Hawaiian Kanji Syllabary Design

Language Hat recently noted a kanji syllabary devised at a very unusual state charter school in Hilo, Hawa‘i, where Hawaiian is not just the medium of instruction, but also

the language of administration, support staff, grounds keepers, and school events for parents. This creates an environment where Hawaiian is growing much stronger than in standard immersion programs and also leading to a major increase in the number of families using Hawaiian as a first language of the home.

That’s exactly what the language needs to survive.

The kanji syllabary was not designed to replace the existing, steadily evolving orthography of Hawaiian. Instead, it was designed to give the students a better understanding of East Asia, where many of their ancestors came from. It also strikes me as a brilliantly concrete and practical way to instill some key linguistic concepts into young minds: the arbitrariness of signs, the phonetic basis of all full writing systems, evolution of writing systems, orthography design, syllable structure, and so on.

Unfortunately, the PDF version of the article posted online contains only graphic images of the entire kanji syllabary, the Hawaiian word chart on which the syllables are based, and actual samples of writing. So this blogpost unpacks the images and presents the characters as text in order to examine the design of this syllabary and compare it with similar systems. See the chart below.

Citation Order

The list-ordering sequence commonly referred to as “alphabetical” order differs according to the writing system of each language. In Korean, all the consonants of the alphabet precede all the vowels: ga na da la ma ba sa … a ya eo yeo o yo u yu …. Japanese kana are commonly cited starting with the five vowels, then adding a consonant before the same vowels: a i u e o, ka ki ku ke ko, sa si su se so, etc. Bilingual dictionaries in both languages arrange the native-language entries in those orders.

The citation order for the Hawaiian syllabary, known as hakalama, goes back to the earliest days of teaching Hawaiians to read and write. It owes little to foreign antecedents. Like Korean, however, consonant-initial syllables are cited before vowel-initial syllables. Unlike Japanese, all the consonants are pronounced with each vowel, then all the consonants with the next vowel, and so on: ha ka la ma na pa wa ‘a, he ke le me ne pe we ‘e, etc. If applied to Japanese kana the same principle would yield the order a ka sa ta na ha ma ya ra wa, e ke se te ne he me [y]e re [w]e, etc.

Choice of Symbols

The hakalama syllables of Hawaiian could easily have been written in Japanese kana, but Chinese characters (kanji) were chosen because they were common to all the East Asian ancestral homelands of the students: China, Japan, Korea, Okinawa. The first step in choosing logographic symbols was to turn the hakalama syllable chart into a chart of basic words starting with the same syllables—on the same principle as A is for Apple, B is for Boy, C is for Cat, and not Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta (or Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog), which are designed to enhance auditory discrimination. Thus, Ha is for Hana ‘work’, Ka is for Kanaka ‘person’, La is for Lani ‘sky’, and so on.

Basic kanji were then chosen to match the meanings of each of those words. Thus, Ha and Hana are written with the kanji for ‘work’ (作), Ka and Kanaka with the kanji for ‘person’ (人), La and Lani with the kanji for ‘sky’ (天). (Although I knew most of the Hawaiian words, I learned a few of them from the kanji.)

UPDATE: It should be stressed that these kanji were borrowed only for their semantics, not for their sound values in any other language. Thus, 人 is free of any possible Sino-Hawaiian readings (kini?) or Japano-Hawaiian readings (hiko?). Despite the origins in other languages, these symbols are used in strictly monolingual fashion.

Diacritics and Variant Readings

The kanji syllabary was not really designed to become a comprehensive orthography. It was primarily designed to expose students to East Asian Sinographic traditions, especially the concept of logography, where a symbol can stand for a whole word. The primacy of logography in its design is apparent from the clumsy way that diacritics are used.

When the symbols are used as logographs, no diacritics are required; but every time they’re used as syllables, diacritics are required to show whether the vowel is long or short. Thus, 石 without diacritics is to be read pōhaku, while the syllable must be written 石¯ to mark the long vowel and the syllable po must be written 石° to mark the short vowel. This seems completely backwards. In a true syllabary, symbols that represent syllables should be the unmarked case, while logographic usages should be the marked case. Matt at No-sword discusses the diacritic issues in more detail, with plenty of examples.

Hawaiian Kanji Syllabary Chart

Syllable

Word

Meaning

Symbol

ha

hana

‘work’

ka

kanaka

‘person’

la

lani

‘sky’

ma

maka

‘eye’

na

nahele

‘forest’

pa

pahi

‘knife’

wa

waha

‘mouth’

‘a

‘ai

‘eat’

he

hele

‘go’

ke

keiki

‘child’

le

lepo

‘dirt’

me

mea

‘thing’

ne

nele

‘lack’

pe

pepeiao

‘ear’

we

wela

‘hot’

‘e

‘ele‘ele

‘black’

hi

hiki

‘able’

ki

kino

‘body’

li

lima

‘hand’

mi

mile

‘mile’

ni

niho

‘tooth’

pi

pipi

‘cattle’

wi

wili

‘mix’

‘i

‘ike

‘see’

ho

holo

‘run’

ko

komo

‘enter’

lo

lo‘i

‘paddy’

mo

moku

‘ship’

no

noho

‘stay’

po

pōhaku

‘stone’

wo

wō (= hola)

‘hour’

‘o

‘oki

‘cut’

hu

hulu

‘feather’

ku

‘stand’

lu

luna

‘high(er)’

mu

‘insect’

nu

nui

‘great’

pu

pua

‘flower’

wu

wū (= makuahine)

‘mother’

‘u

‘umi

‘ten’

a

ali‘i

‘chief, king’

e

ea

‘life, breath’

i

i‘a

‘fish’

o

ola

‘life, live’

u

ua

‘rain’

UPDATE: Lameen of Jabal al-Lughat offers a very interesting analysis of writing systems that are not syllabaries, but do mark in an interesting variety of ways the vowel codas or lack thereof after each consonant.

In Canadian Syllabics, for example Cree, the shape of a symbol represents the consonant, while its orientation represents the vowel that follows it, and length or labialisation may be represented by dots.

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2 Comments

Filed under China, Hawai'i, Japan, Korea, language

2 responses to “Hawaiian Kanji Syllabary Design

  1. Pingback: Writing Niihau Dialect of Hawaiian « Far Outliers

  2. As the only Native Hawaiian that is a professionally trained university Japanese Language instructor and one who has proficiency in Hawaiian language, I believe the move to make symbols for Hawaiian language, while may be with good intentions, is not really a good fit given that Japanese language sound lengths do not match up well with the length of Hawaiian vowels. If we choose to use Hiragana or Kanji then essentially we are asking Hawaiians to change our language to sound more like Japanese. What would be the purpose of that? Hawaiian language experts, who are not necessarily the same as the average Hawaiian like me who speaks Hawaiian, are just that, experts who serve an important purpose but I doubt that many, even a Hawaiian like me who is generally supportive of Hawaiian and Japanese cannot agree to this. I love my Japanese and as a Hawaiian who teaches Japanese, I believe there are many comparisons, but to say the soul of our people, our language is interchangeable for arbitrary reasons is not right. If Japanese people remember, after WWII, some of the American military generals in charge of the American Occupation in Japan wanted to get rid of Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana altogether because some Americans felt that Japanese would use their written orthography to undermine American interests and world peace. But not for General McCarthur and some other Americans leaders, the Japanese language would look and feel exactly like English. The Americans allowed the Japanese to be who they are and at the same time saved their language and their cultural identity. Why would the Japanese and some Hawaiian language experts want to undermine our language and culture by telling us we are now Japanese? There is money to be made off of a project like this and I guarantee that any money made off of some obscure project like this, which I believe is “alohe” (I believe this is the word for unnecessary), is probably being made by experts. Ask the Japanese to change their language so it’s more like Hawaiian. There would be an uproar like you wouldn’t believe. The whole notion of using symbols that are not culturally or linguistically significant to the Hawaiian experience is not helpful or has meaning other than the so-called experts who seem to be trying very hard to change the essence of who we are as a Native peoples. Who would agree to this?

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