Hawai'i Sign Language

Hawaiʻi Sign Language
Hoailona ʻŌlelo o Hawaiʻi
Native to 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, is an indigenous sign language used in Hawaiʻi. Although historical records document its presence on the islands since the 1820s, it was not discovered until very recently by linguists at the University of Hawai'i.[2] It is the first new language to be discovered within the United States since the 1930s.[4]

Although previously believed to be related to ASL,[5] the two languages are in fact unrelated.[6] It was found that eighty percent of the vocabulary of the Hawai'ian Sign Language differs from that of American Sign Language, proving HSL a distinct language from ASL. However, since the 1940s ASL has almost fully replaced the use of HSL on the islands of Hawai'i.[4]

HSL, discovered in 2013 by language researchers, is an undocumented language.[7] Spoken by very few people, HSL is at risk for Extinction due to its lack of speakers and the majority of the deaf population having adopted the use of ASL.[8] With only 30 speakers worldwide, HSL is eight percent critically endangered.[9] Hawai'ian Sign Language is categorized as "nearly extinct".[10]

The term pidgin in some names used for HSL is due to its association with the spoken language Hawaiʻi Pidgin. HSL is not itself a pidgin,[11] but alternate names for the language are documented as Hawai'i Pidgen Sign Language or Pidgin Sign Language.[10] Linguists who have begun to document the language prefer the name Hawaiʻi Sign Language,[6] and that is the name used for it in ISO 639-3 as of 2014.[12]

Village sign use, by both 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 languages. The establishment of a school for the deaf in 1914 strengthened the use of sign among the students. A deaf community hero, Edwin Inn, a Chinese-Hawai'ian deaf man taught HSL to other deaf adults and also stood as president of a deaf club.[8] However, the introduction of ASL in 1941 in place of purely oral instruction resulted in a shift to that language.

An estimated 15,857 of the total 833,610 residents of Hawai`i (about 1.9%) are audiologically deaf.[13] A sign language may be useful to this small percentage of residents, although most would be better served by American Sign Language (ASL), which is now much more widely used on the islands than HSL. There are existing services that help deaf Hawai'ian residents learn ASL and also for those who wish to learn ASL to become interpreters. Some of these services include the Aloha State Association of the Deaf and the American Sign Language Interpreter Education Program.[14]


  1. http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/lang/4275
  2. 1 2 "Linguists say Hawaii Sign Language found to be distinct language". Washington Post. 1 March 2013. Retrieved 9 March 2013.
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Hawai'i Pidgin Sign Language; Pidgin Sign Language". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. 1 2 "Linguists Discover Existence of Distinct Hawaiian Sign Language - The Rosetta Project". rosettaproject.org. Retrieved 2016-04-28.
  5. Wittmann, Henri (1991). "Classification linguistique des langues signées non vocalement." Revue québécoise de linguistique théorique et appliquée 10:1.215–88.
  6. 1 2 Lambrecht, Linda; Earth, Barbara; Woodward, James (March 3, 2013), History and Documentation of Hawaiʻi Sign Language: First Report, University of Hawaiʻi: 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation
  7. Perlin, Ross (August 10, 2016). "The Race to Save a Dying Language". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group.
  8. 1 2 "Mānoa: Research team discovers existence of Hawai'i Sign Language | University of Hawaii News". manoa.hawaii.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-28.
  9. "Did you know Hawai'i Sign Language is critically endangered?". Endangered Languages. Retrieved 2016-04-28.
  10. 1 2 "Hawai'i Sign Language - MultiTree". multitree.org. Retrieved 2016-04-28.
  11. Ethnologue
  12. "Documentation for ISO 639 identifier: hps". Retrieved 2014-02-07.
  13. Smith, Sarah Hamrick, Laura Jacobi, Patrick Oberholtzer, Elizabeth Henry, Jamie. "LibGuides. Deaf Statistics. Deaf population of the U.S..". libguides.gallaudet.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-28.
  14. "Signs of Self". www.signsofself.org. Retrieved 2016-04-28.
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