Narrative Time in the Classic Inscriptions

The language of classic Maya did not make a distinction between a present, a past and a future in the verbal morphologies. Rather than differentiate between past, present and future, the southern lowlanders distinguished between a “realis” category, subdivided into perfective versus imperfective, and an “irrealis” category that applied to unrealised actions or events. Since there was not a time line from the past to the present and into the future in the grammatical system of the classic Maya, Wichmann prefers the linguistic term “irrealis” to the category future. The suffix—o’m of the verbal morphology implies that the action or event described has not been realised. When applied to past events, the irrealis expresses that the event has yet not taken place with respect to the point in time of reference (“it would happen”). In association with forthcoming dates of the calendar the irrealis expresses unrealised actions or events of the future (“it will happen”) (Wichmann 2000: 76-77; personal communication, 2005). It is not evident, however, that the grammar reflects how the classic Maya thought about time, so I see no reason not to operating with the categories “past”, “present” and “future” when interpreting their historical narratives within a philological analysis. The linear Long Count calendar of the classic Maya implies that cultural conceptions of the past, present and future existed even if these categories were not encoded in the verbal grammar.

Extensive inscriptions could enclose a narrative that involves dates and events of the past, present and future. This way of relating a chronological story was achieved by applying a technique of what has been known by epigraphers as the use of “distance numbers”. The distance numbers of the Long Count were introduced by The Distance Number Introductory Glyph (DNIG), u tz’akaj, “it was changed” or” it was increased”. DNIG is either followed by the Anterior Date Indicator (ADI) (”to count back”) which subtracts the period or by the Posterior Date Indicator (PDI) (”to count forward”) adding to the period. A Future Date Indicator (FDI) projects actions and events into the future. They are all inflections of the root of the verb ut, “to happen”:

Anterior Date Indicator (ADI): uti, “it happened”.

Posterior Date Indicator (PDI): iuti, “and it came to pass” or “and it happened”.

Future Date Indicator (FDI): uto’m, “it would happen or come to pass”

expresses actions that have not yet happened, or irrealis.[1]

The DNIG indicates that the Long Count calendar represents a progressive linear time principle. Most of the distance numbers were applied to outline the lifetime of an individual. But they could also count several generations of the dynasty back into the historical and remote past or forward into the immediate and distant future. The distance numbers were temporal indicators, which added and subtracted quantities of time in a continuous chronological narrative sequence.

As noted, tense—reflecting the past, present and future—was not an important feature of the grammatical system of the classic Maya. There was not a time line in the grammatical structure of classic Maya rather the temporal structure of Maya languages contains the aspects, perfective

(completive, non-durative, non-progressive or punctual) and imperfective (in-completive, durative, progressive). The perfective refers to a temporal boundary whereas the imperfective mirrors not delimited temporally. There is disagreement among linguists about the classic Maya grammatical approach to time; whether the rhetorical style of the classic texts not only stated completion but as well incompletion. Houston has suggested that the completive or perfective aspect is marked by the suffix -ya transcribed as -iiy. The imperfective or in-completive form is without the suffix -iiy. The imperfective aspect functions as the historical present or as an historical in-completive in the scriptures. There is in narrative time “a discursive shifting now”, e.g. a historical in-completive or an alternating historical in-completive with the historical completive in the inscriptions (Houston 1997; Houston, Stuart and Robertson 1998: 292-293). The position of Houston has not only implications for the structure and the content of the narrative but also for how the classic Maya experienced time and of their ritual practice of time. If Houston theory is correct it would mean that most of the ritual and historical events like birth, accession and death are described as incomplete or on-going. The ritual depicted and outlined on the stelae is on-going argues Stuart in agreement with Houston’s grammatical argument: “The text captions’ is presented in an incomplete voice. The stelae”..., do not simply commemorate past events and royal ceremonies but serve to perpetuate the ritual act into eternity” (Stuart 1996: 165). This is an unconvincing linguistic theory according to Wichmann. First of all because in narratives are the imperfective aspect applied to describe the background of the events. It is the perfective aspect which is used to relate the principal action of the story and which also observe the dramatic incidents of the historical present. Furthermore, in Ch’olti, a language which descends from classic Maya (Houston, Stuart and Robertson 1998), the general pattern is that the perfective aspect is not marked whereas the imperfective aspect carries the particle wal- as a prefix to the verb. The intransitive verbs change their pronominal prefixes to Set A, and a suffix is attached to the verb. It is reason to believe, but it cannot be proven due to lacking evidence from the inscriptions, that the classic Maya followed the same grammatical temporal pattern. Founded upon evidence from the Colonial Chontal papers of Acalan, The Paxbolon-Maldonado Papers, Robert Wald and Barbara MacLeod (Wald and MacLeod 1999; Wald 2004) propose instead that -iiy functions as a predicative anaphora or “temporal deixis”. This means that the suffix -iiy operates as a linguistic element which refers to a previous event that has already taken place (Wichmann

2000: 77-79; 223-224)[2] and that nearly all the verbs were written in the perfective aspect, accordingly delineating deeds or actions completed[3] Consequently, ritual practices (of time) or other undertakings were not stated to be on-going but was terminated according to the cognitive linguistic system of the classic Maya.

  • [1] Cf. Wald (2004: 211-213).
  • [2] Cf. the critique by Wald (2004) of the arguments made by Houston (1997) andRobertson, Houston and Stuart (2004).
  • [3] There is, however, one example in the inscriptions where there is an ongoingundertaking of a half-period which is expressed with the particle wal: i0-“winikhaab” iyuwaltanlam, “It was 10 winikhaab and then came the half-diminishing” (Stela J, Copan)(Wichmann 2004: 332). But this expression, as it is incorporated in a durative narrative, hasno consequence for how we understand the ritual practice of time of the classic Maya,because the enterprise is itself not ongoing.
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