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.
Goo, Sara Kehaulani. “The Hawaiʻin Language Nearly Died. A Radio Show Sparked Its Revival.” NPR, NPR, 22 June 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/06/22/452551172/the-Hawaiʻi-language-nearly-died-a-radio-show-sparked-its-revival.
Institute of Hawaiʻian Language Research and Translation. “IHLRT .” Hawaiʻi Sea Grant, https://seagrant.soest.hawaii.edu/institute-of-Hawaiʻi-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