Hawaiian Language: Dead or Alive?
Olelo Hawaii: Ke Ola Ka Make?
The Waikiki Beach Marriott is hardly a hotbed of linguistic revolution. Even on Thursday nights, when the Keawe ohana keeps alive the traditional repertoire of its late matriarch. Auntie Genoa Keawe sang at the Moana Terrace every week into her 89th year, and her presence remains. From a portrait hanging on the small stage, she beams out at the crowd as her son Gary Aiko plucks his bass, granddaughter Pomaikai Keawe Lyman holds forth on ukulele and vocals, and niece Momi Kahawaiolaa accompanies on guitar. (Alan Akaka, not related to Aunty Genoa, serves as MC and steel guitar impresario.)
The crowd of 60 or so includes dazed tourists, drifting up from the beach or down from their rooms, as well as a coterie of local fans and a smattering of former Islanders, paying homage.
The show follows the usual script: the quartet is decked out in matching dresses and aloha shirts, Akaka keeps up a practiced patter and the standard songs go out—“Papalina Lahilahi” for the hula dancers, “The Hawaiian Wedding Song” for the honeymooners and “Alika” for the regulars.
The Hawaiian music, Hawaiian lyrics, Hawaiian mood—are all faithfully rendered. But is anyone speaking Hawaiian? Not on stage, and not in the audience.
Then the youngest generation of the Keawe clan takes the spotlight.
Lyman’s two daughters dance “Sophisticated Hula.” Her two sons dance “Boy from Laupahoehoe.” This is all just a warm up for 4-year-old Enosa’s rendition of “Ka Uluwehi o ke Kai.” The Edith Kanakaole composition recalls the joys of gathering seaweed on a sparkling sand beach. Enosa knows every single word. And I don’t mean he has memorized them. He knows them.
All four siblings, like thousands of other fledglings across the Islands, are products of a steadily growing Hawaiian-language, immersion-school system. They have been happily gathering up Hawaiian words in the same way that Kanakaole and her clan once gathered limu kohu—not just since they started to sing, but since they started to talk.
If the Hawaiian language has come back from the dead, or at least the seriously moribund, these might be the poster children of its resurrection.
The Great Comeback, Or, Come part-way back
Thirty years ago, in 1983, a group of Hawaiian-language scholars met at Hokulani Cleeland’s house on Kauai to discuss the dismal state of the indigenous tongue. Their own informal survey showed that fewer than 50 children under the age of 18 then spoke the language fluently.
When children stop speaking a language, the language dies. (And languages are dying at a scary rate. Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say nearly half will disappear in this century. Today, we’re losing about one every two weeks.)
So the group at Cleeland’s house focused on children. Using a promising “language-nest” model out of New Zealand, they started a preschool in Kekaha, then started some on other islands. Using manaleo (native speakers) from Niihau and elsewhere, they created an immersive environment for preschoolers and offered support to parents willing to learn the language themselves and use it at home.
Student by student, family by family, school by school, the language nests focused on Hawaiian sentences and fostered Hawaiian values. When the fledglings were ready for elementary school, the group lobbied for elementary schools. When the elementary school graduates were ready for middle school, it lobbied for middle schools. When the middle schoolers needed high schools, it demanded those, too.
The Kauai group started a movement. The nonprofit corporation it founded, Aha Punana Leo Inc., grew from a startup to a $5 million enterprise. Today there are 11 preschools and 20 state-funded elementary and secondary schools. Private-school behemoths Kamehameha and Punahou—late to the language party—have added Hawaiian for “foreign-language” credit.
photography by matt mallams
The University of Hawaii started teaching Hawaiian as a foreign language in 1922, introduced a B.A. in Hawaiian language in 1979 and initiated a Hawaiian Studies degree at UH-Hilo (taught entirely in Hawaiian) in 1982. At UH Manoa, Hawaiian language was made an academic department with the creation of the Hawaiinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge in 2007. According to the college’s Nalani Balutski, a total of nine graduate and 111 undergraduate degrees have been awarded in Hawaiian language in the past six years. Maenette K.P. Ah Nee-Benham, the school’s dean, says that Hawaiian is the most popular and fastest growing language at the Manoa campus.
But to focus only on formal education is to miss the larger picture. In the years since the Hawaiian Renaissance, what we know as “Hawaiian music” has moved from a canon of traditional compositions sung by the old guard, Aunty Genoa, Mahi Beamer and Gabby Pahinui, to a burgeoning category. A vanguard of singer-songwriters such as Kuana Torres Kahele and Kaumakaiwa Kanakaole are composing new poetry in the ancient tongue, and they and others make the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for haku mele a hotly contested prize.
Similarly, Hawaiian-language skill has become ever more important at the Merrie Monarch Festival. And not just in the performance of chants.
“Thirty years ago, when I was dancing with Na Kamalei, movements were becoming bigger and more exaggerated to get the message across,” notes kumu hula Patrick Makuakane. “Today, the dancing is more nuanced, much more connected to the poetry. The words are paramount again.”
It’s not just music and hula that are giving us a soundscape with more, and better, olelo Hawaii. We have a “Hawaiian word of the day” on the radio, Hawaiian-language programming on cable’s Oiwi TV and a Hawaiian column every week in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Governmental ceremonies routinely begin with a chant or prayer, with an ever-broadening choice of speakers who can deliver them in Hawaiian. (The chanter at the Thomas Square Restoration Day ceremony on July 31 was a 30-year-old architecture Ph.D. student—and the youngest by far in the black-suited and red-caped retinue of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I.)
The fluid, vowel-heavy—and sometimes earthshakingly guttural—sounds of Hawaiian can be heard on the football field in Palolo (where quarterbacks at Anuenue call their plays in Hawaiian), at Starbucks in Kaneohe (where kids from Samuel Kamakau tank up) and at McDonald's in Manoa (where the speakers arrive on skateboards). Even Bank of Hawaii ATMs offer to dispense cash in Hawaiian. UH Hilo assistant professor Larry Lindsey Kimura estimates that fluent Hawaiian-language speakers, down to about 1,500 in 1983, now number more than 10,000.
Many more people use Hawaiian words, or even phrases. (Twenty-four thousand of us in 2008, according to census data.)
But, still, the Hawaiian language can hardly be called pervasive. *Those 10,000 native speakers amount to less than 1 percent of the statewide population. Honolulu is no Montreal. While reporting this story, and purposely seeking out Hawaiian-friendly crowds, I didn’t hear more than “Hiki no?” (“Can do?”) at the Aquarium’s Ke Kani O Ke Kai concert. And I didn’t hear a shred of kukakuka (conversation) at the Liliuokalani Church luau in Haleiwa. The only place I found an actual discussion in Hawaiian was in a room at UH Manoa’s Kuykendall Hall, where a master’s candidate in Hawaiian language was defending her thesis to a total of nine graduate students and professors.
So, really, has olelo Hawaii been brought back from the brink? Is it a living language, sprouting here and there, with a new generation poised to cultivate it in all corners of 21st-century life? Or is it just Latin for Hawaii—a language spoken only by priests and the faithful? Olelo Hawaii may be cool, but it rarely helps you get a job, rent an apartment or fall in love.
We can start each email with “Aloha,” end the day with “pau hana” time and even answer “‘ae” to the question, “hiki no?” That’s hardly a return to the level of fluency—and literacy—exhibited at the end of the 19th century, when hundreds of newspapers flourished, and Hawaiians were among the most literate people in the world.
Some activists say that the language never died, but persisted in “certain bubbles”—certain families, certain churches, certain civic clubs and certain halau. And, to a certain extent, the resurgence of the language is a process of making those bubbles larger, and adding some new ones to the mix. The spread of Hawaiian often comes down to a few very motivated individuals who create their own small networks, often helped by the larger communities of support they find in schools and halau.
Pomaikai Keawe Lyman, 32, didn’t set out to create a bubble, but speaking Hawaiian has become integral to her sense of where she and her family fit into the world. Far from the stage at the Marriott, we meet one Friday night at Liliha Bakery, after she has put her kids to bed in Papakolea. She speaks eloquently of her own language journey.
Lyman’s grandmother, Aunty Genoa Keawe, grew up hearing and speaking the language in its last throes. Born in 1918, she spoke Hawaiian with friends from her youth and sang in it for eight decades (sometimes incorrectly, she once joked). But she did not speak it to her children. Her eldest son, Gary, born in 1935, and her youngest, Eric, born in 1956, fit squarely into what is sometimes called the “gap generation”—born after Hawaiian was no longer in the conversational air, and educated before the renaissance.
At Punahou in the 1990s, Lyman describes her biggest preoccupation as how, at a school with so few Native Hawaiians (she let the five long and delicate fingers of one hand burst open to show me how many there were), she would land a Hawaiian boyfriend. After all, she wanted her children to qualify for Hawaiian Homelands, since she could not herself. (Her mother is Puerto Rican-Filipino, and Lyman is painfully aware of the power of blood quotient.)
Lyman had learned bits of Hawaiian in hula as a girl, and her grandmother had given her a Hawaiian name—Pomaikaimaliekekuinialohaokalani—set it to song, and explained the mele inoa (name chant) to her. Then, as a sophomore, Lyman suddenly decided to drop Japanese and start Hawaiian, which Punahou then offered as an elective.
Her immersion in olelo Hawaii came later, and was accidental. Her oldest daughter, Malie, qualified for a Kamehameha Schools scholarship. On the list of accepted schools was Aha Punana Leo O Honolulu. Lyman’s husband, himself a Kamehemeha graduate, resisted the idea of the children continuing in the immersion system after preschool. “There was a lot of unsurety,” Lyman says softly, “whether they would match up academically, or professionally or just in society.”
*Updated 6/1/13. Due to an editing error, our November 2013 feature "Hawaiian: Dead or Alive?" stated that the 10,000 native speakers of Hawaiian "amount to less than 0.1 percent of the statewide population." It should have read, less than 1 percent."
The family took the leap. Helped by courses offered for immersion-school parents, Lyman gave herself a crash course, learning alongside the children.
Her husband’s support came along, and Lyman’s own uncertainty has been replaced by a sense of connection to Hawaiian culture. Never was that connection clearer than when Malie was just learning how to speak in sentences. At that time, Aunty Genoa was in her late 80s.
“As my daughter was learning Hawaiian, she was speaking to my grandma, and I could listen to the two of them,” Lyman explains. “And it was good for my grandma, because by that time she was reverting to her earlier years. When she was my daughter’s age, she was speaking Hawaiian to her grandma. And this was in her home, in Papakolea.
“Although I have lost my grandma, I feel that I have gained—not a replacement, but something that can fill the hole.”
Over the air, on the screen, in the supermarket
Lyman commits to the revival of the olelo in ways both large (driving all four kids, every day, to Samuel Kamakau charter school in Kaneohe) and small (writing all her checks in Hawaiian). Check writing may seem like an insignificant act of rebellion, but she isn’t the only person who mentions doing this as a way of asserting Hawaiian not just as an official state language, but as a living one.
Musician Kuana Torres Kahele said he and most of his Hawaiian-speaking friends write checks in Hawaiian, too. Kahele, 35, came to the checkwriting tactic through a different route. He starting learning Hawaiian when, at 10, he began singing his heart out. His mother, he says, “was raised manaleo (a native speaker) in Waipio Valley, and she started blasting me with all the mele she knew—and focused on my pronunciation.”
Kahele took olelo class at Hilo High School in the early ’90s, because, he says, smiling, “Mom could help me with my homework.” By the time he graduated, he could hold a conversation.
“Mom gave me the tools to understand,” he says, “but music gave me insight into the old ways of speaking.” Kahele doesn’t want to be stuck in those old ways, though. So, when he is writing poetry, he hits the dictionary, seeking new words to express new nuances.
Or he hits up his relatives. For “Waimanu i ke Lauaha,” he went to Waipio to talk to his aunties and uncles. They gave him the names of cliffs, the names of places, the names of waterfalls. The song has 11 verses. “When you go down there, you can see why there are so many verses. You cannot cut a place short.”
It’s one thing to hear that musicians are pushing themselves to renew poetry. But a living language needs to exist offstage. One of the most interesting efforts to assure that Hawaiian isn’t a fossilized language like Latin is the work of the Hawaiian Lexicon Committee. To a certain extent, the Hawaiian vocabulary froze in the 19th century, when a series of laws solidified English as the language of government and schools (see timeline). Formed in 1987, the Lexicon Committee brought native speakers and elders together to figure out how to add to the language contemporary words and concepts (like “snack,” “email” and “biological evolution”). In 1996, the committee released a new-words dictionary, Mamaka Kaiao, as a companion to the authoritative Hawaiian Dictionary by Pukui and Elbert.
With or without new songs and new words, anecdotes told to me by friends and acquaintances convinced me that there is in fact more Hawaiian in the air today. And not just words and phrases—real dialogue. A Mainland kumu hula, on a flight home, recalls sitting next to a young girl doing her homework in Hawaiian. Gerard Elmore, executive director of the Ohina Short Film Showcase, noted an uptick—“the most we have ever had”—in Hawaiian-language films in 2013. A friend recalls reaching for a guava juice in a grocery store refrigerator, and hearing a mother scolding her kid in olelo. And Mountain Apple Co. president Leah Bernstein says, these days, backstage at concerts, she’s the only one not speaking Hawaiian. “When the dancers’ kids ask me something,” she notes, “I answer, ‘Auntie doesn’t speak Hawaiian.’ Their eyebrows arch.”
Public agencies and private enterprise are both getting into the act. Thanks to bureaucrats, Hawaiian street names are now perfectly pronounced over the PA system on TheBus—in the easy-to-listen-to baritone of UH language professor Puakea Nogelmeier. And, in February 2011, travelers began to hear a greeting broadcast throughout Honolulu International Airport—first in Hawaiian, then in English: Aloha e na makamaka kipa mai i ke Kahua Mokulele Kauaina O Honolulu! E na ohua e haalele ana, no oukou ka maluhia o ka holo ana a hoi hou mai. E na malihini i hoea mai me na kamaaina pu kekahi, ke aloha o ka aina ia oukou a pau! (“Welcome to the Honolulu International Airport. If you’re headed out, travel safely and come back soon. Kamaaina, welcome home. And if you’ve just arrived, we hope that you enjoy your stay in our Islands!”)
Greeting both newcomers and kamaaina in Hawaiian was a no-brainer, says Kelii Wilson, Hawaii Tourism Authority’s bilingual director of cultural affairs. “When you arrive in Paris, you hear French,” she says. “When you arrive at Narita, you hear Japanese.”
Nogelmeier has been instrumental in other ambitious projects to revitalize the linguistic landscape. In 2012, he launched Ike Kuokoa (“Liberating Knowledge”), an effort to digitize 125,000 pages of the 19th-century Hawaiian-language newspapers. (Over eight months, 2,700 volunteers from across the globe transcribed 16,000 typed-up newspaper pages.)
He’s currently cooking up a five-step plan to give a boost to the “living” part of the language revitalization effort. The plan starts with a TheBus App (providing pronunciation, meaning and a story for every stop). Then it moves to the movies (just as Star Wars was translated into Navajo, blockbusters will be created with lip-synched Hawaiian versions). He imagines a full-time, 24/7 Hawaiian-language radio station and more Hawaiian TV programming. In homage to a group that used to meet Tuesday nights at Ala Moana Beach Park, he’s looking to start daily conversation groups at different sites. Then there is “guerrilla public language”: developing audio and text cheat sheets with Hawaiian expressions to fill the “vacated spaces” of elevators, Zippy’s menus and Macy’s bathrooms.
He seems to be able to will the preposterous into being. Sixty years old, with a fringe of reddish hair, Nogelmeier started studying olelo Hawaii when he arrived in Honolulu as an 18-year-old from Minnesota. He found one mentor, Theodore Kelsey, who had learned Hawaiian in the 1890s. Then he found others. Much later, he went the university route, earning a master’s in Pacific Island Studies and a Ph.D. in Anthropology.
When asked about the state of the Hawaiian language, he leans back on one of the generous punee (couches) in his Kalihi home. “It’s strong in some places, but it’s tenuous,” he answers. “It is not secure as a living language. But it’s sure a lot more secure than it was 30 years ago.”
“In the ’70s,” he continues, “I felt like a renegade soldier. I don’t feel like I’m part of a brigade today, but I feel part of a community. Maybe a disjointed community, but a community.”
The cycle restored
One member of that community is Larry Lindsey Kimura, the UH Hilo professor who was present at that fateful meeting on Kauai in 1983, when scholars decided to focus on children. “Language is sometimes taken for granted,” says Kimura. “But it bears many aspects of our humanity beyond communication—who we are, how we think. If the Hawaiian language does not survive, then we as Hawaiians don’t survive.”
“Thirty years after the first babies started speaking Hawaiian at Punana Leo, we see them speak Hawaiian to their own little babies. The cycle is gradually being restored.”
Kimura’s words came back to me when Pomaikai Keawe Lyman, working on her grilled butter rolls at Liliha Bakery, said, “Going to Punahou, I was given the basics of how to function in society—but not the basics of who I am.” Her voice grew steadier. “My children are bright. They are able to switch. They will learn how to survive in society. They could grow up to run a lo‘i, or be a kumu hula, or just go back to these schools as teachers.
“But I know that they know who they are—they have an identity, a purpose, a connection to the land and their ancestors. They know that there’s a reason for the rain, for the clouds.”
The Rebirth of the Hawaiian Language • A Timeline
The State Constitutional Convention designates Hawaiian as one of the state’s official languages.