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Is the Hawaiian Language Dead or Alive?

Thousands more young people today speak ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) than did their counterparts 30 years ago. Or at least they’re schooled in it. But is that enough to revive a language?


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The University of Hawai‘i 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 Mānoa, Hawaiian language was made an academic department with the creation of the Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge in 2007. According to the college’s Nālani 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 Mānoa 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 Kanaka‘ole are composing new poetry in the ancient tongue, and they and others make the Nā Hōkū 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 Nā Kamalei, movements were becoming bigger and more exaggerated to get the message across,” notes kumu hula Patrick Makuakāne. “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, ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. We have a “Hawaiian word of the day” on the radio, Hawaiian-language programming on cable’s ‘Ōiwi 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 Pālolo (where quarterbacks at Ānuenue call their plays in Hawaiian), at Starbucks in Kāne‘ohe (where kids from Samuel Kamakau tank up) and at McDonald's in Mānoa (where the speakers arrive on skateboards). Even Bank of Hawai‘i 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 kūkākūkā (conversation) at the Lili‘uokalani Church lū‘au in Hale‘iwa. The only place I found an actual discussion in Hawaiian was in a room at UH Mānoa’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 ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i 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 Hawai‘i—a language spoken only by priests and the faithful? ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i 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. 




Photo: Matt Mallams 


Accidental immersion

Some activists say that the language never died, but persisted in “certain bubbles”—certain families, certain churches, certain civic clubs and certain hālau. 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 hālau.


Pōmaika‘i 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 Papakōlea. 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—Pōmaika‘imaliekekuinialohaokalani—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 ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i came later, and was accidental. Her oldest daughter, Malie, qualified for a Kamehameha Schools scholarship. On the list of accepted schools was ‘Aha Pūnana 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."

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Honolulu Magazine July 2020