Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Aaron Broadwell

Second Advisor

John Justeson

Committee Member(s)

Jim Collins, David Mora-Marin


Recent research on the discursive and rhetorical forms of Mayan hieroglyphic texts has demonstrated how language and writing were used to frame, not just represent, Pre-Columbian Mayan history. Research on the role of metaphor in this framing has only just begun, and despite the well-known multimodal character of Mayan hieroglyphic texts, research on the role of metaphors in pictorial images has been even more limited. Previous research has not fully documented metaphor variation, particularly as it materializes across different modalities, media, places, and times. Doing so will allow for more subtle and elaborate interpretations of metaphor use and meaning in these texts, particularly its role in historical and political framing.

This study adopts a conceptual definition of metaphor, which views metaphor as the use of one semantic domain to provide semantic structure to another. This definition can explain continuities of meaning across different modalities, media, times, and places. This contrasts with other approaches that limit metaphor to set rhetorical forms and thus cannot capture how metaphor might vary across usages. A mixed-methods approach is used that integrates corpus linguistics to account for variation through statistical analysis, and discourse analysis to account for continuity of use through examination of the communicative context.

This study examines the political metaphor RULERS ARE TREES, which uses well-known plant symbolism to describe and depict pre-Columbian Mayan elites. It documents (1) the forms this metaphor takes when materialized in the different modalities of writing and pictorial images, (2) how these modalities affect the semantic structure of the metaphor, (3) how this single metaphor materialized across the different media of monumental architecture, portable objects, and codices, across different places or polities, and times by different historical actors, and (4) how this variation and its socio-political and historical context of use ultimately led the metaphor to change. This study focuses on variation from the Early (250 -599 A.D.) to Late Classic (600- 900/1100 A.D.) periods.

This study demonstrates that metaphor materializes distinctly in the two modalities examined. In writing, the metaphor uses distinct grammatical forms, in line with other corpus research on grammar and metaphor. Particularly, the metaphor uses the abstractive suffix and noun incorporation. In pictorial images, the metaphor materializes through the superimposition or fusion of Mayan rulers’ body parts and parts of trees. In writing, the metaphor’s semantic structure is not fully elaborated, but in pictorial images its semantic structure must be elaborated because it is a compositional modality, showing precisely how a ruler was similar to a tree.

This study also shows that variation of the metaphor was encouraged by changing political climates at the end of the Late Classic period that saw an increase in political competition. This partially manifested in a proliferation of hieroglyphic texts wherein elites reinterpreted circulating political discourse in novel ways. Elites from the polity of Palenque, in Chiapas, Mexico, created novel uses of the metaphor in writing by reinterpreting nonmetaphorical language in light of pictorial instances of the metaphor on vases, and transferred the metaphor to a different media, monumental architecture. Variation of the metaphor was part of co-occurrent linguistic change where distinct social dialects were emerging. These processes led to a metaphor shift in which a particular lexical item was semantically extended to have a new metaphorical sense.


results have significance for understanding the role of the materiality of metaphor in the construction of metaphorical meaning, something that has been underexamined due to the universalizing tendency of conceptual approaches that do not fully document metaphor variation. As a result, this study challenges some tenets of conceptual approaches and develops a more

robust method for understanding metaphor variation, from a diachronic perspective. These results also highlight the importance of metaphor in understanding linguistic change in Mayan languages.