The Hawaiian language has a history of suppression and displacement that has led many linguists to consider it an endangered language.
Since the 1950s, however, awareness has been raised concerning the dangers facing the Hawaiian language, and a revival of indigenous Hawaiian culture and language has emerged. Such efforts have helped to revitalize the Hawaiian language and helped to ensure that it is not lost completely.
Classification and Early History of the Hawaiian Language
The Hawaiian language is classified as part of the Polynesian subgroup of the Austronesian language family, and is closely related to a number of other Polynesian languages including Maori, Tahitian and Marquesan.
It is believed that Hawaiian developed from a Polynesian language of the South Pacific, probably Tahitian or Marquesan. Marquesans colonized the Hawaiian island archipelago around 300 AD, and were followed by a wave of Tahitian immigrants. The amalgamation of the Hawaiian and Tahitian languages is believed to have developed into the Hawaiian language.
James Cook’s Discovery of the Hawaiian Islands
The term “Hawaiian” comes from the name of the largest island, Hawai’i, in a North Pacific archipelago. The name of the island first appeared in written English when the island was discovered by British explorer James Cook, who wrote the name as “Owhyhee” or “Owhyee.”
Captain James Cook arrived in Hawaii in 1778, resulting in major linguistic, educational, and cultural changes for the Hawaiian peoples. Other westerners followed Cook’s arrival, including missionary workers from the mainland United States.
Missionary Influence on the Hawaiian Language in the Early 19th Century
Arriving in the early 19th century, these missionaries hoped to educate the Hawaiians. In order to teach them to write and read, they needed to translate the spoken Hawaiian language into a literary form. They designed a Hawaiian language alphabet consisting of only 12 letters: five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and seven consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p, w).
Part of the reason for this limited alphabet was the fact that the missionaries, untrained linguists, were not able to distinguish between certain sounds in the Hawaiian language, such as “t” and “k.” As a result, many Hawaiian names and words in the written form appeared to be very different from their original spoken form. “Honoruru” for example became “Honolulu.”
Impact of the Written Hawaiian Language
The linguistic work done by missionaries was enthusiastically received by many Hawaiians, who quickly undertook the task of learning to read and write the Hawaiian language. By the late 1800s, the written Hawaiian language was being used in Hawaiian courts, schools, and government offices.
Decreasing Numbers of Hawaiian Language Speakers After 1820
As the missionary influence in Hawaii was felt, the number of native speakers of the Hawaiian language began to decrease from the 1820s onward. Native Hawaiians also began to learn English, which came to largely displace the Hawaiian language on almost all of the inhabited islands.
In 1893, the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy further contributed to the decreased influence of the Hawaiian language. The provisional government that was installed after the fall of the monarchy made efforts to affirm the superiority of the English language throughout the Hawaiian Islands.
In 1896, this provisional government prohibited the teaching and speaking of Hawaiian in all of Hawaii’s public schools. This type of suppression of the Hawaiian language continued after US annexation of the territory in 1898, and well into the first half of the 20th century.
1950 and Onward: Attempts to Revive the Hawaiian Language
Around 1950, awareness was raised regarding the significant decrease of Hawaiian language speakers. Since then, an increasing amount of attention has been called to the issue, resulting in efforts to revive and promote the use of the native Hawaiian language.
A renaissance of Hawaiian culture emerged in the 1970s, renewing Hawaiian pride in its native traditions and language. In 1978, Hawaiian was made an official language of the State of Hawaii, and by 1987, the language restrictions imposed by the provisional government in 1896 were lifted, so that Hawaiian was once again permitted to be taught in public schools.
Hawaiian-Language Immersion Programs
Public Hawaiian-language immersion preschools were instituted in 1984 and were soon followed by the institution of numerous other Hawaiian-language immersion schools. The first generation of children who attended these preschools has now graduated from or is finishing college, and many of these young people speak the Hawaiian language fluently.
Hawaiian: An Endangered Language?
Despite efforts to suppress the Hawaiian language in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the language continued to survive. The number of speakers dwindled significantly, however, decreasing to only several thousand.
Although Hawaiian was once the major language spoken on the Hawaiian Islands, today only a few thousand of Hawaii’s inhabitants claim it as a mother tongue. However, it is popularly learned as a second language and is taught in public schools. The number of native speakers continues to decrease, but most linguists believe that the language will not become extinct for several more generations.
Hawaiian Language Today
Today, Hawaiian is one of the official languages of the state of Hawaii, along with English.
Efforts to preserve the Hawaiian language have continued in recent years. In 1990, for example, the United States government passed a policy that recognized Hawaii’s right to use and preserve the Hawaiian language. The “Year of the Hawaiian Language,” an effort designed to raise awareness of Hawaii’s indigenous language and culture, was proclaimed in 1996.
The fact that Hawaiian is spoken almost exclusively in Hawaii and neighboring islands makes such preservation efforts crucial. Were the Hawaiian language to become extinct in Hawaii, it would be extremely difficult to re-learn and re-establish it.
Hawaiian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: ‘Olelo Hawai’i, ‘Olelo Hawai’i Makuahine
Language Family: Austronesian, Malayo-Polynesian, Central-Eastern, Eastern Malayo-Polynesian, Oceanic, Central-Eastern Oceanic, Remote Oceanic, Central Pacific, East Fijian-Polynesian, Polynesian, Nuclear, East, Central, Marquesic
Spoken by Approximately 0 people