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Documentation of Hawaii Sign Language: Building the Foundation for Documentation, Conservation, and Revitalization of Endangered Pacific Island Sign Languages.


Language Hawaii Sign Language
Depositor James Woodward
Affiliation University of Hawai’i at Manoa
Location United States
Collection ID 0345
Grant ID MDP0278
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

Hawaii Sign Language (HSL) developed indigenously in Hawaii. After the introduction of American Sign Language in 1941, HSL has become a critically endangered language in urgent need of documentation. Fewer than 40 users have been identified, all elderly, many above 80. In the documentation process, teaching materials with companion dictionaries are developed and conversational histories about the lives of HSL users collected, annotated and archived. This is the first in-depth study of any indigenous Pacific sign language, providing an important foundation for future research on other undocumented indigenous sign languages in the Pacific.


Group represented

This collection represents speakers of Hawai‘i Sign Language, based on a sample of twenty speakers.

All Hawai‘i Sign Language users are elderly, most at least 80 years old. Many only use Hawai‘i Sign Language in limited environments, and typical conversations are often a heavy code-mix of Hawai‘i Sign Language and American Sign Language.

The main language consultant is Ms Linda Lambrecht, and the researcher leaders considered themselves very fortunate to have Linda Lambrecht on staff. Linda Lambrecht grew up using Hawai‘i Sign Language, is a leader among Hawai‘i Sign Language users, and a strong advocate for the documentation and conservation of Hawai‘i Sign Language. She served as the primary liaison between research leader and Hawai‘i Sign Language users. At the time of the research, Linda Lambrecht was in her 60’s. She had an older Deaf brother who used Hawai‘i Sign Language, and she is one of the few “younger” users of Hawai‘i Sign Language. The research leaders consider her and her ability to switch back and forth between Hawai‘i Sign Language and American Sign Language to be truly phenomenal.

Data was also collected from 20 additional consultants (five older females, five older males, five “younger” females, and five “younger” males). Time spent with older consultants was normally no more than 30 minutes per session, with a large amount of time given for rest and breaks.


Language information

Hawai‘i Sign Language developed indigenously in Hawai‘i before American Sign Language was introduced into Hawai’i in 1941. Hawai‘i Sign Language is used on several islands of Hawai’i including Oahu, Maui, Moloka’i, and the big island of Hawai‘i. Coordinates given are for the Hawai‘i School for the Deaf and Blind (formerly the Diamond Head School for the Deaf and Blind) where many of the current users of Hawai‘i Sign Language learned the language in informal situations.

Lexicostatistical comparison by James Woodward of Hawai‘i Sign Language with American Sign Language and other documented sign languages shows that Hawai‘i Sign Language is an independent language that must for now be classified separately from all other known sign languages as a Pacific Sign Language Isolate. Preliminary examination suggests that Hawai‘i Sign Language is an SOV language, typologically distinct from languages it has come into contact with, e.g. Hawaiian (VSO), (Pidgin) English (SVO), and American Sign Language (SVO). Because there are no adequate linguistic studies of Pacific Island sign Languages, it is unknown if Hawai‘i Sign Language is related to any other sign languages in the Pacific. Further research is urgently needed to classify Hawai‘i Sign Language typologically and to determine if Hawai‘i Sign Language is typologically similar or distinct from other sign languages in the Pacific.

The research team has identified 40 Hawai‘i Sign Language users, all elderly, many aged 80 or older. Their estimate based on general population statistics is that there are no more than 140 to 280 Hawai‘i Sign Language users, and quite likely far fewer. Hawai‘i Sign Language is “critically endangered” since there are only a few elderly users, the absolute number of users is very low, only a small percentage of community members use the language and the rate of language shift is very high, and the language is only used in a limited number of situations. Code-shifting or code-mixing involving American Sign Language is very frequent. There is an urgent need to document the language because until this collection there was no grammar, dictionary and only a very limited annotated corpus.


Special characteristics

This collection will be the first in-depth study of any indigenous sign language in the Pacific. It provides an important foundation for future research on other undocumented indigenous sign languages (on Western Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Rennell Island, among others) that are endangered due to encroachment from either American Sign Language or Australian Sign Language. However, presently, we have no idea of the number of sign languages in the Pacific and their possible genetic relationships. This study of Hawai‘i Sign Language establishes an important foundation for this much needed future research.


Collection contents

The materials in this collection were collected with the intention of minimizing American Sign Language interference by focusing topics on genealogies of Deaf people and previous social relationships and interactions of Deaf people in the past. To make the setting for interviews more evocative of the time Hawai‘i Sign Language was used as a preferred language of Deaf people in Hawai‘i, the research team worked with historical attestations and artefacts, such as documents, photos, films, posters, and Deaf art from the 1940’s or earlier.

Data was primarily collected as digital video, audio, and images, using techniques for eliciting forms and for collecting spontaneous language use. Data of three linguistic types were collected: lexical data, grammatical data, and original, spontaneous texts. Data was elicited as much as possible through pictures rather than through printed or finger-spelled words or American Sign Language signs. Lexical data included a version of the Swadesh word list modified for Sign Linguistics, vocabulary for topics in the teaching books and used in the companion dictionaries, and lexical items that individual consultants indicate having special memories of. Grammatical data included both elicited data to be incorporated in the teaching books, data leading to typological classification, such as subject, object, verb word order, order of nouns and numerals, etc. and free conversational data. Spontaneous texts were collected in response to questions about Deaf History/Culture when Hawai‘i Sign Language was widely used. These questions were designed by project staff and conducted by Lambrecht, and encouraged the recording of conversations and personal and historical narratives.

When completed, the collection will include:

  • at least 3 handbooks for teaching Hawai‘i Sign Language, with 10 lessons in each book and approximately 125 pages in each book. Each lesson will generally have four parts: an introduction of 20 to 30 new Hawai‘i Sign Language vocabulary items on a specific topic, 12 to 20 sample sentences showing how Hawai‘i Sign Language users construct grammatical sentences with these vocabulary items, homework exercises based on the vocabulary and example sentences, and a short section talking about additional relevant linguistic and cultural information about how this topic is discussed in Hawai‘i Sign Language, including but not limited to how Hawai‘i Sign Language grammatical structure differs from English, American Sign Language, and Hawaiian.
  • at least three companion Hawai‘i Sign Language-English & English-Hawai‘i Sign Language dictionaries tied to each of the teaching books, approximately 100 pages each. Each companion dictionary will have an explanation of sign “alphabetization” used, an Hawai‘i Sign Language to English dictionary (at least 250 entries), and an English to Hawai‘i Sign Language dictionary (at least 250 entries). Each entry will show a line-drawing or a photograph or photographic representation of a sign, the form class(es) of the vocabulary item, the lesson in the teaching book where the item is introduced (where examples of its grammatical use can be found), and the English translation of the sign.
  • a comprehensive Hawai‘i Sign Language-English and English-Hawai‘i Sign Language dictionary, all the signs in the companion dictionaries and additional signs collected. The comprehensive dictionary will have an introduction providing historical and grammatical information on the sign language, a Hawai‘i Sign Language to English dictionary (at least 1,000 entries), and an English to Hawai‘i Sign Language dictionary (at least 1,000 entries).
  • at least 20 hours of video recordings of Hawai‘i Sign Language
  • at least five hours of the video recordings fully transcribed in five tiers with ELAN, covering dominant hand, non-dominant hand, non-manual expression, form class, and free translation
  • 15 hours transcribed in free translation and, time permitting, transcribed in as many of the other four tiers as possible
  • metadata for all materials
  • an exhibit on Hawai‘i Sign Language and its users (including printed and videotaped language data and historical artefacts from the lives of Hawai‘i Sign Language users) ready for the Centenary Celebration of the Hawai‘i School for the Deaf and Blind in 2014


Collection history

The materials in this collection were gathered and prepared between 2013 and 2016 during the research for James Woodward’s Major Documentation Project funded by ELDP.


Other information

The materials will also be archived at the Kaipuleohone archive at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa as a secondary locally accessible archiving site.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Woodward, James. 2014. Documentation of Hawaii Sign Language: Building the Foundation for Documentation, Conservation, and Revitalization of Endangered Pacific Island Sign Languages. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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