Hawaii Sign Language Determined To Be Distinct Language

A unique sign language dating back to the 1800’s or earlier that is being used in Hawaii has been determined by linguists to be a distinct language. It is the first time in 80 years that a previously unknown language spoken or signed has been documented in the U.S.

Researchers are set to make the formal announcement of their findings this weekend, which will show it is not a dialect of American Sign Language as was previously thought. It has been determined as an unrelated language with unique vocabulary and grammar.
There are only about 40 people mostly in their 80’s who are known to currently use Hawaii Sign Language, which means the discovery comes on the heels of the language disappearing.

William O’Grady, linguistic professor at the University of Hawaii said at a news conference, ‘I think that everyone in the room is aware of how Hawaiian, the indigenous language of this state. But what we didn’t know until very recently is that Hawaii is home to a second highly endangered language that is found nowhere else in the world.’

Researchers have reportedly interviewed and videotaped 21 users of Hawaii Sign Language for their study. They have also documented how Hawaii and American Sign Language have different grammar. For example in Hawaii Sign Language, adjectives come after nouns, like “dog black” instead of “black dog” in American Sign Language.

Languages are determined to be dialects when they share more than 80 percent of the words on the list. This according to James Woodward a University of Hawaii Manao, linguistic adjunct professor and co -director of the Center for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Woodward has documented distinct sign languages in Thailand, Vietnam and other parts of Asia.

Researchers are now planning to publish three Hawaii Sign Language textbooks and a dictionary to help keep the language alive. They also plan to publish their findings in academic journals.

Photo: Audrey McAvoy / AP Photo