Language of the Month March 2023: Hawaiʻian

By Sahara Al-Madi

E Ola Ka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Language endangerment is a serious concern for humanity. Sustaining the life of a language means supporting the life and culture of a community. It is necessary to support the longevity of Hawaiʻi through language nests as it contains vast history, traditional knowledge, and connection to the land and its inhabitants. 

Hawaiʻi is one of the most critically endangered languages in the world today. The definition of an endangered language would be a language that is at risk of no longer being used, as its speakers shift to another language or die out. According to a 2016 state government report, 18,000 people living in the state say they speak Hawaiʻian at home. That number reflects a huge increase over the past several decades. The state of Hawaiʻi is multicultural and multilingual. As of 1978, Hawai‘ian and English are the two official state languages. The Hawaiʻi State Department of Education lists the top five languages spoken at home as Ilocano, Chuukese, Marshallese, Tagalog, and Spanish. Hawaiʻi Creole is another common spoken language which can be heard in colloquial settings. 

No ke Kumu Ulu, The Ulu Tree, is the second in a series of traditional Hawaiʻian stories retold for today’s learners. In this bilingual tale, Ku provides Hawaiʻi’s first ulu tree and saves his people from famine. This story, part of the Kuuna Series, is presented by Kamehameha Publishing in partnership with Hale Kuamoo Hawaiʻian Language Center at the University of Hawaiʻi-Hilo.

Listen in Hawaiʻian

Listen in English

Learning how to implement successful language nests is important for the wellbeing of our global communities. According to the University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Hawaiʻi Language Research and Translation (IHLRT), successful language revitalization over the last 40 years has kept the Hawaiʻian language alive and produced nearly 20,000 speakers. However, that is less than 5% of all Hawaiʻians and 2% of Hawaiʻi’s people today with some fluency in Hawaiʻian. Hawaiʻian language activist Larry Kimura led the charge in the 1970’s and succeeded by having the Hawaiʻi’s Department of Education sanction Hawaiʻian-language immersion schools. Kimura started a 90-minute radio program called Ka Leo Hawai’i where he began interviewing native language speakers. He estimated there were about 2,000 people left of this generation who grew up speaking Hawaiʻian in the home. They started their first Hawaiʻian school called Pūnana Leo, which means “nest of voices.” Today, that effort has grown to 21 Hawaiʻian language “immersion” schools throughout the islands as well as non-profit private immersion schools such as the Keiki O Ka `Āina Family Learning Centers and Ke Kula ‘o Pi’ilani. Language nests are part of a solution to endangered languages. Success is not just having the schools and the educational programs, but hearing the language being spoken again from caretaker to child and in everyday life. Larry Kimura states that there is another ingredient required to revive a language, which is a commitment by a community to keep it alive by their practice. You can see videos of the schools on our Hawaiʻian Language Preservation page.

The episode below looks at IHLRT with Dr. Puakea Nogelmeier and his team, who are working with the ‘Ike Wai project to better understand the historic and cultural importance of freshwater resources in Hawai‘i. The study of past documentation in Hawaiʻian supports the importance of connecting with the language of the original inhabitants of a land. The Hawaiʻian language carries necessary traditional knowledge that is beneficial in understanding how fresh water was used in the past, how it has changed as Hawaiʻi has developed, and how this influences knowledge of fresh water resources in our present time. 

VOS4-4 Full Episode – Translating Hawaiʻian Newspapers from Voice of The Sea TV on Vimeo.

The Hawaiʻian language is essential for the connection of the land and its inhabitants. Supporting its longevity is beneficial to our global community as it sustains diverse history and knowledge of our humanity. I hope I have sparked your interest in this topic. I would love to further research Hawai‘ian and expand on virtual Hawaiʻian revitalization efforts such as Leokï, historical and linguistic analysis of Hawaiʻian, as well as providing  more resources to support language nests in Hawaiʻi.

Works Cited

Goo, Sara Kehaulani. “The Hawaiʻin Language Nearly Died. A Radio Show Sparked Its Revival.” NPR, NPR, 22 June 2019,ʻi-language-nearly-died-a-radio-show-sparked-its-revival. 

Institute of Hawaiʻian Language Research and Translation. “IHLRT .” Hawaiʻi Sea Grant,ʻi-language-research-and-translation/ihlrt-about/. 

Wilson, William H.. “East Polynesian Subgrouping and Homeland Implications Within the Northern Outlier–East Polynesian Hypothesis.” Oceanic Linguistics 60 (2021): 36 – 71.

Additional Information and Resources

Hawaiʻian Linguistic Analysis
A close phonetic study of Hawaiʻian shows us variations of consonant placement. According to the Endangered Languages Project, /k/ and /t/ are interchangeable variants of the same consonant in Hawaiʻian on all islands. For example, [tūtū] and [kūkū] both mean ‘grandma’ or ‘grandpa’. In the Ni‘ihau variety of Hawaiʻian, [katahiaka], [takahiaka], and [takahiata] are all words used which share the same definition of ‘morning’. In the standardized Hawaiʻian alphabet, this word is spelled as [kakahiaka]. An interesting observation in the Ni’ihau variation of Hawaiʻian is that the consonants /l /and the trill /r/ are interchangeable variants of the same consonant. This is a result of the Hawaiʻian alphabet promulgated by Christian missionaries of the 1820’s.  /l/ and /r/ were spelled as /l/ only and /k/ and /t/ would only be spelled as /k/. 

New Oceanic Linguistic Theory
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi, a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio, shared an article in 2021 highlighting new linguistics research by University of Hawaii, Hilo Hawaiʻian Language Professor William “Pila ” Wilson. This theory suggests that the original settlers of the Hawaiʻian Islands did not come from Sāmoa but from atolls just outside the Polynesian Triangle near the Solomon Islands. Wilson identifies more than 200 linguistic changes that are shared exclusively by these Polynesian outlier islands and East Polynesia, but not with Sāmoa. He claims that his studies show the people of the Northern Line Islands, including Teraina island and Kiritimati atoll, are the ancestors of the Hawaiʻian language.

See more Hawaiʻian stories in our Sharing Our Stories exhibit

Hawaiʻian Pacific University

Hawaiʻian Public Radio

Hawaiʻian Online Dictionary

Hawaiʻian Curriculum Materials 

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Fanni is Radnóti's wife
Located near the Tang capital city of Chang’an, site of the modern city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, in central China.
Soldiers of that time commonly wore a white head cloth, similar to what is still worn by some peasants in China today.  The implication is that the conscripts were so young that they didn’t know how to wrap their head cloths, and needed help from elders.
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
The area of Guanxi, meaning “west of the passes”, refers to the area around the capital city of Chang’an.
This is an alternative name for a province in western China, now known as Qinghai, which literally means “blue sea”.  Kokonor Lake, located in Qinghai, is the largest saline lake in China.  
Before China’s unification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C. there were several competing smaller kingdoms.  Han and Qin were two of these kingdoms. Han was located east of famous mountain passes that separated that area from the power base of the Qin dynasty, with its capital in Chang’an. The Qin dynasty itself only lasted about 15 years after unification due to its draconian rule, but soldiers under Qin rule retained a reputation as strong fighters.
Oulart Hollow was the site of a famous victory of the Irish rebels over British troops, which took place on May 27, 1798. The rebels killed nearly all the British attackers in this battle. (Source: Maxwell, W. H. History of the Irish Rebellion in 1798. H. H. Bohn, London 1854, pp 92-93, at
The phrase "United Men" is elaborated upon in the Notes section below.


An Italian word meaning “foundry.” It originally referred to a part of the city of Venice where the Jews of that city were forced to live; the area was called “the ghetto” because there was a foundry nearby. The term eventually came to refer to any part of a city in which a minority group is forced to live as a result of social, legal, or economic pressure. Because of the restrictions placed upon them, ghetto residents are often impoverished.

"You’re five nine, I am do-uble two"

A reference to the year 1959 and the year 2020.

"The Currency"

Meaning US dollars - this is drawing attention to the fact that Cuba is effectively dollarized.

"Sixty years with the dom-ino stuck"

This sentence is a reference to the Cold War notion that countries would turn Communist one after the other - like dominos. Cuba was the first domino, but it got stuck - no one else followed through into communism.


رحلنا, or "rahalna," means "we have left."


Habibi means "my love."


Ra7eel, or "raheel," means "departure."


3awda, or "awda," means "returning."


أهلاً, or "ahalan," means "welcome."

a5 ya baba

a5 ya baba, pronounced "akh ya baba," means "Oh my father."