Linguists say Hawaii Sign Language found to be distinct language

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Linguists say they have determined that a unique sign language, possibly dating back to the 1800s or before, is being used in Hawaii.

Only about 40 people, most in their 80s, are known to currently use Hawaii Sign Language.

Researchers will formally announce their findings this weekend showing it's not a dialect of American Sign Language, as many long believed, but an unrelated language with unique vocabulary and grammar.

Researchers said they interviewed 21 users of Hawaii Sign Language — 19 elderly deaf people and two adult children of deaf parents — for their study.

"It's clearly a separate language and it clearly developed independently," said James Woodward, a University of Hawaii linguistics adjunct professor and co-director of the Center for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Four scholars involved in the research plan to hold a news conference on their findings Friday at the University of Hawaii. On Sunday, they'll present their study at the 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation. Words for father, mother, dog and pig are all different in Hawaii and American sign languages. In fact, only 20 words on a list of 100 key words are significantly similar in both languages.

Languages are considered dialects when they share more than 80 percent of the words on the list, said Woodward who has documented distinct sign languages in Thailand, Vietnam and other parts of Asia.

Languages considered related if between 36 to 80 percent of the words on the list are significantly similar.

Hawaii and American sign languages also have different grammar. In Hawaii Sign Language, adjectives come after nouns, like "dog black" instead of "black dog" in American Sign Language.

Academics became aware of Hawaii Sign Language's unique characteristics because of Linda Lambrecht, an American Sign Language instructor at Kapiolani Community College in Honolulu.

She grew up learning Hawaii Sign Language from her brother, and it was her first language.

But her teachers told her as a child her sign language wasn't any good, and she should learn American Sign Language. She held on to her first language regardless, and used both. Later in life, she began approaching other scholars about researching it.

University of Hawaii linguistics professor William O'Grady said Hawaii Sign Language is the first previously unknown language to be documented in the United States since the 1930s.

Sign language was used in Hawaii in the 19th century, if not earlier. The first known written reference to sign language in the islands is in a 1821 letter from Protestant missionary Hiram Bingham to his friend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, said Barbara Earth, a University of Hawaii adjunct assistant professor and Gallaudet University research fellow. Gallaudet co-founded one of the first deaf schools in the U.S.

Researchers plan 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.