When I was studying music composition back in my younger days, I had a mentor that used to say, sarcastically, something to the effect of “How hard can it be? There are only twelve notes!” I felt more than a little deja vu when our first Hawaiian language class began with the instructor saying “There are only thirteen letters in the Hawaiian alphabet.” Complexity doesn’t always arise out of the set of items in question, but in the myriad ways they can be combined and used.
Before we dive into some of those complexities, I want to talk a little about the history of the Hawaiian language, as it is truly fascinating.
The people of Hawaii had a completely oral tradition of language for centuries. It wasn’t until the Protestant missionary Elisha Loomis in 1822 codified a set of letters to represent the sounds of the language that a written form began to take shape and be used, at least by those who valued such things at the time.
Fast forward decades to the end of the 19th century when the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom occurred, as well as the annexation by the United States, and sure enough the new powers banned the language entirely, in favor of English. A rich tradition was cut off, and the new order remained for most of the 20th century.
In the 1970s, there was a revival of interest in the Hawaiian language, and pressure mounted to declare it as an official language of the state. That effort became a reality in 1978, making Hawaii one of only two states in the union to have an official language in addition to English. (Alaska has adopted many native languages as official). As an aside, it might surprise you to know that at the federal level, despite many attempts to assert English as the legal tongue, the United States has no official language.
As part of that movement to reassert the Hawaiian language, it became very fashionable for children here to go to schools that supported and taught (and even taught in) Hawaiian. Despite this important revival, the astonishing fact remains that there are only about 1000-2000 true native speakers of Hawaiian left. That’s what happens when you ban a language for a few generations. On a personal note, I find this a sad state, and I’m very glad the revival started before it was too late to have any overlap. The good news is that as a result of these efforts, there are now more than 22,000 additional second language Hawaiian speakers.
But back to this class and the seemingly simple 13 letter Hawaiian alphabet.
How hard can it be?
There are five vowels, eight consonants and a symbol that elongates vowel sounds. Well, not exactly — one of the consonants itself is a symbol called the ‘okina. It represents a glottal stop of your air passage. What does that sound like? Say the words uh oh. That little stoppage of air in between the words is the sound of the ‘okina.
(Technically, as seen in Jessica’s hand lettering at the start of this article, the ‘okina is written as a stylized, backwards, upside down, elevated curly comma. I am using the ASCII apostrophe here for ease of typing in our blog’s simple text editor. For the computer and typography geeks out there, there is a way to type it using the unicode character set.)
You may have seen us write the word Hawaii as Hawai’i. And, so yes, that means you say it more like huh wuh ‘ ee, with that little glottal stop before the last syllable. Some native speakers use a soft v sound for the w making it huh vuh ‘ ee. Either way it is definitely not correct to say hawhyee, but many people say it that way anyway, even here on the islands.
From that simple example, you are probably starting to see the complexities of the language. The ‘okina isn’t that bad if there is just one in a word, but what about something like this that uses three ‘okinas plus that long vowel symbol?
It gets more confusing. That little accent symbol, called the kahakō, doesn’t just change the sound of a vowel; it can change the meaning of words!
kala means "to forgive" kalā means "the sun" kālā means "money"
Further adding to the mix of possibilities, there are 20 vowel clusters, all of which do not sound like either the short or long form of an individual vowel. For example, ao sounds like cloud, and au — as in the Hawaiian word pau — sounds like a mix of the sounds poh and pow. Try saying it like pohw.
The road to proficiency
Suffice it to say that even with thirteen letters, just learning pronunciation is not as easy as it first seems. I asked our teacher how long it would take to be able to have a decent conversation in Hawaiian. I explained to him that with two years of Spanish in my high school, I was able to have simple conversations when traveling in southwestern Mexico. He said with Hawaiian it would be two or three years. My gut, however, is it would take me about three, four or possibly five. Even if I never get there, Jessica and I both hope to continue along with these and other classes to improve our abilities and understanding of this beautifully expressive language.
Me ka ha’aha’a,