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Yucatec Maya Sign Language

The following description was kindly provided by Hubert Smith in consultation with Robert Johnson:


In 1976 while selecting a Yucatec Maya village for a film project, we met several Deaf persons. There were some 13 males and females in a total population of some 450. All of these Deaf persons signed both among themselves and with hearing persons.


The signing seemed to operate on three levels of rather predictable skill:

  1. the Deaf among themselves
  2. the Deaf with members of their immediate family
  3. the Deaf with other community members (some of whom were age-mates and, as such, relatively skilled signers)

In 1987 Robert Johnson and Carol Erting of Gallaudet University made the first of two visits to the community to study the sign system and to observe the social context for the Deaf persons. They determined that this sign was, indeed, a language and that a notable feature of the social scene was the Deaf persons' integration with the community on almost all levels, save one. At that time none of the Deaf men or women had married and most were at least a few years past marriageable age. However, in the ensuing years all of the eligible Deaf men have married. Only one of the five eligible Deaf women has married and she, recently, to a Deaf man. That was the only Deaf-Deaf union, however. But in other roles, the Deaf persons carry out rather full lives as Maya male and female agriculturalists, child-rearers, and homemakers.


An extensive written and video-taped vocabulary of Yucatec Maya Sign Language (Ethnologue/ISO code msd) has been accumulated including a Swadesh word list on film. Some preliminary analyses have been done, and the language contains most of the structural features that characterize natural signed languages. For more details, see "Sign language, culture & community in a traditional Yucatec Maya village", published by Robert E. Johnson in Sign Language Studies 73:461-474 (1991).


Since 1987 there have been 3 more births of Deaf children. As before, these children are not sent to boarding schools to learn Mexican Sign Language and no particular notice is given their condition by local doctors and government workers. One Deaf young man does attend school regularly and is said to "love it". No evaluation has been made of what he has picked up there.


It has been determined there are other, albeit small, Deaf populations in towns nearby and up to 100 miles away who use a similar sign language. The exact amount of dialect variation has not been determined. There is a fragmentary report of Deaf people signing in Guatemala; this may have some features similar to the Yucatec language.


Further questions about this language and community may be directed to Hubert Smith (xunan2012@clearwire.net) or Robert Johnson (robert.e.johnson@gallaudet.edu).