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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 the pictorial writing of Central Mexico prove that there is a great variety of signs that have different functions (semasiographic, logographic, and phonetic). I consider that those functions change depending on time (pre-Hispanic 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 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 the Testerian catechisms. These catechisms were created for the evangelization of indigenous Nahuatl speakers and their memorization of Christian texts. I reviewed the literature concerning the first attempts at deciphering 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.