Linguists rediscover Hawaiian Sign Language

Written by: 
Dylan-Sage Wilcox ~ Multimedia Journalist

A team of linguistic experts are working to preserve and revive Hawaiian Sign Language, the native language of deaf people in Hawaii. A team of researchers calls the recent uncovering ground-breaking – especially considering how close the language came to being gone forever.

Linguists believe that HSL was around in the early 1800s, long before ASL arrived to Hawaii in the 1940s.

“It wasn't formal instruction. It was just exposure and that's what we used to communicate," signed Linda Lambrecht, who is also an ASL instructor at Kapi'olani Community College. "When foreigners came here and taught American Sign Language, it was quite confusing." Lambrecht said she is one of the few users of Hawaiian Sign Language left. The other 40 identified users of HSL are over the age of 70, which pushes for the preservation of this distinct language.

“I would love to learn Hawaiian Sign Language,” said Jabrielle Ulima, a BYU-Hawaii freshmen majoring in linguistics from Laie. “It would give me the opportunity to learn another language as well as help keep that special endangered language around for a while more.” Ulima says HSL is an important aspect in preserving the Hawaiian culture.

“Since much of our Hawaiian traditions have been lost or modified, it’s important to preserve Hawaiian Sign Language. Now that it is known, it is an endangered language, and we must not let it go. It’s part of our culture and others need to learn and pass it on, generation to generation,” Ulima said.

"What we find with Hawai'i Sign Language is that 80 percent of this basic vocabulary list is different. It means it cannot in any way be related to American Sign Language," James Woodward, an adjunct professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, told Hawaii News Now.

Lambrecht and her former student, Barbara Earth, went to UH Manoa’s Linguistics Department for help in recording HSL.

“If it hadn't been for Barbara and Linda, we never would have found this language," said William O'Grady, a UH Manoa Linguistics professor to Hawaii News Now. "Here it was for over 100 years right under our noses here in Hawaii. This is a big deal."

Ever since Lambrecht and Earth approached UH’s Linguistics Department, an ongoing effort to document Hawaiian Sign Language is continuing.

“An entire research team has been assembled to study and preserve Hawai'i Sign Language. They've located and interviewed 19 elderly deaf people and two adult children of deaf parents on four of the Hawaiian Islands. They're also documenting HSL with instructional videos, depicting the distinct differences between Hawai'i Sign Language and American Sign Language,” Hawaii News Now’s Mileka Lincoln reports.

Another BYUH student commented on this recently discovered language, “Most all spoken languages have their own Sign Language; however, the most well-known is American Sign Language,” said Joel Kim, a freshman majoring in biology from Idaho. Kim communicates to his father in ASL as well as their own “broken ASL.”

Linguist experts say this is the first time since the 1930s a previously unknown language, spoken or signed, has been documented in the U.S. They believe Hawai'i Sign Language may be the last of America's undiscovered languages.