Mayan Sign Language

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Maya Sign Language
Native to Mexico, Guatemala
Region Isolated villages in south-central Yucatán, Guatemalan Highlands
Native speakers
17 deaf in Chican (2012)[1]
400 hearing signers Chican (1999); unknown number elsewhere
Nohya Sign
Highland Maya Sign
Language codes
ISO 639-3 msd
Glottolog yuca1236[2]

Mayan Sign Language is a sign language used in Mexico and Guatemala by Mayan communities with unusually high numbers of deaf inhabitants. In some instances, both hearing and deaf members of a village may use the sign language. It is unrelated to the national sign languages of Mexico (Mexican Sign Language) and Guatemala (Guatemalan Sign Language), as well as to the local spoken Mayan languages and Spanish.

Yucatec Mayan Sign Language

Yucatec Mayan Sign Language, also known as Nohya Sign Language, is used in the Yucatán region by both hearing and deaf rural Maya. It is a natural, complex language which is not related to Mexican Sign Language, but may have similarities with sign languages found in nearby Guatemala.

As the hearing villagers are competent in the sign language, the deaf inhabitants seem to be well integrated in the community – in contrast to the marginalisation of deaf people in the wider community, and also in contrast to Highland Mayan Sign Language, which appears to be used in at least one village as a means of social segregation and oppression (see below).[citation needed]

The oral language of the community is the Yucatec Maya language.

Highland Mayan Sign Language

In the highlands of Guatemala, Maya use a sign language that belongs to a "sign language complex" known locally in the K'iche' language as Meemul Ch'aab'al and Meemul Tziij, "mute language." Researcher Erich Fox Tree reports that it is used by deaf rural Maya throughout the region, as well as some traders and traditional storytellers. These communities and Fox Tree believe that Meemul Ch'aab'al belongs to an ancient family of Maya sign languages.[3] Fox Tree claims that Yucatec Maya Sign Language is closely related and substantially mutually intelligible.[4]

In at least one highland community, the sign language is used by "an impoverished class of deaf and hearing servants who are often forbidden to speak aloud in the presence of their masters: a hidden class of rural peons who call themselves 'slaves'."[citation needed]


  1. Maya Sign Language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Yucatec Maya Sign Language". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Navigating North and South for Native Knowledge by Patricia Valdata for, 2005.
  4. Yucatec Maya Sign Language

Further reading

  • Johnson, Robert E. (1991). Sign language, culture & community in a traditional Yucatec Maya village, in Sign Language Studies 73:461-474 (1991).
  • Shuman, Malcolm K. & Mary Margaret Cherry-Shuman. (1981). A brief annotated sign list of Yucatec Maya sign language. Language Sciences, 3, 1 (53), 124–185.
  • Shuman, Malcolm K. (1980). The sound of silence in Nohya: a preliminary account of sign language use by the deaf in a Maya community in Yucatán, Mexico. Language Sciences, 2, 1 (51), Mar, 144–173.
  • Du Bois, John W. (1978). Mayan sign language: An ethnography of non-verbal communication. Paper presented at the 77th annual meeting, American Anthropological Association, Los Angeles.
  • Smith, Hubert L. (1982) "The Living Maya," a 4-hour film documentary on the Yucatecan community with scenes of the deaf and their uses of sign.
  • Smith, Hubert L. (1977–2006) A corpus of film and video expressly devoted to the Maya deaf and archived at The Smithsonian Institution.
  • Fox Tree, Erich. (2009). Meemul Tziij:An Indigenous Sign Language Complex of Mesoamerica, Sign Language Studies, 9(3):324–366 (Spring 2009). Abstract
  • Le Guen, Olivier. (2012). An exploration in the domain of time: from Yucatec Maya time gestures to Yucatec Maya Sign Language time signs. In U. Zeshan & C. de Vos (Eds.), "Endangered Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguisitic Insights" (pp. 209–250). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter & Ishara Press. [1]

External links