OPINION — The history of the Hawaiian language

Published 5:05 pm Friday, July 2, 2021

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The Hawaiian language is as exotic as the people who speak it.

The Hawaiian alphabet or ka pi’apa Hawai’i is used to write words in Hawaiian. It was derived from the English alphabet on January 7, 1822, by Elisha Loomis an American Protestant missionary and adapted to print the Bible in the native language.

In fact, when British Captain James Cook made the first European voyage to the islands in 1778 he wrote their name as “Owhyhee.”

In the beginning the Hawaiian alphabet consisted of 17 letters-a, b, d, e, h. i, k, l, m, n, o, p. r, t, u, v and w; five vowels a, e, i, o and u and 12 consonants b, d, h, l, k, m, n, p, r, t, v and w. Moreover there were seven dipthongs ae, ai, ao, au, ei, eu and ou. In 1826 the missionaries decided to eliminate the letters which represented repetitiveness enabling the Hawaiian alphabet to be adapted to use one syllable and one sound. This made it easier for people to teach and learn the reading and writing of Hawaiian. For example, B and P were interchangeable; p was kept but b was dropped as well as t, r, d and v.

It is fascinating that there are no silent letters in the Hawaiian language. All vowels and consonants are pronounced. There is never more than one consonant in a syllable and all syllables end with a vowel. Furthermore, in most cases the second to last syllable is emphasized; for instance, Ho-no-LU-lu. In addition, if a word contains two syllables the first one receives the most stress; kapu=KA-poo. One has to be careful with writing and pronunciation of words because different words with different meanings are spelled alike so therefore the glottal stop or “okina became a necessity to differentiate. The ‘okina is a symbol that is apostrophe in nature and it was not made a letter of the Hawaiian alphabet until after 1864; for example, ko’u(my) and kou(your). As you can see Kaua’i also has a glottal stop. Consequently, the kahako or macron, which is a line above a vowel was used to distinguish between short and long vowel sounds.

Subsequently, the modern Hawaiian alphabet contains 13 letters; five vowels Aa, Ee, Ii, Oo, Uu and eight consonants Hh, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Pp, Ww and  ‘ which is the ‘okina or glottal stop. The order of the letters differ from the Latin order in that the vowels come first and then the consonants. The five vowels with macrons are not treated as separate letters but alphabetized after unaccented vowels. How you pronounce the letters is based on the fact that in the Hawaiian language they don’t follow the European letter names in most cases. The names of M, N, P and L were most likely taken from Greek and W was derived V.

I am thinking about the sounds of the words that the ancient Hawaiians spoke and what they sounded  like before English influence. These islanders had a language and way of communicating before Captain James Cook burst on the scene. If only some sort of record could be found detailing this information. With the knowledge in this article, I believe I could teach myself or others Hawaiian.

Maybe those of you reading this could do the same. That would be fun and a learning experience. We should appreciate this dynamic language for the culture and history that exists in its pronunciation and written forms. The spirit of aloha.

Judy Moore is a tour guide at The Central High Museum and lives in Wylliesburg. Judy can be reached at v5agabond1@outlook.com.