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The Hawaiian Language

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When the Americans annexed Hawaii in 1898, English became the official language of the Hawaiian Islands.

Unfortunately, the beautiful native Hawaiian language had been threatened since American and European businessmen developed an interest in the islands in the early 19th century. When Captain Cook first discovered the islands in 1778, there were 500,000 native Hawaiian speakers. However, American and British influence grew in the following century, making English the language of choice.

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Close Relatives

Native Hawaiian is related to Polynesian languages such as Tahitian and Maori.

In fact, the first settlers on Hawaii were probably Polynesians from the southern Marquesa Islands and from Tahiti. Like other Polynesian languages, native Hawaiian has a soft, melodious sound to it, with many vowels and relatively few consonants. This may have been what led Captain Cook and his crew to describe the natives as “childlike,” an impression that probably lost currency with the crew after Captain Cook was killed in a confrontation with them.

At first, the discovery of Hawaii by the west seemed to enhance the growth of the Hawaiian language. The warrior-king Kamehameha the Great used western manpower and weapons to consolidate all of the Hawaiian Islands under his rule. Western missionaries created a Hawaiian alphabet to assist them in proselytising and translating the Bible into Hawaiian. Kamehameha the Great set up a constitutional monarchy modelled after the British system of Government, with a Hawaiian-language constitution.

Also, Hawaiian-language newspapers were printed and flourished, as most of the native population had learned to read. The monarchy was a time of major cultural upheaval for the native Hawaiian population. In addition to an influx of outsiders and a change in Government, King Kamehameha II also overturned the kapu system, an ancient taboo-based religious caste system, wiping out thousands of years worth of traditional beliefs in a single act and freeing lower-class Hawaiians and Hawaiian women from a repressive social structure.

However, increasing numbers of immigrants to Hawaii brought waves of diseases such as measles and leprosy, to which Native Hawaiians had no resistance.

This led to many deaths among native Hawaiian speakers. The lost Hawaiians were then replaced by immigrants from America, Europe and Asia. As the number of immigrants grew and American and British businessmen gained increasing political and financial power in the islands, many parents stopped speaking Hawaiian with their children because they saw English as the language of opportunity.

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Also, although Hawaii was never “banned,” once the islands became part of the US a law was passed specifying English as the primary language of instruction in schools. This law served to encourage the loss of language that was already occurring among the native population.

Due to this combination of factors, the number of Hawaiian speakers plummeted to about 1,000 native speakers. Many of these people are quite elderly and almost all of them live on the isolated island of Ni’ihau.

Modern Day Hawaiian

However, starting in the 1970’s, native Hawaiians began to embrace their cultural heritage, including the Hawaiian language. In 1978, Hawaiian was restored as one of the official state languages, along with English.

That same year, it became a required course in Hawaiian schools, so that every student in the school system is at least exposed to the language. There has also been an increase in Hawaiian-language schools, with some students being taught in Hawaiian and many more learning it as a second language. So, in addition to the 1,000 native speakers, there are now about 8,000 people that can speak and understand the language.

Hawaiian Translation

Hawaiian is a rich language, with many words having both a literal and a symbolic meaning. This is important to take into consideration when you are trying to translate material from English into native Hawaiian. Many words and phrases that sound perfectly innocent in English have two meanings in Hawaiian: innocent and not-so-innocent. In Hawaiian, these double meanings are referred to as “kaona.”

If you are planning to translate material into the Hawaiian language, make sure you have a skilled translator to help you – otherwise you may end up saying more than you intended to!

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