Yuri Knorozov bigraphy, stories - russian Mesoamericanist

Yuri Knorozov : biography

19 November 1922 - 31 March 1999

Yuriy Valentinovich Knorozov (alternatively, Knorosov; in ; November 19, 1922 — March 31, 1999) was a Soviet linguist,See Charles Phillips, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Aztec & Maya (2009). epigrapher and ethnographer, who is particularly renowned for the pivotal role his research played in the decipherment of the Maya script, the writing system used by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Mesoamerica.


Key research

In 1952 Knorozov published a paper which was later to prove to be a seminal work in the field (Drevnyaya pis’mennost’ Tsentral’noy Ameriki, or "Ancient Writing of Mesoamerica".) The general thesis of this paper put forward the observation that early scripts such as ancient Egyptian and Cuneiform which were generally or formerly thought to be predominantly logographic or even purely ideographic in nature, in fact contained a significant phonetic component. That is to say, rather than the symbols representing only or mainly whole words or concepts, many symbols in fact represented the sound elements of the language in which they were written, and had alphabetic or syllabic elements as well, which if understood could further their decipherment. By this time, this was largely known and accepted for several of these, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs (the decipherment of which was famously commenced by Jean-François Champollion in 1822 using the tri-lingual Rosetta Stone artefact); however the prevailing view was that Mayan did not have such features. Knorozov's studies in comparative linguistics drew him to the conclusion that the Mayan script should be no different from the others, and that purely logographic or ideographic scripts did not exist.

Knorozov's key insight was to treat the Maya glyphs represented in de Landa's alphabet not as an alphabet, but rather as a syllabary. He was perhaps not the first to propose a syllabic basis for the script, but his arguments and evidence were the most compelling to date. He maintained that when de Landa had commanded of his informant to write the equivalent of the Spanish letter "b" (for example), the Maya scribe actually produced the glyph which corresponded to the syllable, /be/, as spoken by de Landa. Knorozov did not actually put forward many new transcriptions based on his analysis, nevertheless he maintained that this approach was the key to understanding the script. In effect, the de Landa "alphabet" was to become almost the "Rosetta stone" of Mayan decipherment.

A further critical principle put forward by Knorozov was that of synharmony. According to this, Mayan words or syllables which had the form consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) were often to be represented by two glyphs, each representing a CV-syllable (i.e., CV-CV). In the reading, the vowel of the second was meant to be ignored, leaving the reading (CVC) as intended. The principle also stated that when choosing the second CV glyph, it would be one with an echo vowel that matched the vowel of the first glyph syllable. Later analysis has proved this to be largely correct.

Resumption of studies

In the autumn of 1945 after the war, Knorozov returned to Moscow State University to complete his undergraduate courses at the department of Ethnography. He resumed his research into Egyptology, and also undertook comparative cultural studies in other fields such as Sinology. He displayed a particular interest and aptitude for the study of ancient languages and writing systems, especially hieroglyphs, and he also read in medieval Japanese and Arabic literature.

While still an undergraduate at MSU, Knorozov found work at the N.N. Miklukho-Maklai Institute of Ethnology and AnthropologyNamed after the noted 19th century ethnologist and anthropologist Nicholai Miklukho-Maklai. (or IEA), part of the prestigious Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Knorozov's later research findings would be published by the IEA under its imprint.

As part of his ethnographic curriculum Knorozov spent several months as a member of a field expedition to the Central Asian Russian republics of the Uzbek and Turkmen SSRs (what had formerly been the Khorezm SSR, and would much later become the independent nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan following the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union). On this expedition his ostensible focus was to study the effects of Russian expansionary activities and "modern" developments upon the nomadic ethnic groups, of what was a far-flung frontier world of the Soviet state.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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