Daily Archives: 16 July 2007

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’.


Filed under Hawai'i, language