Re: Mayan numerals

From: Jameson Quinn <>
Date: Thu, 23 Aug 2012 14:03:30 -0600

2012/8/23 Rick McGowan <>

> **
> Jameson, Michael, et al -
> OK, I'm going to join in here before this goes much further. (And as usual
> on this list I'm writing as an individual, and this is only my personal
> opinion.)
> You are always welcome to put forward a proposal for whatever you want to
> see encoded. I'm happy to receive serious proposals, and in my experience,
> the committee is generally happy to look at them.
> But when you ask the question and make the observations below, my simple
> answer would be that you don't see any problem because you haven't been
> sitting in the character encoding committees for 20+ years to observe how
> things "gang aft agley" as they say.

To get all of Mayan into Unicode is a very heavy undertaking. It will take
a serious combination of linguistic, technical, archaeological, and
bureaucratic skill and knowledge, as well as some creativity. And once it's
done, it will take further years to show real benefits. Sure, scholars will
use it right away, but only to do essentially the same things they were
doing already; only after a while will that everyday use lead to enough of
a corpus of encoded Mayan to provide fruitful fodder for hidden Makov
models and the like, in ways that couldn't have been done with an ad-hoc
encoding. This delayed benefit, thus, further reduces the impulse to take
on the task in the first place.

So it could easily be 15, 20, or more years before (most of) Mayan is
finally accepted into Unicode. In that time, millions of children here in
the Mayan area and around the world will be taught to read and write basic
Mayan numbers. A significant fraction of those children will have access to
computers. It is a basic role of Unicode to facilitate those computers
being able to handle those glyphs for those children.

When I said "I don't see how we could end up regretting having encoded the
digits", I absolutely did not mean that I couldn't imagine having to
revisit the issue. It is entirely possible that eventually there will be a
variety of code points for various forms and/or orientations of the digits.
It's even possible that there will be glyphs or glyph elements which don't
have a canonical standalone form, but are only modifiers or only a set of
variant possibilities. That will not be the case for the numerals. Because
of the modern uses I have pointed out primary and secondary education,
and page numbers in mayan-oriented books; though I'm sure there are others
we know today that there will be a need for simple, standalone versions
of the numerals.

That's what I meant by "we won't regret it": that the numbers will be
useful today; that it's possible (I'd say likely) they'll be useful in the
broader scheme for encoding classical inscriptions and post-classical
codices; and that even if they aren't useful, there's essentially zero
chance that using up 20 codepoints today will make the difference between
the future utopian Mayan encoding scheme fitting into its
currently-assigned block or not.

Is it possible that, today, we'd make the wrong choice about some bit of
metadata? Of course it is, although if we're responsible about making
educated guesses. Is it possible we'd bitterly regret that mistake? I
really don't see why. If the numerals assigned now are called SIMPLE MAYAN
DIGIT 3, or MODERNIZED MAYAN HIEROGLYPH 3, or whatever, instead of just
MAYAN 3, in order to future-proof against the possibility of having to call
the later fixed version CLASSICAL MAYAN PETROGLYPH 3 to avoid a collision,
then that's fine.

So for me, the question of "should this be inside the block set aside for
Mayan, or somewhere else" is reasonable, if secondary. But the idea that
it's best just to wait... I can't sympathize.

> In my opinion, the UTC would be irresponsible to approve the encoding for
> a set of digits for a complicated system like Mayan without even having a
> preliminary script proposal on record; and without any involvement of the
> actual serious scholars in the field.

As I said at the outset, I would not even consider making this proposal
without discussing it with the Guatemalan ALMG. This body may not include
the majority of serious scholars in the field of Mayan archaeology or
epigraphy, but it certainly is one of the primary authoritative
institutions on Mayan linguistics.

> No matter what you say about how safe it is, well... I wouldn't tend to
> believe that without firm evidence, which means -- at least -- someone
> having done significant work on the whole script in the context of a
> character encoding proposal to prove it. And given a lot of the other
> questions and speculation in your recent e-mail, I'm inclined to think that
> yes, you aren't an expert and probably don't have enough clear answers to
> detailed questions, as required to convince a committee.

It is not my desire or my place to develop, or even to midwife, a full
proposal for Mayan. I raised several issues without fully resolving them
because I believed it was the responsible thing to acknowledge the
complexity of the issues involved. I think that, despite that complexity,
the potential usefulness of the numeric characters now, not in two decades
or so, is real.

> In any case: you're welcome to write up a proposal for Mayan digits and
> give your opinions and findings. It would not be a waste of time to do so.
> But I would expect the outcome to be that the committee would set it aside
> and eventually pass it along to the scholars who end up working on the
> actual proposal for the Mayan script. At that time, it would be a valuable
> input document.

I think our definitions of "waste of time" may differ. I understand that
this all takes time years, even but I don't think it's worth it if it
doesn't speed anything up at all.

Received on Thu Aug 23 2012 - 15:06:22 CDT

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