Is the Language of Paradise Struggling?

HawaiiAlso known as Ōlelo Hawai’i, Hawaiian is one of the official languages of the state of Hawaii, along with English. The Hawaiian language comes from the Austronesian language family and is similar to other Polynesian languages such as Samoan. Today, for several reasons, Hawaiian is officially an endangered language. This is its story.

By 1778, Europeans had discovered Hawaii. Their arrival marked an important phase in the history of the Hawaiian language. For the first time, Hawaiian words were written down, although on a somewhat limited scale. When European missionaries arrived in Hawaii, their desire to convert locals to Christianity led to the creation of a complete Hawaiian alphabet. The missionaries worked to increase literacy among the Hawaiian people which eventually led to Christian publications being distributed in Hawaiian.

Written Hawaiian really began to flourish with the advent of the newspaper. For 115 years, a newspaper written in Hawaiian was widely distributed throughout the islands. The use of Hawaiian as a primary language peaked around 1881.

But after that, the Hawaiian language began to fade out of fashion and English began to take its place. By 1900 there were strong sentiments among native speakers to use English instead of Hawaiian. This was reinforced by English instruction in schools and a social stigma against the indigenous language. More recently, there have been efforts to revive Ōlelo Hawai’i.

 Interesting Features of Hawaiian

Hawaii 2

Prior to contact with Europeans, the only written Hawaiian consisted of petroglyphic symbols. As a result, the established alphabet is based on Latin script.

Hawaiian words have a special pattern in terms of their ending – the words only end in vowels! Another fascinating pattern dictates the relationship between vowels and consonants. In Hawaiian, every consonant must be followed by a vowel.

One last interesting fact about Hawaiian is connected to the consonants – Hawaiian is famous for having very few consonant phonemes (a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that can convey meaning in a language). It has only eight compared to the 24 consonant phonemes of English – this is very few. So the Hawaiian alphabet only has 13 letters, 5 of which are vowels!

Modern Hawaiian

Today, Hawaiian is not nearly as widely spoken as English. However, there is a movement to revive it. The only place in Hawaii where Hawaiian is more prominent than English is a remote area called Niihau. In Niihau, it is common for children to learn only Hawaiian up to age eight. At that time, children commonly begin studying English.

Despite the scarcity of native Hawaiian speakers in Hawaii, there is some evidence suggesting a rise: in 1990, 75.2% of the population spoke only English at home, but by 2000, that number went down to 73.4%.

Hawaiian is a language that’s struggling to survive. Do you think it’s beneficial for more native Hawaiians to learn this language from a young age? Are there any ‘endangered’ languages you would like to learn?