Linguists Discover Existence of Distinct Hawaiian Sign Language

On Sunday linguists announced the discovery of a previously undocumented indigenous sign language at the University of Hawai’i. This is the first time a new language - spoken or signed - has been discovered in the USA since the 1930s! The language, they found, has been in use since at least the 1820s, but only few knew of its existence. Thanks to Linda Lambrecht, a committed native user of the language, Hawai’i Sign Language (HSL), as the language is now officially called, has been brought to the attention of the wider public for the first time in its history. Lambrecht, who is an American Sign Language (ASL) instructor at Kapi‘olani Community College, grew up with HSL as a first language and had been advocating the use and preservation of it since the 1980s. With the launching of a HSL language documentation project, funded by the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities and a number of other academic institutions, her work finally came to fruition.

In order to determine whether HSL is an independent language rather than a dialect of ASL, the researchers interviewed 21 native HSL signers on four of the Hawaiian islands. They found that eighty percent of the basic vocabulary differs from ASL, which makes the two languages mutually unintelligible and proves that HSL is a distinct language entirely unrelated to ASL. An analysis of the grammar has also confirmed that HSL is a full-fledged language rather than an unstable pidgin.

The “discovery” of HSL came just in time. Even though it used to be the native sign language of Hawai’is Deaf community in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it had been gradually displaced by ASL from the 1940s on. By the 1950s ASL was the dominant sign language in Hawai’i. Today there are only about a hundred Hawaiians left who know the language, most of them over sixty years old. One aim of the research project is to use the documented data for a dictionary, textbooks and HSL classes. This way, the researchers hope, Hawai’i Sign Language can be preserved and saved from dying out with the last generation of its native signers.

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