The State of Aloha

The first non-Polynesians to reach these islands are usually acknowledged to be Capt. James Cook and his English sailors. Of course, they weren’t the first to reach the islands. They came and found a thriving culture and population of native inhabitants with a distinct language.

Almost three centuries later we have a modern Hawaiian language. And we often assume that the language spoken today is the same language spoken by the men and women who met Capt. Cook and the early European explorers. But should we assume this?

This nagging question began for me when I was reading about Oahu’s governor during the early years of the Hawaiian kingdom in the early 19th century. His name was Boki. The name, I surmised, was odd.

Having been educated in our public school system, I learned the Hawaiian alphabet like most kids in elementary school. The letter b is nowhere to be found. There was no explanation for this letter or why a governor would have it more than a hundred years ago.

Then there are the accounts written by the Europeans. No one comes close to modern Hawaiian spelling. According to Cook, he first laid eyes on the island of Atoui — a place that we call and know as Kauai. Atoui? How could he be so far off? What were his Anglo ears hearing when locals told him where he was?

The closest spelling is probably our own island, Maui. According to an early map, it was spelled “Mowee.” The others all seemed to have a vowel at the start of the name. Hawaii was Owhyee, for example.

Then there are the names. Captains and chroniclers who met Kamehameha the Great all struggled. Archibald Campbell, who traveled around the world and stopped in on the islands in 1810, noted the problem in his journal:

“Every voyager has spelt it Maiha Maiha; Mr. Samwell, the surgeon of the Discovery, who published an account of Captain Cook’s death, Cameamea; Portlocke, Comoamoa; Meards, Tomyhamhaw; Vancouver and Broughton, Tamaahmoah; Langsdorf, Tomooma, and Turnbull, Tamahame.”

Campbell’s ears, however, heard “Tameamea” and noted that for him the c and t were “scarcely to be distinguished” and that the h was silent.

The missionaries changed all this. Part of their mission was to convert the inhabitants of the islands and, for them, that meant interpreting their Christian Bible into the Hawaiian language — no mean endeavor. They were the first to come up with a systematic and authoritative spelling of the Hawaiian language. Being upright and rigid men in spirit, they would not stand for a haphazard approach to the language.

Changes started in 1822, when two copies of “New Zealand Grammar and Vocabulary” arrived to the islands. Noting the similarities between Maori and Hawaiian, missionaries quickly used the book as a guide. A week later, Elisha Loomis printed a Hawaiian alphabet. It included a standardized alphabet. There were the five vowels and twelve consonants. The 12 included b, d, r, t and v. Four additional consonants — f, g, s and y — were used to spell foreign words.

Loomis’ alphabet quickly standardized spelling of the language for missionaries and others who wrote in the language. But it still dogged the early visitors of the islands. And so a few years later the missionaries assembled again to discuss the alphabet. They even formed a committee. It reported in 1825 that native speakers used certain consonants interchangeably. For example, “pali” and “pari” both meant the same thing. This was a problem for the committee.

In the judgment of these upright New Englanders, two letters being used interchangeably would simply not do. And so the committee received multiple letters from other missionaries about which letters should stay and which should go.

It was finally resolved months later that each letter should be voted upon by a small group of missionaries. Their judgment sealed the fate of each letter. In the end, b, d and v were unanimously cast out. A majority of eight voted to expel t and six to do away with r.

A second alphabet was quickly published with the letters that remain in the language to this day. Literacy thrived in the islands. The printed word soon influenced the spoken word to the point where written Hawaiian and spoken Hawaiian were nearly identical.

But not quite. You can still hear exiled letters in spoken Hawaiian. Hawaiian surnames may sometimes still include t or v. And Kauai and Niihau still retain a strong and healthy t sound in their dialect.

And that brings me back to the question of how Hawaiian sounded centuries ago. The tremendous influence of the written language may have made it impossible to determine what the language sounded like. Like the language of the ancient Romans and Greeks, we can only guess.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”