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Reviving The Hawaiian Language

December 21, 2011 - Ray Tsuchiyama

My spouse C. intensely dislikes my ever-clicking television remote habit. Yet serendipitously I catch a program that otherwise I would never watch. For example, once I discovered a community access channel program featuring a group of elderly Hawaiian men and women speak in the Hawaiian language, some very natural and flowing like a first language.

I was mesmerized, imagining myself back in Hawaii two centuries ago, before the arrival of Captain James Cook and the English language – the juxtaposition of a program with no English spoken on a Sony plasma TV set was startling. Imagine a TV news cast about North Korea or a Wailuku robbery spoken entirely in Hawaiian (if there was no 1893 Overthrow of the Kingdom or if Robert Wilcox had succeeded in restoring the Hawaiian leadership in the Counter-Revolt of 1895 there would be a different history, a different Hawai’i).*

Few people in Hawai’i know that the State of Hawai'i has two official languages: English and Hawaiian. English is the de facto national language of the United States; there is nothing in the Constitution nor in any federal law passed by Congress that makes English the “official” language of the Union. (There have been several unsuccessful attempts by Congresspersons, going back several decades.)

Since I have lived abroad, returning to Hawai’i was to again be part of Hawaiian culture and language. During this fall, attending conferences and government meetings I have been transfixed by the oli improvisational chanting. I had never listened to Hawaiian music, but now I am following several Hawaiian musicians. And I find the hula now as a dance form that is so utterly beautiful that I regret not watching more hula in my lifetime -- more than I regret not playing more tennis.

However, today I still cannot speak Hawaiian beyond using a few words interspersed in English. In other words, if I use “pilikia” or “mauka” in a sentence otherwise overflowing with English words, does that make me more culturally Hawaiian? I can figure out meanings of Hawaiian names occasionally – like hearing the name “Kealani” I could discern “white” (like Mauna Kea) and “heaven” (Halekulani). The only time that I was in a DOE class studying Hawaiian history and language was in 7th grade at Kalakaua Intermediate in deepest Kalihi-Palama, my Honolulu neighborhood. That’s a long time ago.

To be honest, I do not know the Hawaiian words for “Yes” or “No”, nor can I count from one to ten in Hawaiian. I cannot give driving directions from Wailuku to the Ka’ahumanu Mall – entirely in Hawaiian. That is, in order to communicate effectively and logically, I must know simple words like “straight”, “right”, “left” – I need a hundred Hawaiian words, with verbs like “to drive”. In either English or Japanese I can give directions without even thinking -- yet I am unable to reach the barest minimum of Hawaiian speech.

Back to the TV community access channel program: for Hawaiian to flourish during this century (and it has weathered centuries of suppression, disuse, English dominance, Mainland TV news etc.), many children, younger people across the State should speak Hawaiian, preserve our host culture, to create numbers, scale – so that decades from now two people from Hilo and Kaimuki, respectively, meeting in Chicago can both laugh at a joke, told entirely in the Hawaiian language.

A few years ago I was half-way around the world in Limerick, Ireland visiting a semiconductor plant. While resting in my hotel room, I reverted to my TV remote clicking habit and caught a quiz show featuring Irish children. The questions were on contemporary Irish rock-and-roll (like U2). What drew my attention was that the children were answering in the Irish Gaelic language, not English – of course I had no idea what they were speaking, but the rock songs played gave clues. In fact, the announcer and staff and children all spoke ONLY the Irish Gaelic language, very different from English. What is remarkable is that the Irish Gaelic language declined throughout the 19th century with English dominating speech and writing in Irish society.

During the 20th century, especially in the post-World War II period, Irish Gaelic was revived by the Irish government: the results are stunning, with many families speaking Irish Gaelic as their first language, including many immigrants to Ireland during the recent economic boom, now bust. More importantly, the government created a campaign for Irish Gaelic to equal “hip, cool, young” – hence TV quiz show rock-and-roll questions. Global precedents exist for language revival (ironically, perhaps even for an official State language), yet there is a tremendous linguistic and educational investment and commitment – and this is all-important: the long-term goal must be shared and valued by the entire community.

*Once in Wellington, New Zealand I was at a hotel lobby and over-heard two Maori men talking to each other entirely in Maori, and I was surprised at how spoken Maori resembled Hawaiian. I also felt for the first time that I was more linked to Hawaiian language and culture than I realized.


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