

Original Maya hieroglyphs were both pictographic and syllabographic. My New Maya Language is a redesign of certain pictograms that communicate concepts and even sentences. My work parallels the principle of the Chinese-concept script where primary root pictograms can be combined to generate compound pictograms that signify a more complex idea. For example, ‘Stone’ + ‘Fire’ combined equal the ‘Lavastone’ New Maya Language ideograph.

The ‘Maya Language’ section of this book excerpt introduces a basic understanding of how the Maya writing system works.

The ‘New Maya Language’ section aids in the integral understanding of an archaeological site. My case study, ‘Joya de Cerén’ UNESCO World Heritage Archaeological Site in El Salvador in Central America, is about common citizen’s way of living, about their eating habits, social relations, architecture and agriculture — very unlike the majestic religious temples usually found in the region. Because the Maya written language was not totally democratic, my New Maya Language can help surpass language barriers and literacy disadvantages while at the same time enhance users experience and learning in public locations; or simply be appreciated as an art form.

By reviving and celebrating the Maya cultural and visual identity, the New Maya Language can inspire present and future generations and bring new life to the sacred stones.

From old to new Maya language
Illustration referenced from the Foundation For Mesoamerican Studies website
From old to new Maya language
Illustration based on Coe and Van Stone (2001, p. 10)

Original Maya hieroglyphs
The Maya writing system

The Maya writing system is one of the most beautiful and intelligent of dead languages–it was only recently understood– in the 1950s, and is still in the process of being deciphered. Unfortunately, when the Spanish conquered the region they burnt most of the screen folds (books), unable to destroy stones and temples.

The Maya could express everything in writing. Their writing is logo-syllabic, which means that one symbol can be composed by syllables (arranged mostly in a consonant-vowel- consonant order) and logograms, just syllables or justlogograms — extremely complex indeed and comparable to logographic Japanese writing and Chinese classic ideographic script.

A great part of the nearly 2000 deciphered hieroglyphs are polyvalent (multiple meanings for a single hieroglyph) so the context of the word becomes crucial.

Most of the time half of the story is dedicated to say when a certain event occurred since their calendar system was one of the most important disciplines culturally and politically; it is as exact as any millenary civilisation would have got to measure time.

Which language did the Maya speak? Different dialects were spoken throughout such a vast region. The most generalised idiom was Yukatek Maya, named by some authors as Classic Maya, although some texts are written in Ch’olan, more characteristic of the southern populations of Mesoamerica. These languages evolved into one that was mainly for reading and writing, rather than for everyday speaking.

The Maya script could have been invented solely syllabically, which has lead people to think that it was an elitist language available only to a privileged class. They could have had several reasons in allowing this to happen: the preservation of the ideographic meaning’s cultural value and the assurance of its survival through selective use. Nevertheless, the variables in this written language’s system left ground for creativity, allowing it to be used to please the artist’s eye rather than fit a rigid rule. Its flexibility allowed the scribes to free their imagination while still caring about legibility—any designer’s dream!

From old to new Maya language
Photography by Alexandre Tokovinine©

This vase from the Dumbarton Oaks collection in Washington DC clearly shows how the royal book keeper, who is looking into a mirror being held by a subordinate, had an aristocratic position in Maya society. To show this they wore a distinctive head dress with a water-lilly thrust and what is probably a brush pen, depicted in blue.

From old to new Maya language
Illustration based on drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine©


Maya hieroglyphs have multiple meanings making reading them a complex task. For example, the hieroglyph illustrated on the right has four different translations.

From old to new Maya language
Illustration by Coe and Kerr (1997, p. 54) provide another instance where the word for jaguar BALAM is written alternatively.


The representation / spelling of a symbol can change depending on the composition of different pictographic affixes, suffixes and infixes. For example, the BALAM–jaguar– hieroglyph illustrated on the right has six different ways of being spelled.

New Maya Language
The Process

The Mesoamerican natives created their writing system in a very practical manner with specific subject matters applications. They wrote about their gods, rituals, politics, relationships, time and its measurement, and relevant events in history.

This allowed me to create a basic classification, that divides the vocabulary of the Maya hieroglyphs into eleven categories.

The colour code represents how the different subhieroglyphs (affixes, suffixes and infixes) within a hieroglyph belong to one of the twelve different subject matters’ categories.

Contemporary textbooks present the hieroglyphs as on-site illustration scans that are successful in reflecting the ancestral artist’s materials (stone, clay, paper, etc.) peculiarities. Thus, a visual communicator’s perspective helped me identify that through consistent computerised vector drawings of the hieroglyphs would strengthen readability and recognition, and aid learning in a contemporary context. They were consistently coded with different line weights, drawn one-by-one in Adobe Illustrator software. The stroked line hieroglyphs could as a result be colour-coded.

The unique colour and keyline codings can help anybody interested in understanding this written language, travelling to any of the archaeological sites in Mesoamerica, or be used as a teaching guide for children.

The vocabulary presented in the New Maya Language section interprets the archaeological site’s content and is an example of how my system works. The system can be of course taken forward to infinite applications as long as the site, public or private space’s content is related to the
Maya civilisation.

A universal language

The visual codes we sometimes believe to be familiar can certainly be interpreted in different ways. Here is an example: What do different people read upon looking at a skull icon? That depends on the context. If it was positioned within a flag it could be read as pirates on board.

Another very common pictographic international code is for example the toilet signs represented by a man and a woman’s icon. In the same way my pictography uses canons that a contemporary audience can recognise.

From old to new Maya language
Illustration by Frida Larios©

New Maya Skull

From old to new Maya language
Illustration by Frida Larios©

Colour Code

Each theme has an assigned colour. The colour helps comprehend the action that hieroglyph has in the Maya writing world.

From old to new Maya language
Illustration by Frida Larios©

The New Maya Language, just like the original Maya script, reads from left-to-right and top-to-bottom–like other western written languages.

Illustration by Frida Larios©. Photo of King Ubah Kawil’s stella’s hieroglyphic inscription at Copán archaeological site in Honduras.

The columns are read in pairs of hieroglyphs–like shown in the above illustration.

The New Maya Language

The set of twenty-three New Maya Language hieroglyphs tell the story of the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site studied–Joya de Cerén in El Salvador.

From old to new Maya language
Illustration by Frida Larios©

Writing through the artist’s feeling
tz’ak: total

Tz’ak is a Maya word meaning whole, complete. The curious thing about this word is its logographic spelling. According to different variants found on sites and specific research presented in ‘On the Paired Variants of TZ’AK’ by David Stuart, Peabody Museum, Harvard, it seems like a word is syllabographically corrected spelled, however, logographically it was substituted by a metaphor or the ‘feeling’ of the word by the artist.

In this sense the word is represented by the sum of two parts that in the Maya spiritual and physical world where perceived to be either complementary or opposing, one could not exist without the other. The TZ’AK syllabogram is substituted by a semantic illustration of what the meaning of the word, whole complete, stands for according to the scribe’s perception.

The Maya hieroglyphic language was seriously performed by its scribes, they respected their Gods and their kings vision when it came to writing, nonetheless, it seems in this specific case they were looking for a little artistic freedom and flexibility.

tz’ak – whole

The New Maya Language is an apt parallel to this type of subjective graphic language variations. The system depicts the sum of one, two, three or more parts or logo-legos (like I call them) that are strong individually but become even more meaningful conjugated as a whole. Just like ancient Maya artists, my intention is to express the ways of life practiced by our Maya ancestors.

Ink illustration based on drawings by David Stuart©

New Maya Night

From old to new Maya language
Illustration by Frida Larios©

New Maya Rain

From old to new Maya language
Illustration by Frida Larios©

frida From old to new Maya language

This is a guest post from the book New Maya Language by Frida Larios, for

Frida Larios holds a bachelors degree in graphic design from University College Falmouth and a masters of arts in communication design from Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design. She was a Visiting and Associate Lecturer at the London College of Fashion and Camberwell College of Arts while living in England for nearly a decade. Originally from San Salvador, she now lives in the San Francisco bay area. Her New Maya Language has been exhibited, published and awarded worldwide. Frida was recently named Ambassador for INDIGO – International Indigenous Design Network by ICOGRADA.


6 thoughts on “From Old to New Maya Language

  1. Que grandioso trabajo, muy interesante para aquellos que siempre hemos admirado lamayalogia, cuidece princesa bella, me gusto la foto que sale, ciao

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