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Saving Hawai’i Sign Language from Extinction

Hawai'i Sign Language
For indigenous peoples like the Hawaiians, their unique sign languages are crucial to their culture, despite the abundance of mainstream sign languages like American Sign Language (ASL). But the survival of Hawai’i Sign Language is at risk.

Hawai’i Sign Language

Hawai’i Sign Language (HSL), also known as Old Hawai’i Sign Language, has roots stretching back to the 1820s. However, it wasn’t formally recognized until as late as 2013. It’s the first time since the 1930s that a new language has been discovered in the US. The announcement came straight from the University of Hawai’i itself. As many might suppose, HSL isn’t a “pidgin” sign language. A complete analysis of its grammar revealed that HSL is a full language in its own right.

Despite its relatively recent emergence, HSL is already in trouble. There are currently only 30 users. A few of those also use ASL. It’s only a matter of time before it dies out or gets lost in the much more widely-used ASL from the mainland.

Fighting to Restore Hawai’i Sign Language

Linda Lambrecht, the Chinese-Hawaiian linguist and teacher, announced the discovery of HSL in 2013. She feared she might be sounding the language’s death knell if more signers didn’t pick up HSL. However, Lambrecht has spent eight years teaching HSL and raising awareness of the language since the announcement. Her efforts have led to the sign language being given an official language code by the International Organization for Standardization, and a formal name, Hawai’i Sign Language (HSL).

Lambrecht was also awarded a three-year grant from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London on their Endangered Languages Documentation Programme. With colleagues James Woodward and Barbara Earth, Lambrecht launched a project to restore Hawai’i Sign Language. The project includes high-quality video footage of natural HSL, which will be transcribed, translated, and archived. It also includes a series of illustrated handbooks depicting over 1000 signs and HSL classes at the University of Hawai’i. Hopefully, this will save the language from extinction. If nothing else, it will at least provide a thorough record of it for history’s sake.

Why Hawai’i Sign Language is Unique

With a population of 1.4 million, Hawaii has a tiny deaf community with less than 4000 deaf people. Not everyone is on board with HSL. Some of their concerns include feeling that the language is “backward” or “not a real language”. It typically goes unused next to the much more popular American Sign Language (ASL). 

What makes Hawai’i Sign Language so unique is its much larger signing space. HSL utilizes the whole torso, from above the head to the hips. The language contains much more expressive signs, with a more comprehensive range of movements. This beautiful language is thought to be the last undiscovered language in the USA. Documenting and encouraging its use has never been more critical. The last time a new language was discovered in the USA was over 80 years ago in the State of Alaska. Hawai’i Sign Language was found in Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu. As Ross Perlin, writing for the Guardian, says, “it was the kind of discovery that made the world seem larger.”

Another element to HSL that is different from ASL is the typology. HSL follows a SUBJECT-OBJECT-VERB (SOV) pattern, whereas ASL follows a SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT (SVO) pattern.

Read more: Why sign language should be an official language

ASL as a Threat

With the prominence of ASL dwarfing the use of HSL, American Sign Language poses a distinct threat to HSL. You’d think that the two sign languages would be connected or related somehow. So far, they seem unconnected to each other. Over 80 percent of Hawai’i Sign Language is different from ASL, making HSL a separate language in its own right. Nevertheless, ASL usage has almost wholly replaced HSL on Hawaii islands. Fears for the newly discovered language are high.

“With the prominence of ASL dwarfing the use of HSL, American Sign Language poses a distinct threat to HSL.”

In addition to regular HSL, there is a Creole sign language known as Creole Hawai’i Sign Language (CHSL). Creole languages develop through two or more other languages mixing naturally during use. CHSL is a mix of HSL and ASL. It currently has around 40 speakers

With such a low number of speakers compared to the number of signers in Hawai’i, HSL is listed as a critically endangered language. Lambrecht and her team are pulling out all the stops to save Hawai’i Sign Language from extinction. You can watch Lambrecht sign the Maui legend in HSL. Why not check out some of her HSL videos via Google?

Author Details
Mel is a hard-of-hearing writer from the UK. She has moderate-severe hearing loss by American definitions and moderate hearing loss by British measurements. She relies on hearing aids and lipreading. She lives in Wales with her French Bulldog puppy and mischievous tortoiseshell cat. Mel identifies as a demisexual lesbian.