by Veronica S.
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
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
Hale Kuamo'o Hawaiian Language Center
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appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and
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