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 [see Update for permanent link]):

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!

Update (Oct. 2022). Monastersky’s article is now available here.


  1. Cryptic Ned says

    Well, there obviously can’t be an ‘okina before a consonant; I can’t imagine anyone writing an article about Hawaiian without understanding that, but apparently somebody can. Don’t know the other one.

  2. “Hawai’i (ha-VIE ee or ha-WHY ee): The correct spelling uses an ‘okino.”
    Should be ‘okina.
    “Mā’noa (MAH-NO-ah):”
    Should be Mānoa

  3. Christopher, I think you win the coffee. (I got the Mānoa one, but not the other. I suspect the apostrophe was intended to indicate the accent; if so, it was a bad idea.)

  4. What’s the intent of the second syllable -NO- being in caps? Isn’t the rule simply kahakō else diphthong else penultimate? It says, “and the second syllable is stressed.” Is that right? Is there a secondary stress? Or are there three errors?

  5. Why are you writing “Hawai’i” in the middle of an English sentence? Isn’t the English name “Hawaii”? Adding an apostrophe (or, worse, an `okina) seems to be the same sort of thing you were decrying in the Kiev discussion.

  6. I just thought it was amusing to have a pseudo-okina and an apostrophe in the same word. You’re right, of course, that in the ordinary course of writing English I would never spell Hawaii that way.

  7. My faith in you is restored. Now, can anyone explain why some people take pride in pronouncing the name as “hah-WAH-‘ee” or “hah-VAH-‘ee”, as if the first “i” isn’t there, while looking down their noses at the rubes who pronounce the middle syllable like “why” (for those who don’t make a w/wh distinction)? Is there some subtle complication in Hawaiian orthography or dialectology that I’m missing?

  8. KCimDC, I think its just a mistake based on people thinking that they are pronouncing things in a way that reflects the source language without really nowing.
    It’s the same kind of mistake that has caused “repartee” to be pronounced “re-part-tay”, and for being mocked when pronouncing “Chopin” to rhyme with “open”.

  9. It’s a nice article, and I thrill to read about any minority-language successes. But this is a non sequitur:
    When the Hawaiian professors started their work, only 32 people under the age of 18 spoke the language at home. Now some 2,000 children are enrolled in Hawaiian-immersion schools, and as many as 6,000 people have some fluency in the language.
    I mean, the enrollment figures are very encouraging, but how many of those children are actually speaking it at home? How many of those “who have some fluency” in the language actually speak it on a regular basis?
    I know that “Yiddish in the universities” was supposed to be the savior of the language, and while it’s definitely been a boon, it doesn’t ensure that people actually speak it…
    Back on topic: I have seen more and more instances of “Hawai’i” in English prose. How long before that becomes the new standard?

  10. As I recall, “Hawai’i” (neither ‘ nor ` is quite right, is it?) is a pretty common spelling within the state, despite the fact that the vast majority of readers do not speak the native language. The native pronunciation is also widely used. I can’t tell you why this is happening, but I expect that visitors are bringing these tendencies back with them, as I know I have.

  11. The form Hawai‘i is now the official spelling for the State. It corresponds to Maori Hawaiki and Samoan Savaiki. (Nearly every Polynesian group has an island named after that reputed homeland.) As an English word, “Hawaiian” does not need the ‘okina. Of course, adding the ‘okina in search terms on the web is a real pain on standard keyboards.
    The kids in the immersion schools really do speak nothing but Hawaiian all day long, and there is a real community effort to keep some of it going outside of the classroom. They don’t use English in the immersion schools until grade 5 or so, which constitutes a problem for NCLB, which mandates testing from grade 3. I’ve heard that the immersion school kids have scored better on the grade 6 English tests than their counterparts in English-medium public schools.
    The big problem for the language revival is how to maintain that tight Hawaiian-speaking community after they go on to work or college after high school.

  12. there is a real community effort to keep some of it going outside of the classroom
    That’s great to hear. Could you give details? Are there initiatives for parents, prospective parents, grandparents, that sort of thing? Are there attempts to get speakers of Hawaiian to live near each other?

  13. John Cowan says

    There is a Pacific submarine Internet cable called Hawaiki which stretches from Sydney to Hawai’i, where it forks into a Hillsboro, Oregon branch (the main one) and a Los Angeles branch (the backup). On the way to Hawai’i there are a number of side branches: Auckland, New Caledonia, Vanuatu (and on to Fiji), Tonga, American Samoa.

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