The Hawaiian Language – Or: Why Only 13 Letters Sound So Beautiful

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Hey there! 😊

As always, thanks so much for being here! 

The Hawaiian language, or 'Ōlelo Hawai'i, is a beautiful language whose alphabet consists of only 13 letters. In this article we uncover the reason for this, learn about the origins of the Hawaiian language, its current critical status and what you (as a visitor to Hawai'i) can do to help prevent further language loss.

Listen to the episode right here or read the transcript below:

Transcript

Origins

The Hawaiian language is a variation of the Polynesian language and therefore belongs to the Polynesian language family. Some say it is a dialect of the Polynesian.

Originally, before the European settlers came to Hawai'i, it is assumed that Hawaiian was only an oral language. The first man who wrote down the Hawaiian language was Dr. William Anderson. He arrived on Kaua’i on January 21st in 1778 (he came with James Cook). He made a list of approximately 250 words and phrases of the Hawaiian language.

By the way: Hawai'i is the only US-state with two official languages: English and Hawaiian. In fact, the United States does not have one single official language. But 32 states accepted English as the main language.

Pidgin Hawaiian

Unofficially though, there is a third language in Hawai'i, called Pidgin Hawaiian or Hawaiian Creole English.

Pidgin languages form when two cultures are mingled and have to communicate, just like the Hawaiians and immigrant workers, who came from all over the world, had to. Words, phrases and grammar from one language gets mixed with words, phrases and grammar from the other language. A pidgin forms, a mix of two languages.

Pidgin Hawaiian uses Hawaiian words, but not the Hawaiian syntax, sounds, melody or pronunciation. Over time, more and more English words were incorporated.

Hawaiian Pidgin grew more complex, has its own grammatical rules and even got adopted by the following generations. By definition this means that Hawaiian Pidgin is not a “language-in-between” anymore, but actually evolved into a new language.

Basic Grammar and Sound

'Ōlelo Hawai'i sounds very soft, melodious and soothing. But why is that?

The Hawaiian language alphabet consists of only 13 letters, all of them sounding warm and soft. There are:

  • The 5 vowels: a, e, i, o, u
  • 7 consonants: h, k, l, m, n, p, w
  • and one letter very special letter: the 'okina (')

The 'okina indicites a brief pause between two letters, just as in Hawai’i.

In some words, you see a hyphen on top of some vowels, as in Waikīkī. 

This hyphen is called a macron, or in Hawaiian kahokō. Although not considered a letter, it signals that this specific vowel is pronounced just a little longer: [Waikeekee]

Another reason the Hawaiian language sounds so nice, is that each syllable ends with a vowel. There are countless examples for this, as it concerns every single word in the Hawaiian language. Try to pay attention to it yourself and you’ll notice this easily!

But there are two more very interesting facts about the language, which make it sound a song:

  1. There exist no consonant clusters. This means there are no two consonants that follow each other within one syllabe, such as: pr as in pr(ide), gr as in gr(eat), pl as in pl(ace) or cr as in cr(own)
  2. And finally: there are no sibilants in the Hawaiian language. Sibilants are s-sounds: such as s as in s(un), sh as in sh(ine) or sp as in sp(ecial)

    I hope that you are know a fan of the language just as I am! 😊

    Critically Endangered

    Next, I want to tell you about the Hawaiian language’s status, because, unfortunately, there are not many humans left who are able to speak Hawaiian.

    According to the UNESCO Alas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Hawaiian is a language which is critically endangered and facing extinction. Per definition this means that ”the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and that they speak the language partially and infrequently”. Sadly, since the end of the 19th century the language was spoken less and less. This is closely linked to the end of the Kingdom of Hawai'i in 1893.

    With James Cook’s arrival in 1778, there began a time of invasion of languages. This, ironically, is another thing that ”came with the settlers”. Because of Hawai'i’s position as the center for trade of sandalwood, whaling, as a stopover for navigators and explorers, the arrival of immigrant workers and missionaries and later of American businessmen and citizens, English gradually suppressed the Hawaiian language. At the same time, Hawaiian traditions and way of life lost their importance. It was forbidden to speak Hawaiian in schools and “English-only” schools were opened.

    This lack of appreciation, acceptance and interest in foreign cultures almost led to the extinction of this precious culture and beautiful language.

    I am so happy to tell you that from 1970, the language has been experiencing a revival and is also being taught again in school.

    As a visitor to the Hawaiian Islands, YOU can help to support the rebirth of the Hawaiian language. Remember a few words and phrases, try to pronounce them correctly and use them as often as you can when interacting with people in Hawai'i. You can always use the Hawaiian words for specific locations instead of the English ones and greet the people with aloha and say thank you by saying mahalo

    The FREE MĀLAMA (CARE FOR) HAWAI‘I PRE-TRAVEL COURSE contains an entire module about the Hawaiian language and therefore makes it really easy for you to learn a wee bit of Hawaiian (and hence to become a more thoughful traveler).

    You can find all the details about the course and how to enroll here.

    Can't wait to see you there! 😊

    Be kind and love nature, 

    Daniela

    PS: If you liked this article you will definitely like this course, as the article is basically a transcript of the first lesson in the Hawaiian language module. The online course just contains a voice over and a few pretty slides.😊

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    [Image credit: Pexels on Pixabay, location: Hawai'i]

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