If you know about the history and culture of Hawaiʻi, you probably know that there was a time, not too long ago, that the Hawaiian language was on the brink extinction.
“What we didn’t know until very recently is that Hawaiʻi is home to a second, highly endangered, language that is found nowhere else in the world,” said William O’Grady, a linguistics professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.
O’Grady made that statement at a March 1 press conference announcing the identification of a previously undocumented indigenous sign language by a UH Mānoa research team from the linguistics department.
“Our information on Hawaii Sign Language goes back to 1800s, long before the influence of American Sign Language,” said Barbara Earth, an adjunct assistant professor at the Mānoa Department of Linguistics and one of the research team leaders.
Linda Lambrecht, an American Sign Language instructor at Kapiʻolani Community College, who was also a research team leader, inspired the study. HSL was the first language Lambrecht learned and she spoke it as child before ASL became the dominant sign language in the 1940s and 1950s.
Researchers were able to confirm that HSL was its own unique language after interviewing and recording 19 elderly deaf people and two of their adult children who use HSL. The research project ensures the preservation of the unique language.
“In the 1980s, I always felt very inspired about Hawaiʻi Sign Language and now that it is known, I’m elated,” said Lambrecht.
This is the first time since the 1930s, that a previously unknown language, either spoken or signed, has been documented in the United States.
Read the UH Mānoa news release for more on this discovery.