Writing Niihau Dialect of Hawaiian

Atooi VocabularyWhen I was searching the web for information on the Hawaiian term hakalama for my post on the Hawaiian Kanji Syllabary Design, I came across an interesting sample of writing in the Ni‘ihau dialect of Hawaiian, which is both (at least in one respect) more conservative and (by definition) less standardized than Standard Hawaiian, having been continually spoken by the isolated community of native speakers on that privately owned island. Standard Hawaiian grew out of the Hawai‘i (Big Island) dialect at the other end of the archipelago, the dialect of King Kamehameha the Great, who conquered the other islands and established the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau were the last islands to join the Kingdom.

The writing sample comes from an online newsletter by Kumu Leimokihana Kanahele, who was teaching Hawaiian at Kekaha Elementary in the Waimea district of Kaua‘i in the spring of 2001. The page title is Nu hou no ta matou papa, which in Standard Hawaiian would (I think) be spelled Nūhou no kā mākou papa ‘News of/for our class’.

I don’t know enough Hawaiian to translate it fully or accurately. It describes two students practicing their writing lessons (na haawina hakalama). But I would like to note a few ways in which the local dialect and standard language diverge and intermix.

Na haawina hakalama

Aloha teia tau mau haumana o Kuulei ame Kamakauliuli te hana nei laua i ta laua hakalama. No ta hoomaamaa ana i ta katau ana i na hua palapala ma ta uhai ana i na hua palapala maluna o ta laua pute. Hana laua elua pelu o ta la. Hoomaamaa mau laua i teia haawina i mea e maitai ai ta laua katau ana. Mahalo Nui!

Missing symbols – This sample contains no marks for either the glottal stop (‘okina) or vowel length (kahakō). All of the double vowels in the sample above are pronounced with intervening glottal stops. They do not represent long vowels. I suspect the absence of the ‘okina and kahakō is as much due to technical limitations on the part of the school staff trying to publish on the web in early 2001 as it might be due to any linguistic limitations of the writer, who almost certainly learned Ni‘ihau dialect first at home, and not in a classroom, before becoming familiar with Standard Hawaiian.

UPDATE: On the other hand, the traditional Hawaiian Bible uses the same sort of underspecified orthography, which is quite sufficient for people who already know the language well. Standard Hawaiian writing with full diacritics is much more important for those who are learning how to speak the language, not just how to write it. And, at this point in time, second-language learners of Hawaiian far outnumber native speakers. For their benefit, a project is now underway to respell the old Baibala Hemolele, as well as to produce an audio version.

Preserving *t – Perhaps the main reason for branding Ni‘ihau dialect as conservative is that it preserves Proto-Polynesian *t as /t/. Throughout the eastern end of the archipelago, *t had changed to /k/ by the time Hawaiian was first reduced to writing. If perchance Captain Cook had landed first on Kaua‘i (spelled Atooi on some early charts), and then some great chief from that island had managed to unite the archipelago under his rule, perhaps we would now call the 50th state Taua‘i and the Tauaian spelling system the halamana. The consonants of the hakalama occur in English alphabetical order (ha ka la ma na pa wa [‘a]), so a spelling system based on the western dialects would omit ka and add ta (ha la ma na pa ta wa [‘a]). And the indigenous peoples of New Caledonia might call themselves Tanat instead of Kanak. (At least a maitai would still be a maitai!) Anyway, that’s not how things turned out, but I think it’s kind of refreshing to see Hawaiian spelt with t in place of k.

Mixing t and k – Of course, the writing sample contains both t and k. In general, k is an unequivocal marker of Standard Hawaiian, as in the names of the two students and in the focus of their exercise, hakalama. At the same time, t is a marker of Ni‘ihau Hawaiian. But pute here seems to be a localized back-formation from Standard Hawaiian puke ‘book’, and I’m not sure what to make of the word katau, which seems to straddle the fence. It looks like the earlier Polynesian source for Standard Hawaiian ‘ākau ‘right (vs. left)’, but I don’t see a corresponding hema ‘left (vs. right)’. The Standard Hawaiian equivalent is kākau ‘to write’ (mahalo to ‘Iona Ua‘iwa in the comments), from Proto-Polynesian *tātau, the same root from which English tattoo derives.

According to ‘Aha Pūnana Leo (the Hawaiian Language Nest Movement, whose bureaucratic acronym is ‘APL, not ‘PL, because there is no capital ‘okina), Kekaha is now the site of one of three special state charter schools that encourage use of Hawaiian throughout the school, not just in the classroom.

Ke Kula Ni‘ihau O Kekaha [whose name is in Standard Hawaiian], in Kekaha on the island of Kaua‘i is open to all native speakers of the Ni‘ihau dialect of Hawaiian. It strives to develop a total Ni‘ihau dialect speaking teaching and support staff.

I hope they can keep the dialect alive, even while reviving the standard language.

UPDATE: When the Far Outliers took our road trip in May (about which I promise a few more blogposts), one of the books I took along to read was set in Ni‘ihau shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor: East Wind, Rain: A Novel, by Caroline Paul (HarperCollins, 2006). (“Based on a little-known true event, East Wind, Rain is a provocative and compelling debut novel of people thrust unwittingly into a war — not only of nations, but of American identity — with devastating and irrevocable consequences for them all.”) I don’t have much to say about the book, other than that it does a good job of trying to imagine the context and motivations of people on Ni‘ihau and Kaua‘i at the time. Nor did I find any appropriate passages to excerpt—not for lack of good writing. But I did want to comment on one use of language in the book. The author throws in quite a few words of Japanese and Hawaiian. She clearly did her homework, but she seems not to be aware of how divergent the Ni‘ihau dialect is. One of the key phrases she cites is a bit of Standard Hawaiian that fits the description of the phrase itself: mea mai ka ‘aina ‘e ‘something from the land beyond/other/strange’.

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21 Comments

Filed under Hawai'i, language

21 responses to “Writing Niihau Dialect of Hawaiian

  1. Dante Ferry

    I am interested in transcribing Standard Hawaiian into the Ni’ihau usage. The texts are Catholic prayers. Whom should I approach?

  2. I would click on the Kekaha Elementary School link and contact the principal or some other administrator there to find the name of the current Hawaiian language teachers. I think the Ni’ihau Hawaiian school is attached to Kekaha Elementary for administrative purposes.

  3. Ka'imilani Brown Jr

    Im currently using standard Hawaiian here on Oahu while I continue to learn from the Kealaleo program. My Kumu told me to learn standard Hawaiian first and then use Ni’ihauian Hawaiian after the standard is pa’a. So that my ability to speak to Hawaiian speakers will not be limited since most of them don’t understand the Ni’ihauian Dialect. In that case Wish me luck on this because I hope to be a fluent speaker till the end. Mahalo nui. I mua na Po’e Hawaii.

  4. I agree with Ka‘imilani. Learn “Standard” Hawaiian first until pa‘a, then continue with learning the Ni‘ihau dialect, and more importantly, the Ni‘ihau intonation. A good place to start is with the ‘APL’s online program which can be accessed via my website link.

    Laki maita‘i!

  5. tama o niihau

    “standardized” Hawaiian unfortunately was influenced by the missionaries in the 18oos when they took a vote to eliminate the letters T and R. even niihauns use to use the letter R instead of L.

    there is an ancient chant you can view on the Internet entitled He Motu Ta`ura – Hura O Niihau by nona Beamer. I’m in favor of returning to the original, true purist form of the hawaiian language changing the letter L back to the orginal R.

  6. Tama,

    Hawaiian motives were not all unitary or pure and missionary motives were not all unitary or evil. It’s a false dichotomy. Nor has there ever been one true “pure” form of any living language–only of reimagined languages, including to some extent all “standardized” school-taught languages.

    If the missionary-influenced orthography was so inappropriate, why did Hawaiians adopt it with such enthusiasm and produce such a huge body of written records in it?

    • tama o niihau

      but Niihauans use the “T” predominetely over the “K” so they obiously didnt conform, ironically the chose the english “L” over the traditinoal “R”

      Hanau Ni’ihau he ‘aina, he motu,
      Born the island of Ni’ihau,

      he ‘aina i ke a’a i ka mole o ta ‘aina.
      the land that is the stem of all the islands.

      aloha mai e hanale owau teia o hiipoi he tii teia o ta aina o niihau pa’i ia mai kauai mai aloha no a hui hou

      Papa Olelo
      Ua hana wau i papa olelo i loko o to’u papa. Hana ia ta hua palapala hakalama maluna a malalo. I na katahiaka apau, e noonoo na haumana i na olelo a lakou i maopopo mua ai, a takau ia maluna o ketahi pepa ta olelo a lakou i haawi mai ai mai to lakou noonoo ana i ketahi olelo a lakou i lohe mua ai. A i ketahi manawa, hootomo wau i na olelo a lakou i maopopo ole ai, a katau lakou i teia mau olelo apau i loko o ta lakou pute. I na katahiaka apau, e hoomaamaa mau matou i teia mau olelo, a hootomo hou matou i na olelo hou maluna o ta papa olelo.

      linguist Joseph Finney (Finney: p. 1) and mythologist Reiaroha Perkins.

  7. Kekelakeikanoho

    Aloha to all. You would have to study or have a basic understanding of how Polynesian languages work to understand the writing system. One thing that all must understand is, Polynesians never had a written language until the arrival of the missionaries. In all Polynesian languages, all these markings were not included. If you study Samoan, Tongan, Tahitian, you will find that the “kahako” and the “okina” were not part of everyday writing. You, being proficient in the language, should know where the stresses and the glottal stops belonged. When the Hawaiian language was standardized, these marking were made part of the alphabet and made sure that it was placed to aid those speaking and learning due to the fact that the language was stripped away from the natives. Hawaiian is the only Polynesian language that has the okina as part of the alphabet!

  8. 'Iona Ua'iwa

    aloha. my grandpa told me that each island had its own dialect. like my great grandparents spoke to each other with t’s and r’s(rarely), but it wasn’t fast-spoken like the ka ‘olelo ni’ihau. my great grandparents from hana, maui spoke to each other like they were actually singing a poem. now that’s the type of hawaiian i’m willing to learn. oh and katau in ni’ihau is kakau(to write) in standard hawaiian. aloha ke akua a me kona mau pomaika’i. mahalo

  9. Dante Ferry

    This is Dante again after so many months! I happened to be editing the Hawai’ian texts I mentioned above and decided to go back to this site. My informant, a mixed Filipino-Hawaiian-Ukrainian, told me ‘l’s and ‘r’s are usually interchanged, so are ‘k’s and ‘t’s. He also used another term for “keiki” (nopu’u) and some phrases are shortened. Can someone enlighten me on this, and perhaps edit our work? Mahalo!

  10. Dante Ferry

    I would like to know if the usage of this dialect of Hawaiian is vigorous in the island of Ni’ihau. Mahalo!

  11. Kekelakeikanoho

    You will always find dialects or variants from island to island. You will have a certain select set of people who have different terms for the same thing. I know that in Hana they speak nothing but Hawaiian there. I admire that. I still feel that the way that standardized Hawaiian is spoken is too “haole.” It doesn’t sound right. It sounds as though it’s being forced. Try listen to other Polynesians and how fluid it comes out. I wish we could do that as the Ni’ihauans do.

  12. Jonah Kahanu

    Aloha mai kakou! As you know, there are two current dialects today in Hawai’i Nei, the Ni’ihau dialect and also Hawai’i dialect. My kumu kula Kalani Meinecke told me it is right to learn the standardized language of Hawai’ian and then when you are fluent in the language, you can start dropping letters, or interchange k’s with t’s, same goes with l’s and r’s. The Hawaiian language sound totally different when it is fast-spoken. For instance, “Kahalu’u” would be pronounced as “Kahalu’” dropping the last ‘u’. Pua’a would be pronounced as Pu’a. ‘A’ole would be pronounced as ‘A’ale. “‘A’ole au i ‘ike i ka’u mau keiki” would be “‘A’ale au i ‘ite i ta’u mou keiti.” Although majority of Hawaiian texts are in standardized Hawaiian, people during the monarchy era read Hawaiian newspapers, even though it is in standard Hawaiian, would pronounce SOME words with ‘t’ even though the text are with ‘k’s. Also everyone knows that Ke Ali’i ‘o Liholiho would rather be called Rihoriho and scolded the maka’ainana for pronouncing his name wrong. Remember, each island had their own dialects, but know one wants to carry on the true dialects of the island and would switch to the standard Hawaiian today. Dialects close to the island of Hawai’i would use mostly k, l, and v’s as you can hear the native speakers in Ka’u, Hawai’i. Dialects near Kaua’i would most likely use t, r, and w’s. I give missionaries much credit for trying their best to attempt to make Hawaiian a written language. By the way, Nga Tangata Maori LOVE our language because our language sounds very peaceful. The Maoris would call their language the “booch” language because it is so manly and war-like language. Laki no kakou e na Kanaka Hawai’i. Do not forget that we are not the only Polynesian language who interchange letters. Samoans, also interchange ‘t’ with ‘k’ and ‘r’ with ‘l’. Same goes with the Tongan language. Also, do not pay attention to the old names of the Hawaiian isles. For instance, “Atooi” is not pronounced as ”Ato’oi.” Hewa loa kela inoa o ka mokupuni ‘o Kaua’i. Atooi was James Cook’s pronunciation of ‘O Taua’i. Try and say ‘O Taua’i very fast. Sounds similar. Fascinating isn’t it? It is up to you guys to bring back the old dialects of Hawai’i Nei. E ninau ‘oe i ko ‘oukou mau kupuna (kuakahi pu paha) a e loa’a i kona mau pane ‘ana. A hui hou a e marama i tou kino. Aloha.

    • tama o niihau

      Dont forget Kamehameha who signed his own name as Tamehameha so even in hawaii, maui, etc we see instances of the T & R and don’t forget the famous Tuahine o Mânoa

  13. Dante Ferry

    Aloha!

    I have seen many publications in Hawaiian; catechisms and prayer books at the U of H Manoa. There is one book (19th c.) wherein all the “k”‘s and “l”‘s are printed “t”‘s and “l”‘s. All the other letters are as they are printed today (I did not notice the “w”‘s and “v”‘s. I hate to be reiterative but I wonder which dialects are divergent (polar ends, so to speak)?

  14. E. Kaohelaulii

    My dad is from Puuwai, Niihau and unfortunately I was never taught how to speak in the Niihau dialect.

    I love attending family events where you’ll hear them all speak to eachother; I hope I have the honor of learning, at least before my dad is no longer here so I can have the honor of passing such a wonderful gift over to my children!

  15. Jonah Kahanu

    Just to remind everyone, please do not teach your children these greetings, “aloha kakahiaka, aloha awakea, and aloha ahiahi.” Those are NOT Hawaiian greetings. Please use “aloha mai kaua/kakou.” And for when you leave, “e noho la” to someone you are leaving from and “e haele la” to someone that is leaving you. Borrowed those from the Maori since we do not know ours. And for goodnite, “po malie.” For those who are struggling the pronouns of all Polynesian dialects, take notice of “kaua” short for “kalua” having the number “two” in the words. Same goes with Maua and Laua. For “kakou” is short for “kakolu.” Same goes for makou/lakou. Remember this saying, “Ka-In, O-You, Ma-Ex, La-They.” “Come In, Oh you, my ex, lady!” Ka/Inclusive; O/You; Ma/Exclusive; and La/They. Aloha

  16. Atete

    Aloha,
    I am looking for my missing relatives who are ancestors of Nihoa. I can give you my names. I also have chants and a mele left to me dating back to 1660. The language is similar to Niihau. I was able to translate it because I spent my childhood between Kaua’i, Tahiti (Hitiaa) and Rarotonga. Later after school, I went to New Zealand to work and spent some time on a Maori Pa. This is how I was able to translate this most unusual dialect. Please I would like to find my missing links. Atete

  17. Atete Tanepuni Akapanuhi

    Aloha,
    I am looking for my family, decendants of Nihoa. I have chants and a mele from 1660′s left to me. I have translated them because of my youthful experiences living in Tahiti, Rarotonga and Kaua’i. It is an unusual dialect.
    Are you a decendant of Nihoa?
    Atete

    • Jonah Kahanu

      Aloha Atete, by any chance you have your chant in the dialect of your ancestors? If it is possible to email it to me so I can present it to my Linguistic Teacher who is highly respected in Aotearoa. jkkahanu@hawaii.edu

  18. amber malia

    Aroha, Hi . This is the best blog forum i have heard so far for just the general purpose of understanding this particular subject on “The Standard or Pono way to speak Havaiana” For the issue and response to the above- yes, do learn the standard way so you can learn basics. You will loose the basics when you start adjusting your ear to the R vs. L, T switching with M and so on. I was raised and isolated on Kauai since childbirth for 24 years…I did confuse those who of course started applying the “The Standard Hawaiian” to pidgin and when i did turn on my “Standard American English” Why so? Well, like I argue with my sons father, some of the translations are made from missionaries and journals from captain cook. As a child, I would do the same as the Niihauans and switch the letters to see fit from my memory and not accommodate my listeners or auditors. Now that I am older, I do forget to correct my hospitality and still confuse my listeners who haven’t yet understood the linguistics or culture exchanges. I am getting better at using The Standard Hawaiian, yet it is much harder for me to use with my “Cousins/Hapa” speaking- one speaks fluent Niihauan and the other Hawaiian pidgin and the other standard Hawaiian. You always have to remember to put yourself in an environment of your own knowing that the listener knows so much about the specific “standard”. Eventually I start forgetting it all, and can comprehend words; and add all the words you know to understand the sentence or conversation–if you are those who speak English. Though its not the same for loosing the “tongue” if there are those who speak old english, creole, Brit english, NZ english around you because the phonetics and practice of rolling of tongues. When you start to forget call your Hawaiian speaker all the way from where ever (for me Francois or California ;) ) and speak only with the Hawaiian vocabulary without the Niihauan and Captain Cooke -missionary translation that most people are now finding “true”. But, Cookes translation really isn’t all true, Atooi is Ato’oi (eh-to-oohee ) aka O’taua’i (o, e, i, he are like prefix in front of words). It’s all in the listening (for elongated vowels and tongue rolls).

    The best way to learn Niihauan is practice then go to Kupaa in Kekaha and converse with the Niihauan. Listen good, because the source will tell jokes all afternoon and the sentence sounds like one long supercalifradulousdiespialious word (or some what like that.) Good Luck.

    Just remember- all islands have a different attitude, outlook and dialect. I learned that from being passive and watch everyone go at it on family gatherings. It is the most funniest thing and one of the best way to learn the language. Your vocabulary will grow because of the topics chosen.

    Kahanu and Uaiwa is the bomb :) What they say is “all true”…it would be in the great choices or reference books and in lively interactions. “If you want to learn French move to Francois”

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