Researchers discover indigenous language in Hawaii

By Cam Tran
Published On: Mar 01 2013 04:52:00 PM HST

It's a language only 100 people in the world know and one hardly anyone knew existed until now.

It looks similar to American sign language.  But, according to University of Hawaii researchers, this is completely different.

"We have identified a previously undocumented indigenous language of Hawaii," said UH researcher Barbara Earth.

It's called Hawaii Sign Language.

Linguists say the deaf in Hawaii started the language as far back as the 1820s.  UH researchers interviewed 19 people on four different islands to learn more about HSL, as it's called for short.

In a demonstration, a woman on the left is signing American Sign Language and the woman on the right is signing Hawaii Sign Language.

As they translate different words, you can see the nuances.

"More and more signs have original Hawaii signs so the vocabulary is the biggest difference," said UH Adjunct Professor of Linguistics James Woodward.  "Grammatically, it doesn't look anything like Hawaiian.  Hawaiian is verb-subject-object.  This language is subject-object-verb.

Linda Lambrecht is deaf.  She is one of only 100 people in the world who knows HSL.

Lambrecht learned the language as a baby from her brothers who are also deaf.  In fact, she is the inspiration and reason UH conducted the study.

"Over the years, it has been a concern as speakers of the language have passed away.  My very close friends -- I have talked to them repeatedly," said Lambrecht.  "So I was very determined and worked hard to do what I could and I am seeing the fruit of my work today so I am very happy."

These professors say this is a dying language.  The people who know Hawaii Sign Language are all over 60 years old and, if not restored soon, it could go away completely.

"Oh yes.  It is my dream for the future that senior citizens in Hawaii will be able to share their knowledge of Hawaii Sign Language with the young generation," said Lambrecht.

It's the first time since 1930 that a new language has been discovered in the U.S.

Researchers are hoping to put together a Hawaii Sign Language dictionary and even a course once they finish documenting the language.

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