Cultural Anthropology Hawaii Language revitalization Linguistic Anthropology

ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

A brief introduction to Hawaiian history and the transition to a written language. This post covers the alphabet and a few grammatical rules.

In the short week or so that we’ve been studying the Native Hawaiian language, I’ve already found out and noticed quite a bit about the language.

The Hawaiian culture is traditionally oral. Meaning, you know…that it wasn’t written. This concept is kind of mind boggling for people that grow up surrounded by books and all that. I have a friend from South Africa who is Zulu. As the oldest male in his family, it would traditionally be his responsibility to memorize the lineage of his family. 400 generations of it.

You read that right. He’s supposed to memorize 400 generations of his family’s lineage. He says there are computers now, he doesn’t see the need to spend his entire life making sure he has it memorized properly.

So, it’s kind of like that. Eventually things can change (and usually do in the 21st century).

Those things began to change in the late 18th century, when in 1778, Captain Cook (whose ship was found off the coast of Rhode Island) showed up. And as history has repeatedly shown, Europeans showing up doesn’t bode particularly well for indigenous societies. We don’t get to that part just yet though.

In the 1820s, Protestant missionaries showed up and took an interest in transcribing the native language because it’s a lot easier to get people to believe in your god when they can read how cool of a god you have in their own tongue. By 1826, the missionaries had created a written Hawaiian alphabet, and literacy rates among indigenous Hawaiians were very high.

This proved very fortuitous when from the 1830s until 1949, there were a number of efforts to suppress the Hawaiian language. From stigmatization to outright banning, the efforts were nearly successful. The language was literally illegal in schools in the United States from 1898 until 1949. Families were made ashamed of their heritage and children were actually expelled from school for speaking it.

With the end of the ban came slowly-growing interest. In 1978 the language became recognized as an official language of the state of Hawaii, and in 1984, the language started getting taught in public schools, starting at the pre school level.

And so for the first time in almost a century, children were once again being raised with their native language. Revitalization efforts are pretty strong and they have been remarkably successful.

The Endangered Languages Project reported that in the first decade of the 21st century, there were approximately 300 native speakers of the language. Wikipedia lists that according to the 2011 census, there are perhaps 3000 native speakers now, with an additional 20,000 speakers of the language.

That’s impressive, but still quite fragile.

That’s where we come in.

The Hawaiian language has just 12* letters! The five vowels—a e i o u, and 7* consonants—h k l m n p w. Notice the asterisk? That’s because Hawaiian is super awesome and contains a glottal stop! That’s represented by the ‘.

The ‘ is called the ‘okina, which is kind of fun because ‘okina starts with an ‘okina. It’s considered a consonant sound, but sources seem to go back and forth with referring to it as a “letter” or just as a consonant sound. It’s officially recognized as a letter, though.

The ‘okina can appear at the beginning of a word or between to vowels. Which is a rule followed by all consonants in the language. Never forget your ‘okina, because without it, the entire meaning of the word changes.

Additionally, Hawaiian contains a macron, which is a bar placed over vowels. In Hawaiian it’s called a kahakō. The kahakō draws out the sounds of the vowels, which means that the stress placed on vowel sounds can drastically change the meaning of words, so pay close attention to it.

And then lastly, Hawaiian contains like a million diphthongs. Well, 7.

ae, ai, ao, au, ei, eu, and ou.

Diphthongs are combinations of vowel sounds. Basically when you see two vowels next to one another, it’s a diphthong. In Hawaiian you pronounce the vowels separately but sorta gliding into one another, rather than them indicating some other sound that the combination of vowel sounds could conceivably make.

Just read it again, it’s not as complicated as it sounds.

That’s really all for now. 5 vowels, 7 consonants, 7 diphthongs, one diacritic. You can’t end a word with a consonant and consonants must be proceeded by a vowel.

Boom, you can speak (or read) Hawaiian.

Keep an eye out though, I’ll be putting together a short video that goes over the Hawaiian alphabet, with pronunciation of the names of the letters themselves as well as the sounds they make in words. And a couple more rules related to pronunciation of stuff. But that’s all for now, and we’re well on our way.

Keep an eye on The Hawaiian Language Revitalization Project Facebook page for all the updates!

Mahalo no ka heluhelu ‘ana!

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. Pedal Powered Anthropology is an anthropological educational initiative that seeks to bring profound travel experiences to a local level while encouraging others to get out and explore the world around them. This blog details all aspects of my work as Anthrospin, including my take on topics within four fields anthropology as well as bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

1 comment on “ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

  1. Pingback: Let’s Get Down to Business!! – Pedal Powered Anthropology

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