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Hawaii Sign Language found to be distinct language

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 1, 2013 at 7:13 pm •  Published: March 1, 2013

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 brothers, and it was her first language.

But at school she was taught to use American Sign Language, which entered Hawaii in the 1940s and became the dominant sign language in the islands by the 1950s.

She held on to her first language regardless, and used both. Later in life, she began approaching other scholars about researching it.

The attention it's now receiving helps her look past the lack of interest people paid to it before.

"It will be recognized in addition to the sign languages of other countries, and that itself makes me so proud that I don't feel that frustrated," Lambrecht said through an interpreter.

O'Grady said Hawaii Sign Language is the first previously unknown language to be documented in the United States since the 1930s, when scholars identified the South Central Alaska spoken language of Eyak as unique.

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 an 1821 letter from Protestant missionary Hiram Bingham to his friend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, said Barbara Earth, a University of Hawaii, Manoa, adjunct assistant professor and Gallaudet University research fellow. Gallaudet co-founded one of the first deaf schools in the U.S.

Hawaii Sign Language is used by people of many ethnicities, not only Native Hawaiians. It may be influenced by sign language used by Native Hawaiians and immigrants to Hawaii, though research needs to be done on this, Earth said. It's not related to spoken Hawaiian, nor is it related to any other sign language scholars are aware of, Woodward said.

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.