Hawai'i Sign Language

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Hawaiʻi Sign Language
Hoailona ʻŌlelo o Hawaiʻi
Native to Hawaii
Native speakers
30; virtually extinct; a few elderly signers are bilingual with the dominant ASL [1] (2013)[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 hps
Glottolog hawa1235[3]

Hawaiʻi Sign Language (HSL), also known as Old Hawaiʻi Sign Language and Pidgin Sign Language (PSL),[4] is an indigenous sign language used in Hawaiʻi. Although historical records document its presence on the islands since the 1820s, it was not discovered until 2013 by linguists at the University of Hawai'i.[2] It is the first new language to be discovered within the United States since the 1930s.[5] Linguistic experts believe HSL may be the last undiscovered language in America.[6]

Although previously believed to be related to ASL,[7] the two languages are in fact unrelated.[8] The initial research team interviewed 19 deaf people and two children of deaf parents on four islands.[9] It was found that eighty percent of HSL vocabulary is different than American Sign Language, proving HSL a distinct language from ASL. HSL is considered an independent language due to the distinctive differences of the two languages.[10] Before the 1960's, the use of HSL was more common. It was called Creolized Hawai'i Sign Language (CHSL).[11] However, since the 1940s ASL has almost fully replaced the use of HSL on the islands of Hawai'i.[5]

HSL, discovered in 2013 by language researchers, is an undocumented language.[12] Spoken by very few people, HSL is at risk for Extinction due to its lack of speakers and the majority of the deaf population having adopted the use of ASL.[13] With only 30 speakers worldwide, HSL is eight percent critically endangered.[14] Hawai'ian Sign Language is categorized as "nearly extinct".[15]


HSL was discovered on March 1, 2013 by a research group from the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. The research team found a letter from Reverend Hiram Bingham to Reverend Thomas H. Gallaudet from Feb. 23, 1821. The letter described several instances of deaf natives communicating to Bingham in their own sign language.[8] At the time of discovery, the language was used by around 40 people, mostly over 80-years-old.[16]

Bingham letter


The term pidgin in some names used for HSL is due to its association with the spoken language Hawaiʻi Pidgin. HSL is not itself a pidgin,[17] but alternate names for the language are documented as Hawai'i Pidgen Sign Language or Pidgin Sign Language.[15] Linguists who have begun to document the language prefer the name Hawaiʻi Sign Language,[8] and that is the name used for it in ISO 639-3 as of 2014.[18]

Village sign use, by both deaf and hearing, is attested from 1820. There's the possibility of influence from immigrant sign later that century, though HSL has little in common today with ASL or other languages. The establishment of a school for the deaf in 1914 strengthened the use of sign among the students. A deaf community hero, Edwin Inn, a Chinese-Hawai'ian deaf man taught HSL to other deaf adults and also stood as president of a deaf club.[13] However, the introduction of ASL in 1941 in place of purely oral instruction resulted in a shift to that language.

HSL and ASL Comparisons

HSL uses more facial expressions in comparison to standard ASL. The language uses the entire body to sign.[11]

HSL Today

An estimated 15,857 of the total 833,610 residents of Hawai`i (about 1.9%) are audiologically deaf.[19] A sign language may be useful to this small percentage of residents, although American Sign Language (ASL) is now much more widely used on the islands than HSL. There are existing services that help deaf Hawai'ian residents learn ASL and also for those who wish to learn ASL to become interpreters. Some of these services include the Aloha State Association of the Deaf and the American Sign Language Interpreter Education Program.[20] However, there are many members of the deaf community who feel the language is not worth preservation.[11]

Three members of the research team (Linda Lambrecht, James Woodward and Barbara Clark) are working to save the language. Their goal is to have 20-hours of translated-HSL on video.[12] Another research member, Samantha Rarrick, is part of the Sign Language Documentation Training Center at the University of Hawai'i. Their goal is to teach graduate students how to document HSL.[21] As of Nov. 22, 2016, a dictionary and video archive of speakers has been created.[11]


  1. ^ http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/lang/4275
  2. ^ a b "Linguists say Hawaii Sign Language found to be distinct language". Washington Post. 1 March 2013. Retrieved 9 March 2013. 
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Hawai'i Pidgin Sign Language; Pidgin Sign Language". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  4. ^ "Hawai'i Sign Language"http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/lang/4275. Retrieved April 30, 2017.
  5. ^ a b "Linguists Discover Existence of Distinct Hawaiian Sign Language - The Rosetta Project". rosettaproject.org. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  6. ^  Wilcox, D. (n.d.). Linguists rediscover Hawaiian Sign Language. Retrieved April 30, 2017
  7. ^ Wittmann, Henri (1991). "Classification linguistique des langues signées non vocalement." Revue québécoise de linguistique théorique et appliquée 10:1.215–88.[1]
  8. ^ a b c Lambrecht, Linda; Earth, Barbara; Woodward, James (March 3, 2013), History and Documentation of Hawaiʻi Sign Language: First Report, University of Hawaiʻi: 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation 
  9. ^ Lincoln, M. (2013, March 01). Nearly lost language discovered in Hawai'i. Retrieved April 30, 2017
  10. ^  Clark, B., Lambrecht, L., Rarrick, S., Stabile, C., & Woodward, J. (2013). DOCUMENTATION OF HAWAI`I SIGN LANGUAGE: AN OVERVIEW OF SOME RECENT MAJOR RESEARCH FINDINGS [Abstract]University of Hawai'i, 1-2. Retrieved April 30, 2017
  11. ^ a b c d Tanigawa, N. (2016, NOV 22). Hawai'i Sign Language Still Whispers. Retrieved May 1, 2017
  12. ^ a b Perlin, Ross (August 10, 2016). "The Race to Save a Dying Language". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. 
  13. ^ a b "Mānoa: Research team discovers existence of Hawai'i Sign Language | University of Hawaii News". manoa.hawaii.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  14. ^ "Did you know Hawai'i Sign Language is critically endangered?". Endangered Languages. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  15. ^ a b "Hawai'i Sign Language - MultiTree". multitree.org. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  16. ^ Mcavoy, A. (2013, March 01). Hawaii Sign Language found to be distinct languageAssociated Press. Retrieved April 30, 2017
  17. ^ Ethnologue 
  18. ^ "Documentation for ISO 639 identifier: hps". Retrieved 2014-02-07. 
  19. ^ Smith, Sarah Hamrick, Laura Jacobi, Patrick Oberholtzer, Elizabeth Henry, Jamie. "LibGuides. Deaf Statistics. Deaf population of the U.S..". libguides.gallaudet.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  20. ^ "Signs of Self". www.signsofself.org. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  21. ^ Rarrick, S., & Wilson, B. (2015). Documenting Hawai‘i’s Sign Languages. Language Documentation & Conservation,10, 337-346. Retrieved April 30, 2017

External links

  • Rarrick, Samantha & Brittany Wilson. 2015. Documenting Hawai'i's Sign Language.
  • ELAR archive of Documentation of Hawaii Sign Language
  • Hawai'i Sign Language
  • Hawaiian Sign Language vs. American Sign Language
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