DER Documentary

Yucatec Maya Deaf Sign

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by Hubert Smith
color, 31 min, 1977 / 2015
in Yucatec Maya Sign Language with English subtitles


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In 1976, Hubert Smith set out with a group of researchers to visually document Yucatec Maya society within the village of Chican. This project resulted in the 4-part series, The Living Maya. During filming, however, it was impossible to ignore the use of sign language in the village. Smith and his team saw a lot of the deaf residents, filmed them often, and went back to have these sign exchanges translated. Now it is time to share a story solely about them.

The Yucatec Maya Deaf Sign DVD contains three distinct sequences: The first, A Search for the Origins of Yucatec Maya Deaf Sign follows linguist Robert Johnson of Gallaudet University in his study of the extent of Yucatec Maya Deaf Sign. At the time, genetic researchers believed that the high incidence of deafness — and thus of sign language use — was limited to Chican. Johnson set out to ascertain whether the Chican use of sign language was in fact an isolated case or if it was widespread among the Maya. Johnson travels throughout the region and finds both a high incidence of deafness and widespread knowledge of sign language, and ultimately gathers evidence that Yucatec Deaf Sign is, indeed, a language and not simply a gestural system.

The filmed conversations, Snake Encounter and Courtship & Marriage provide an opportunity to see Yucatec Deaf Sign in use. Each conversation is shown more than once, to provide both the real-time experience and annotated versions offering access to the meaning of the stories told.

Margaret Mead, who served as an advisor to the project before her death once remarked, “The language is one thing, but what is remarkable is that the entire community uses it!”

Related Resources
Study Guide

Related Films
The Living Maya
A Life Without Words



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