Hawai'i Sign Language

Last updated
Hawaiʻi Sign Language
Hoailona ʻŌlelo o Hawaiʻi
Native to United States
Region 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 as early as the 1820s, it was not formally recognized until 2013 by linguists at the University of Hawai'i. [2] It is the first new language to be uncovered within the United States since the 1930s. [5] Linguistic experts believe HSL may be the last undiscovered language in the country. [6]

Sign language Language which uses manual communication and body language to convey meaning

Sign languages are languages that use the visual-manual modality to convey meaning. Language is expressed via the manual signstream in combination with non-manual elements. Sign languages are full-fledged natural languages with their own grammar and lexicon. This means that sign languages are not universal and they are not mutually intelligible, although there are also striking similarities among sign languages.

Hawaii State of the United States of America

Hawaii is the 50th and most recent state to have joined the United States, having received statehood on August 21, 1959. Hawaii is the only U.S. state located in Oceania, the only U.S. state located outside North America, and the only one composed entirely of islands. It is the northernmost island group in Polynesia, occupying most of an archipelago in the central Pacific Ocean.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city by population is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.


Although previously believed to be related to American Sign Language (ASL), [7] the two languages are in fact unrelated. [8] [9] The initial research team interviewed 19 Deaf people and two children of Deaf parents on four islands. [10] It was found that eighty percent of HSL vocabulary is different from American Sign Language, proving that HSL is an independent language. [11] Additionally, there is a HSL-ASL creole, Creole Hawai'i Sign Language (CHSL) which is used by approximately 40 individuals in the generations between those who signed HSL exclusively and those who sign ASL exclusively. [12] However, since the 1940s ASL has almost fully replaced the use of HSL on the islands of Hawai'i [5] and CHSL is likely to also be lost in the next 50 years. [12]

American Sign Language Sign language used predominately in the United States

American Sign Language (ASL) is a natural language that serves as the predominant sign language of Deaf communities in the United States and most of Anglophone Canada. Besides North America, dialects of ASL and ASL-based creoles are used in many countries around the world, including much of West Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. ASL is also widely learned as a second language, serving as a lingua franca. ASL is most closely related to French Sign Language (LSF). It has been proposed that ASL is a creole language of LSF, although ASL shows features atypical of creole languages, such as agglutinative morphology.

Prior to the recognition of HSL as a distinct language in 2013, it was an undocumented language. [13] HSL is at risk of extinction due to its low number of signers and the adoption of ASL. [14] With fewer than 30 signers remaining worldwide, HSL is considered critically endangered. [15] Without documentation and revitalization efforts, such as the ongoing efforts initiated by Dr. James Woodward, Dr. Barbara Earth, and Linda Lambrecht, [9] this language may become dormant or extinct. [16]

Endangered language language that is at risk of falling out of use as its speakers die out or shift to speaking another language

An endangered language, or moribund language, is a language that is at risk of falling out of use as its speakers die out or shift to speaking another language. Language loss occurs when the language has no more native speakers and becomes a "dead language". If no one can speak the language at all, it becomes an "extinct language". A dead language may still be studied through recordings or writings, but it is still dead or extinct unless there are fluent speakers. Although languages have always become extinct throughout human history, they are currently dying at an accelerated rate because of globalization, neocolonialism and linguicide.


HSL was recognized by linguists 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. [17]

University of Hawaii at Manoa public co-educational research university and flagship University of Hawaii system

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is a public co-educational research university as well as the flagship campus of the University of Hawaiʻi system. The school is located in Mānoa, an affluent neighborhood of Honolulu, Honolulu County, Hawaiʻi, United States, approximately three miles east and inland from downtown Honolulu and one mile (1.6 km) from Ala Moana and Waikīkī. The campus occupies the eastern half of the mouth of Mānoa Valley. The John A. Burns School of Medicine, part of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, is located in Kakaʻako, adjacent to the Kakaʻako Waterfront Park. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges from the western mainland U.S. and is governed by the Hawaii State Legislature and a semi-autonomous board of regents, which in turn, hires a president to be administrator. This university campus also houses the main offices of the entire University of Hawaiʻi system.

Hiram Bingham I American missionary to the Kingdom of Hawaii

Hiram Bingham, formally Hiram Bingham I, was leader of the first group of American Protestant missionaries to introduce Christianity to the Hawaiian islands. Like most of the missionaries, he was from New England.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet American educator for the deaf

The Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, LL.D.,(December 10, 1787 – September 10, 1851) was an American educator. Along with Laurent Clerc and Mason Cogswell, he co-founded the first institution for the education of the deaf in North America, and he became its first principal. When opened on April 15, 1817, it was called the "Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons," but it is now known as the American School for the Deaf.

Bingham letter DiscoveryHSL.jpg
Bingham letter


HSL is not itself a pidgin, [18] but alternate names for the language are documented as Hawai'i Pidgin Sign Language or Pidgin Sign Language. [16] This is due to an inaccurate historical association with the spoken language Hawaiʻi Pidgin. Linguists who have begun to document the language and community members prefer the name Hawaiʻi Sign Language, [9] [8] and that is the name used for it in ISO 639-3 as of 2014. [19]

A pidgin, or pidgin language, is a grammatically simplified means of communication that develops between two or more groups that do not have a language in common: typically, its vocabulary and grammar are limited and often drawn from several languages. It is most commonly employed in situations such as trade, or where both groups speak languages different from the language of the country in which they reside. Fundamentally, a pidgin is a simplified means of linguistic communication, as it is constructed impromptu, or by convention, between individuals or groups of people. A pidgin is not the native language of any speech community, but is instead learned as a second language.

ISO 639-3:2007, Codes for the representation of names of languages – Part 3: Alpha-3 code for comprehensive coverage of languages, is an international standard for language codes in the ISO 639 series. It defines three-letter codes for identifying languages. The standard was published by ISO on 1 February 2007.

Village sign use, by both d/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 signed and spoken languages it has come in contact with. The establishment of a school for the deaf in 1914 strengthened the use of sign, primarily HSL, among the students. A Deaf community hero, a Chinese-Hawai'ian Deaf man named Edwin Inn, taught HSL to other d/Deaf adults and also stood as president of a Deaf club. [14] However, the introduction of ASL in 1941 in place of purely oral instruction resulted in a shift from HSL.

HSL and ASL Comparisons

HSL shares few lexical and grammatical components with ASL. [9] [8] [2] [20] While HSL follows subject, object, verb (SOV) typology, ASL follows subject, verb, object (SVO) typology. [21] [22] HSL does not have verbal classifiers- these were previously thought to be universal in sign languages, and ASL makes extensive use of these. [23] HSL also has several entirely non-manual lexical items, including verbs and nouns, which are not typical in ASL. [11] Ongoing investigation of these languages suggest that they are not related. [9]

HSL Today

An estimated 15,857 of the total 833,610 residents of Hawai'i (about 1.9%) are audiologically deaf. [24] Among this population, ASL is now significantly more common than HSL. There are a handful of services available to help d/Deaf Hawai'ian residents learn ASL and also for those who wish to learn ASL to become interpreters, such as the Aloha State Association of the Deaf and the American Sign Language Interpreter Education Program. [25] Equivalent services for HSL are nearly non-existent, partially because some members of the Deaf community in Hawai'i have felt that it is not worth preservation. [20]

Linda Lambrecht, Dr. James Woodward and Barbara Clark are continually working with a team to document and preserve the language. [13] Another research member, Dr. Samantha Rarrick, is part of the Sign Language Documentation Training Center at the University of Hawai'i. This group has two goals. Their first goal to teach graduate students and other linguists how to document HSL and other small sign languages used in Hawai'i. [26] Their second goal is to have 20-hours of translated-HSL on video. [13] [27] As of Nov. 22, 2016, a dictionary and video archive of speakers have been created. [20]

Related Research Articles

William Stokoe Scholar of American Sign Language

William C. Stokoe Jr., a long-time professor at Gallaudet University, was an American linguist. His research on American Sign Language (ASL) revolutionized the understanding of ASL in the United States and sign languages throughout the world and had a profound impact on deaf culture, deaf education, and sign language teaching and interpreting. Stokoe's work led to a widespread recognition that sign languages are true languages, exhibiting syntax and morphology, and are not mere systems of gesture. This work thus redefined "language" itself, and influenced thinking in theoretical linguistics, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, neural studies, and even jurisprudence.

Hawaiian Pidgin English is an English-based creole language spoken in Hawaiʻi. Although English and Hawaiian are the co-official languages of the state of Hawaiʻi, Hawaiian Pidgin is spoken by many Hawaiʻi residents in everyday conversation and is often used in advertising targeted toward locals in Hawaiʻi. In the Hawaiian language, Hawaiian Creole English is called "ʻōlelo paʻi ʻai", which literally means "pounding-taro language".

A contact sign language, or contact sign, is a variety or style of language that arises from contact between a deaf sign language and an oral language. Contact languages also arise between different sign languages, although the term pidgin rather than contact sign is used to describe such phenomena.

Thai Sign Language (TSL) or Modern Standard Thai Sign Language (MSTSL), is the national sign language of Thailand's deaf community and is used in most parts of the country by the 20 percent of the estimated 56,000 pre-linguistically deaf people who go to school. Thai Sign Language was acknowledged as "the national language of deaf people in Thailand" in August 1999, in a resolution signed by the Minister of Education on behalf of the Royal Thai Government. As with many sign languages, the means of transmission to children occurs within families with signing deaf parents and in schools for the deaf. A robust process of language teaching and acculturation among deaf children has been documented and photographed in the Thai residential schools for the deaf.

There is no officially recognized national sign language in Singapore. Since Singapore's independence in 1965, the Singapore deaf community has had to adapt to many linguistic changes. Today, the local deaf community recognizes Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) as a reflection of Singapore's diverse linguistic culture. SgSL is influenced by Shanghainese Sign Language (SSL), American Sign Language (ASL), Signing Exact English (SEE-II) and locally developed signs. The total number of deaf clients registered with The Singapore Association For The Deaf (SADeaf), an organisation that advocates equal opportunity for the deaf, is 5756, as of 2014. Among which, only about one-third stated their knowledge of Sign Language.

Maritime Sign Language Maritime Canadian sign language

Maritime Sign Language (MSL), is a sign language descended from British Sign Language and used in Canada's Atlantic provinces. It was created through the convergence of deaf communities from the Northeastern United States and the United Kingdom immigrating to Canada throughout the 1700s and 1800s. It is unknown the extent to which this language is spoken today, though there are linguistic communities found across the Atlantic provinces. MSL is being supplanted by American Sign Language (ASL) resulting in fewer MSL speakers and a lack of resources for MSL speakers.

Swedish Sign Language sign language

Swedish Sign Language is the sign language used in Sweden. It is recognized by the Swedish government as the country's official sign language, and hearing parents of deaf children are required to learn it. There are less than 10,000 speakers, making the language officially endangered.

The Subanen language is an Austronesian language belonging to the Greater Central Philippine languages. It is typically considered by linguists as a dialect cluster more than a monolithic language. Subanon is spoken in various areas of Zamboanga Peninsula namely the provinces of Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur, and in Misamis Occidental of Northern Mindanao. There is also a sizeable Subanon community in Misamis Oriental. Most go by the name of Subanen, Subanon or Subanun, while those who adhere to Islam refer to themselves as Kalibugan.

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