Overview of the Hawaiian Language

The indigenous people of Hawai‘i are commonly known as Hawaiians and the indigenous language of Hawai‘i is commonly known as Hawaiian. The other peoples of Hawai‘i are referred to as the people of Hawai‘i or Hawai‘i people. Those who are longtime residents, including Hawaiians, are also known as local people. Many Hawaiians and other local people are of mixed racial ancestry. There is a single Hawaiian language spoken throughout Hawai‘i. For centuries an oral tradition, Hawaiian has been a written language since the 1820s. There is a standardized alphabet for Hawaiian divided into two parts with the following order and names: nā huapalapala ‘ōiwi (the indigenous letters) - A (‘ā), E (‘ē), I (‘ī), O (‘ō), U (‘ū), H (hē), K (kē), L (lā), m (mū), N (nū), P (pī), W (wē), ‘ (‘okina) nā huapalapala paipala (the introduced letters) - B (bē), C (sē), D (dē), F (fē), G (gā), J (iota), Q (kopa), R (rō), S (sā), T (tī), V (wī), X (kesa), Y (ieta), Z (zeta.) Vowels can be marked with a macron called a kahakō in Hawaiian. Thus there are two versions of each vowel, e.g., ā (‘ā kō) and a ‘ā kō ‘ole.) The introduced letters are used primarily for words and names from foreign languages. Prominent among such foreign derived words are words in the bible. Hawaiians like most other Polynesians, adopted Christianity while also maintaining other traditional spiritual beliefs as private knowledge within the family.

The ‘okina, representing a glottal stop, and the macron distinguish many words. A number of examples follow: kou (your) and ko’u (my), kala (a type of fish) and kālā (money), ono (a type of fish) and ‘ono (delicious), pau (finished), pa‘u (soot), pa‘ū (damp), pā‘ū (a type of woman’s riding skirt.)

There are dialectal differences between the islands, but these are less extreme than the dialectal differences in English. All fluent speakers of Hawaiian can understand each other and all use the same writing system. Some of the differences have to do with entirely different vocabulary, e.g., pole fishing - kāmākoi (Hawai‘i and O‘ahu Islands), paeaea (Maui, Lāna‘i and Moloka‘i Islands), kāhele (Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau Islands.) Other differences have to do with pronunciation of the indigenous letters, somewhat similar to the way that different areas of the English speaking world pronounce words spelled the same differently. The best known differences are the pronunciation of the letters “k” and “w”. On Ni‘ihau, the letters “k” and “w” are often pronounced like the English letters “t” and “w”, while on the island of Hawai‘i, the letters “k” and “w” are often pronounced like the English letters “k” and “v.”

Hawaiian was once spoken by all ethnic groups born in Hawai’i. Immigrants often spoke a broken form of the Hawaiian language called pa‘i‘ai. When the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was overthrown, Hawaiian was banned in the schools and most of the Hawaiian vocabulary of pa‘i‘ai was replaced with English words. As a result of the ban on Hawaiian, Hawaiian children and other non-Anglo-American children in Hawai‘i adopted pa‘i‘ai as their own language between 1900 and 1920. Except for the tiny and isolated island of Ni‘ihau and with a few children raised by their native speaking grandparents, Hawaiian children born after 1920 could not speak Hawaiian fluently. Their language and that of other local people became pa‘i‘ai, popularly called Pidgin in Hawai‘i and Hawai‘i Creole English by linguists. Hawai‘i Creole English still maintains much influence from Hawaiian in its vocabulary, intonation, grammar, and culture of language use. Its existence has helped in the revitalization of Hawaiian language. Local people of all ethnicities are accustomed to the Hawaiian language in place names, peoples names, music, and mottos. They voted in Hawai‘i’s 1978 constitutional convention to reestablish Hawaiian as an official language in the State of Hawai‘i. An example of the impact is the fact that since the mid 1990s, checks written in Hawaiian have been accepted in local stores in spite of the fact that few of the store owners speak Hawaiian today.