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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Note on the Type

John Derbyshire, a columnist with the National Review, is currently on vacation in Hawaii, and having a little fun at our expense on his blog. Seems the punctuation in Hawaiian places names has gotten under his skin:

“Maps, signposts, guidebooks, and the rest have been taken over by the kinds of pestiferous pedants who want us to write ‘Mumbai’ and ‘Qu'ran.’ Island place-names are now festooned with apostrophes and circumflexes, tildes and cedillas, and Keawe knows what else.”

From there, Derbyshire links to an older article of his, complaining about the PC tendency to replace the Anglicized names of peoples and locations with words taken from the local language.

Certainly, there is a little political correctness going on here in the use of Hawaiian diacritics, but only to the extent that diacritics reflect the correct spelling the word in question. HONOLULU Magazine was one of the first local publications to adopt the diacritics, decades ago, and it’s still a part of daily life at the magazine to look up Hawaiian words and place names to doublecheck where the okina and kahako go.

(Oddly enough, it’s a habit we have to work against on our Web site, where, so far, we haven’t been using the diacritics online, because the okina will frustrate a search engine’s ability to find what you’ve written about. However, today Google announced that its search engine can be used entirely in Hawaiian, so this may be less of an issue soon.)

Anyway, since Derbyshire, in his older essay, showed some sympathy for the role that tone of voice plays in conveying the correct meaning of a word in the Chinese language, I’m hoping he’ll get it when I say—the diacritics in Hawaiian do the same thing. Assemble the letters p-a-u in Hawaiian and it could mean anything from “finished” to “soot” to “moist” to “a woman’s skirt,” and the only difference is in the way these letters get pronounced, and the only way to render that in type is through the diacritics. Forgive my lazy umlaut in place of the kahako, below:

Pau (say pow) = finished
Pa‘u (say pah-oo) = soot
Pa‘ü (say pah-OO) = moist
Pä‘ü (say pAH-OO) = a woman’s skirt or sarong

I admit, however, that it has been odd, over the years, to hear everyone adopt hypercorrect pronunciations of Hawaiian place names. I’m sure that even as recently as the ’80s, it was acceptable, for any local, of any age or ethnicity, to pronounce Moloka‘i, for example, as Moh-loh-kai. Nowadays, if you don’t pronounce it as Moh-loh-KAH-EE, it’s like you’re some kind of retrograde colonial.


Updated 8/26/09 - 1:59 p.m.
John Derbyshire gave the following reply:

I am flattered and honored to have been quoted in HM, and am greatly enjoying my first visit to the Aloha state.  I am learning new things every day.  This morning, for example, I learned that I have been wasting my life chopping the heads off pineapples: they can be TWISTED off.  Pineapples come with a twist-top -- who knew?

To the matter in hand, though.  There is certainly a case for diacritical marks in written language, and I would expect that anyone whose nationality (or work, or academic interest) required fluency in Hungarian, or Irish, or Hawaiian would have fluent familiarity with the diacriticals.

Until about 30 years ago, however, it was assumed that persons NOT in the above categories were entitled to have foreign works and place-names presented to them in a way they could cope with, without any need for specialist training in phonetics or graphemics, for which of course most people have neither the time, the need, nor the interest.

It is the abandonment of that sensible principle that arouses my ire. As a child in 1950s England I got much pleasure from watching movies of George Formby playing his ukelele.  To now see this friendly old word, as I just DID see it, disfigured by an apostrophe and two overbars, IN THE MIDDLE OF AN ENGLISH SENTENCE, is annoying and insulting.  If the sentence had been in Hawaiian -- or, just barely, if the Hawaiianized word had been printed in italics -- there would be nothing to complain about.

And attempts to drag theories about "colonialism" and "racism" into the issue don't wash.  I have been involved with China and Chinese people for forty years.  I actually watched as "Peking" morphed into "Beijing."  That wasn't done by formely-colonialized peoples righteously asserting themselves against their former oppressors.  Of the dozens of Chinese people I know well enough to form an opinion, I don't know one who give a fig how foreigners write China's capital city.  Older educated foreigners say "Peking" very happily.  "Beijing" was foisted on us by white European and American journalists and editors, as a status display for their own multicultural sensitivity. No Chinese person had anything to do with it.  I quietly wonder whether any actual Hawaiian person has anything to do with trying to get me to write "ukelele" with diacriticals, or whether this is just another specimen of over-educated white New Class snobbery and self-advertisement.

Best regards to your excellent magazine.

John Derbyshire


Posted on Wednesday, August 26, 2009 in Permalink

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