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June 8, 2005 - Hawaiian Language, Part 1 - 2005-06-13

Today on Wordmaster, Rosanne Skirble travels a long distance in the United States for a lesson in an endangered language.

RS: Hawaii is far from home: A 12-hour plane ride from Washington, D.C., to Honolulu across six time zones. I was greeted at the airport with the Hawaiian word aloha and given a special flower garland called a lei.

It took a lot longer for the islands’ original settlers to get here. Those Polynesian mariners sailed their double-hulled canoes from the South Pacific to these ancient volcanic islands hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived.

Hawaiian was strictly an oral language when Captain James Cook landed here in 1778. Subsequent waves of missionaries brought the printing press and wrote down the language.

Native monarchs ruled Hawaii until it was annexed by the United States in 1898. Afterward, English named the official language for school and government.

Today scarcely 1 percent of Hawaiians, or approximately 1,000 people, speak Hawaiian as their first language. But a cultural renaissance which began in the 1970s has promoted change. Public schools, community colleges and the university now teach Hawaiian. Leilani Basham is the coordinator of the Hawaiian language program at the University of Hawaii, where nearly 1,400 students are taking Hawaiian language courses.

Ms. Basham, for whom Hawaiian is a second language, points out that Hawaiian has a really tiny alphabet, just 12 letters: five vowels, seven consonants and a backwards apostrophe called an okina that works as a consonant.

I asked her why the words are so long.

LEILANI BASHAM: “Actually they are not that long, but what you find is that there is a combination of several words, which make a long word. I am sure driving around, street names, that’s a very obvious one. For instance, when I gave you directions to come here, the street name Kapiolani is long. How many -– 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 letters, I think, if you include the okina, which often doesn’t get included in there. But it is really comprised of three words: ka meaning ‘the,’ and a ‘pio’ is an arching symbol, the arch of a rainbow, and ‘lani’ means heaven and it is also a reference to royalty. Kapiolani is the name of one of our queens."

Leilani Basham says English as spoken in Hawaii has adopted many native words. The most common is aloha.

LEILANI BASHAM: “Actually the word aloha is a description of affection, love, respect for another person. But when I first see someone for the day, and I say aloha, I am saying I have love, respect and affection for you. It’s not the equivalent of the English word hello.”

What are some other words I need to get along in Hawaiian?

LEILANI BASHAM: "Another one is mahalo. Mahalo means thank you, but it is actually an expression of admiration for someone. So there is aloha, mahalo and then pau. And pau means that something's finished, that you're done with it.”

SKIRBLE: “How do you spell it?”


SKIRBLE: “In the context of?”

LEILANI BASHAM: “Are you pau? Are you finished eating? Are we pau with this interview? Are you pau with your homework? Are you pau with your telephone conversation?”

Leilani Basham says Hawaiian courses are gaining enrollment. But I ask - with just 1,000 native speakers – and most of them elderly – what can she reasonably expect from her students?

LEILANI BASHAM: “My real hope would be able to live in my native homeland, in Hawaii, and go to different places -- any place really -- and have people there who speak Hawaiian – enough of a percentage (that) you can go to a restaurant and there are people there who speak Hawaiian. When I first started taking Hawaiian (lessons), people used to ask me -- in Hawaii -- what language I was speaking, which is an indication that people don’t hear Hawaiian spoken and don’t recognize it. It’s not like a normal part of their day. I haven’t been asked that question in quite a bit of time."

SKIRBLE: “So today, what value do people place on the Hawaiian language?”

LEILANI BASHAM: “It's essential for our life and the life of our people, and we recognize that this generation -- my generation and younger generations -- that language and knowledge of language is a core factor. It is not just about living in the past. It is about creating these things and bringing them into our present and our future. That body of knowledge is still there, and we need to try to reclaim it and revive it and make it live again.”

Leilani Basham coordinates the Hawaiian Language Program in the Department of Pacific Languages and Literature at the University of Hawaii. Next week on Wordmaster we visit a school where children are immersed in the language and culture of Hawaii.

Until then, you can brush up on your American English by logging on to the Wordmaster archive at, or jot us an e-mail to “Mahalo,” thanks for listening. I'm Rosanne Skirble.