The December 10 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education has a long piece by Richard Monastersky on Hawaiian professors who are trying to make sure Hawai’i’s native language survives (the link will only last about five days):
On the first day of “Hawaiian Studies 474,” a dozen students line up just inside a classroom doorway, open their mouths in unison, and breathe life into an ailing culture.
Under a bank of fluorescent lights, young men and women wearing T-shirts and shorts chant an old Hawaiian poem asking permission to enter a place of learning.
“Kūnihi ka mauna i ka la’i ē,” they intone without stopping for breath, voices blending in a melody that hovers around a single ancient note.
Kalena Silva, a professor of Hawaiian language and studies at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, asks his students to repeat the entrance poem several times before he chants a response, ending in a drawn-out tremolo that fades to silence. Then he begins his traditional-hula class, starting with a lecture on the history of the dance.
As he asks questions, tells jokes, and keeps the students engaged, not a word of English passes his lips. This upper-level course, like others offered by the department, is taught entirely in the Hawaiian language…
Teaching in Hawaiian was actually forbidden by state law—until 1986! The article describes the efforts to repeal the law and establish Hawaiian-language schools:
The nonprofit group created its first preschool, on the island of Kaua’i, to serve a small community of Hawaiian speakers from the nearby island of Ni’ihau. That privately owned island has a population of some 200 people, who, to this day, use Hawaiian as their first language. The second Pūnana Leo, in Hilo, attracted families like that of Mr. [William (Pila)] Wilson and Ms. [Kauanoe] Kamanā, second-language learners rearing their children in Hawaiian.
When it was time for their son to enter kindergarten, Ms. Kamanā and Mr. Wilson started one of those, too, without authorization from the state. (A longstanding Hawaiian law prohibited educators from teaching in the native language.) They were prepared to go to jail for their actions. But they managed to get the law changed and to establish a full elementary school. Then came a laboratory school for middle and high school, called Nāwahi, which is run jointly by their college, the nonprofit corporation, and the state department of education.
Their efforts extend far beyond the usual activities of college professors. “We had to train the teachers and change the law,” says Mr. Wilson. “We had to make the curricular materials, and we even had to create words for things that hadn’t existed in the lives of the older people.” They brought Hawaiian into the modern world by inventing words such as huna hohoki, for neutron, and wikiō, for video.
Their efforts are bearing fruit:
“We’re finally at the graduate level, at the truly academic level,” says Mr. Silva. Hawaiians have watched for decades as non-native scholars studied Hawaiian historical documents indirectly through translations.
But now, students fluent in the language are starting to mine the hundreds of thousands of historical sources written in Hawaiian. “We are able to look at Hawaiian cultural material in our own language,” he says. “It gives us added weight and insight into this material.”
Nonetheless, the academic advances are only a small step toward the professors’ main goal of bringing Hawaiian back into people’s lives. “I’m looking forward to a time—I’m not sure I’ll see it in my lifetime—when there is a large enough community of speakers” to sustain the language, says Mr. Silva, while driving on the outskirts of Hilo.
Linguists estimate that it might take as many as 100,000 speakers to put Hawaiian on that solid a foundation. Only about 5,000 or 6,000 speak the language now, but schools and colleges are training more every year, says Mr. Silva as he pulls into the parking lot at Nāwahi, where faculty members and students are, day by day, resurrecting the language of Kamehameha.
“We’re not there yet,” Mr. Silva says. “But maybe in 50 years.”
At the end of the article is a little tutorial on Hawaiian words:
aloha (ah-LOH-ha): Accent falls on the syllable “loh” instead of others.
Hawai’i (ha-VIE ee or ha-WHY ee): The correct spelling uses an ‘okino.
Mā’noa (MAH-NO-ah): The kahakō over the first “a” elongates that vowel, and the second syllable is stressed.
mu’umu’u (moo oo-MOO oo): a type of dress, often mispronounced as “moo-moo.”
O’ahu (o AH hoo): The glottal stop is often left out.
Geoff Pullum, from whose Language Log post I got the link, says there are two spelling errors among the seven Hawaiian words, one of them “a spelling that couldn’t possibly be right for a Hawai‘ian word for phonological reasons”; the first person who sends him both words (email to pullum at the ucsc site in the edu domain) “will win a free cup of coffee at the book exhibit at the LSA meeting from me personally.” Act now; supplies are limited!