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Hawaiian Language

ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi - A Brief History


It is believed that the first settlers of Hawaii arrived from Hiva in the southern Marquesas Islands around 400 A.D. These settlers brought with them their gods, their plants, their culture and their language.

The ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, (the Hawaiian language) belongs to a family of languages from central and eastern Polynesia, which includes Hawaiian, Tahitian, Tumotuan, Rarotongan and Maori.

The arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778 marked not only the beginning of major changes for the people of Hawaii, but also changes in their language. Following Cook, other Westerners arrived, including missionaries from New England around 1820.

The missionaries were determined to educate the Hawaiians, including teaching them to read and write. In order to do this, they needed to give the Hawaiian language a written form.

The missionaries, who were untrained in linguistics, were unable to distinguish between many of the sounds in the Hawaiian language. They could not distinguish between t and k, l and r, or b and p.

When they were finished, the alphabet for the Hawaiian language consisted of just 12 letters found in the English alphabet and the ʻokina, (a symbol that looks much like a backwards apostrophe - "ʻ"). The new alphabet consisted of the vowels a, e, i, o and u, and the consonants h, k, l, m, n, p and w.

When Hawaiian names and words were given written form, many appeared quite different from their original spoken form. For example Honoruru became Honolulu. Ranai became Lanaʻi, Mauna Roa became Mauna Loa and taboo became kapu. The language was changed forever.

The Hawaiians were voracious learners. In a very few years they became one of the most literate people on earth. By the mid-to-late 1800s, Hawaiian became the language used in the courts, school system, the legislature and in government offices.

When the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1893, however, things again began to change for the language. The new, predominantly white, provisional government had, by 1896, prohibited the speaking or teaching of the Hawaiian language in any public school in Hawaii. This suppression of the Hawaiian language would continue following U.S. annexation in 1898 and last for most of the twentieth century.

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