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A Critical Perspective on Central Mexican Writing and the Phonetic Principle

Bérénice Gaillemin, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, Summer Fellow 2013

Studies conducted on pictorial writing of Central Mexico prove that there is a great variety of signs, which have different functions (semasiographic, logographic and phonetic). I consider that those functions change depending on time (prehispanic or colonial) and on the thematic nature of the encoded text. For instance, the use of phonetic signs implies a change in the relation between writing, orality and memory. During my stay at the Dumbarton Oaks, I began to create an index of phonetic signs in order to clarify the contextual use of those signs. This index will enable me to underline the polymorphic nature of the writings of Central Mexico, bringing new answers to the central issue of the use of phonetic signs. Based on this comparison, I started writing a paper concerning the originality of the phonetic signs used in Testerian catechisms. These were created for the needs of the evangelization and memorization by heart, by indigenous Nahuatl speakers, of a Christian text. At the same time, the library gave me the opportunity to review the literature concerning the first attempts at decipherment of several Mesoamerican writing systems, paying particular attention to the specialized publications on specific codices. A very surprising discovery helped me understand that the Borbonicus Codex may provide phonetic signs, working like puns based on the homophonic principle, which, to my knowledge, has never been described as such before. Following this work, still in progress, I am sure that this could then lay the ground work for considering this codex in particular from other points of view, as well as other codices written before or just after the Conquest.


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