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October 1997

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Ölelo Hawai'i
by Veronica S. Schweitzer     

Each language holds a history and culture, giving identity and roots. Yet, worldwide, 4 languages die every two months. Of the 6000 languages known, only 3000 will be left by the end of the 21st century.

Vulnerable to misplaced judgment, foreign influences and replacement by Creole, the Hawaiian language, 'Ölelo Hawai'i, has long been threatened with the same fate of extinction. Thanks to powerful revitalization programs over the last 20 years it will now, perhaps, be one of the survivors.

'Ölelo Hawai'i belongs to the Polynesian languages. Captain Cook and his companions recorded the Hawaiian language for the first time in Kaua'i, in 1778. They immediately noticed the great similarity to Tahitian and Maori. In communicating with the Hawaiians they used Tahitian words and gestures.

These early voyagers, who thought they had found an innocent paradise, described Hawaiian as "primitive, childlike, lilting, effeminate", and "simple". Reduplication ('ele'ele, wikiwiki) and the abundance of vowels seemed like baby-talk. They had no idea how to approach such a different language.

Hawaiian was an oral language. The 19th century missionaries, however, were supposed to teach their converts to read the Bible, and created a writing system with an alphabet of only twelve letters for words of indigenous Hawaiian origin. The Hawaiian language became the language of the government, remained the most commonly used language in daily life, and was used between the numerous different ethnic groups who had all arrived here to work the plantations.The alphabet was later expanded to allow for two unique characteristics in the Hawaiian word that the missionaries had missed.

First, there was the unnoticed consonant, a glottal stop. Try the sound in the American exclamation "oh-oh". The 'okina symbol (') now indicates this stop. Secondly, the five vowels could all function as longer sounds, now symbolized with a short line above the vowel. It became clear that Hawaiian was just as diversified and complete as the familiar European languages.

But the increasing influence of the United States pushed English forward as the language of choice. Soon, with the overthrow of the Kingdom in 1893 and the following annexation in 1898, the Hawaiian language was entirely banned from schools and government.

Today, there are only a thousand native speakers left, most of whom live on isolated Ni'ihau. Another 8000 people can speak and understand Hawaiian. Compare those numbers to the estimated Hawaiian speaking population during Cook's years: 500,000!

In the 1970's a renaissance of the Hawaiian culture emerged, and, within it, a renewed respect for the native language of the Hawaiian people was born. In 1978 Hawaiian was again made the official language of the state. Hawaiian language immersion programs are spreading rapidly with the Pünana Leo (Nest of Voices) schools, federally funded since 1989. These are now running through 10th grade. About 1400 students are being taught through Hawaiian, another 4000 are learning Hawaiian as a second language. In 1978 Hawaiian became a mandated course in public schools.

Supported by the Hale Kuamo'o Hawaiian Language center at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, a masters degree in Hawaiian language and literature taught exclusively in Hawaiian has just been approved. The center also works on contemporary lexicon and teacher training.

Thanks to enormous efforts, the true Hawaiian language breathes new life. In language we preserve memory and create a link to the future. We need to keep the Hawaiian language alive so our children may thrive and remember.

Donations may be made to :
Hale Kuamo'o Hawaiian Language Center,
University Of Hawai'i at Hilo
200 W. Käwili Street
Hilo HI 96720-4091

More information is on the Hawaiian Bulletin Board Kualono:
Hale Kuamo'o Hawaiian Language Center


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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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