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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 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Her husband’s support came along, and Lyman’s own uncertainty has been replaced by a sense of connection to Hawaiian culture.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 Papakōlea.


“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 ‘ōlelo in ways both large (driving all four kids, every day, to Samuel Kamakau charter school in Kāne‘ohe) 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 mānaleo (a native speaker) in Waipi‘o Valley, and she started blasting me with all the mele she knew—and focused on my pronunciation.” 


Kahele took ‘ōlelo 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 Waipi‘o 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, Māmaka 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 ‘ōlelo. 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 nā makamaka kipa mai i ke Kahua Mokulele Kau‘āina O Honolulu!  E nā ‘ōhua e ha‘alele ana, no ‘oukou ka maluhia o ka holo ‘ana a ho‘i hou mai.  E nā malihini i hō‘ea mai me nā kama‘āina pū kekahi, ke aloha o ka ‘āina iā ‘oukou a pau! (“Welcome to the Honolulu International Airport. If you’re headed out, travel safely and come back soon. Kama‘āina, welcome home. And if you’ve just arrived, we hope that you enjoy your stay in our Islands!”)


Greeting both newcomers and kama‘āina in Hawaiian was a no-brainer, says Keli‘i Wilson, Hawai‘i 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.” 


The Evangelist

Nogelmeier has been instrumental in other ambitious projects to revitalize the linguistic landscape. In 2012, he launched Ike Kū‘oko‘a (“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 ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i 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 pūne‘e (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 Kaua‘i 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 Pūnana 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 Pōmaika‘i 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.” 

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Honolulu Magazine August 2020