by Sophia Schweitzer
Each language holds a history and culture, giving identity and roots. Yet, worldwide,
4 languages die every two months. Of the 6000 languages known, only 3000 will be left by the end of the 21st century.
to misplaced judgment, foreign influences and replacement by Creole, the Hawaiian language, 'Ölelo Hawai'i, has long been
threatened with the same fate of extinction. Thanks to powerful revitalization programs over the last 20 years it will now,
perhaps, be one of the survivors.
'Ölelo Hawai'i belongs to the Polynesian languages. Captain Cook and his companions
recorded the Hawaiian language for the first time in Kaua'i, in 1778. They immediately noticed the great similarity to Tahitian
and Maori. In communicating with the Hawaiians they used Tahitian words and gestures.
These early voyagers, who thought
they had found an innocent paradise, described Hawaiian as "primitive, childlike, lilting, effeminate", and "simple". Reduplication
('ele'ele, wikiwiki) and the abundance of vowels seemed like baby-talk. They had no idea how to approach such a different
Hawaiian was an oral language. The 19th century missionaries, however, were supposed to teach their converts
to read the Bible, and created a writing system with an alphabet of only twelve letters for words of indigenous Hawaiian origin.
The Hawaiian language became the language of the government, remained the most commonly used language in daily life, and was
used between the numerous different ethnic groups who had all arrived here to work the plantations.The alphabet was later
expanded to allow for two unique characteristics in the Hawaiian word that the missionaries had missed.
was the unnoticed consonant, a glottal stop. Try the sound in the American exclamation "oh-oh". The 'okina symbol (') now
indicates this stop. Secondly, the five vowels could all function as longer sounds, now symbolized with a short line above
the vowel. It became clear that Hawaiian was just as diversified and complete as the familiar European languages.
But the increasing influence of the United States pushed English forward as the
language of choice. Soon, with the overthrow of the Kingdom in 1893 and the following annexation in 1898, the Hawaiian language
was entirely banned from schools and government.
Today, there are only a thousand native speakers left, most of whom
live on isolated Ni'ihau. Another 8000 people can speak and understand Hawaiian. Compare those numbers to the estimated Hawaiian
speaking population during Cook's years: 500,000!
In the 1970's a renaissance of the Hawaiian culture emerged, and,
within it, a renewed respect for the native language of the Hawaiian people was born. In 1978 Hawaiian was again made the
official language of the state. Hawaiian language immersion programs are spreading rapidly with the Pünana Leo (Nest of Voices)
schools, federally funded since 1989. These are now running through 10th grade. About 1400 students are being taught through
Hawaiian, another 4000 are learning Hawaiian as a second language. In 1978 Hawaiian became a mandated course in public schools.
by the Hale Kuamo'o Hawaiian Language center at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, a masters degree in Hawaiian language and
literature taught exclusively in Hawaiian has just been approved. The center also works on contemporary lexicon and teacher
Thanks to enormous efforts, the true Hawaiian language breathes new life. In language we preserve memory
and create a link to the future. We need to keep the Hawaiian language alive so our children may thrive and remember.