View Point

Saturday, March 13, 1999

Keeping alive the
language of Hawaii

By Leslie Lang


THE boy at the airport was about 5, and his chatter was loud and incessant. It could have been irritating, but it wasn't. It was great because he spoke Hawaiian.

His father tried to quiet him, but I listened happily. The boy talked about na mokulele nui (the big airplanes), and everything else that caught his eye. I have studied Hawaiian for almost as long as he's been alive, but I don't know some of the words he knows.

It thrills me to run across Hawaiian parents speaking with their children in the language of their ancestors, communicating effortlessly in the language most of us have to learn in classrooms and from textbooks.

Info Box Hawaiian used to be the language of this land; it isn't anymore. But it's coming back.

My boyfriend and I are taking an adult school Hawaiian language class twice a week. The class meets in a Hawaiian language immersion classroom at Keaukaha Elementary School in Hilo, where we sit in tiny orange plastic chairs.

One of our teachers tells us, emphatically, "If you have kupuna at home who are native speakers, stay home!" The last ones who know the old way of speaking are themselves old now, he says. He told us that five native-speaking kupuna died in one month recently. If you have a native speaker to learn from, he tells us, stay home and learn from them.

Another kumu (teacher) read to us from Nana Veary's book "Change We Must," in which Veary describes how Hawaiian used to be spoken. Her grandmother taught her to keep her speech simple and leave out the details. The Hawaiian language was filled with poetry, she writes. She describes when her grandmother saw her grandfather looking at some pretty women. When asked what he was doing, he said, "Watching a beautiful garden pass by."

Are today's Hawaiian-speaking children "native speakers?" By definition, they are. For the most part, though, they learn to speak Hawaiian from parents who learned it as a second language. They are speaking a Hawaiian that has changed, no matter how much scholars and linguists work to learn, record and preserve the old ways of speaking.

They are native speakers: Hawaiian is their first language. If the style of the Hawaiian they speak has changed, it's all right.

All living languages change just as human beings change as they grow up. The children are the ones for whom we want to save the Hawaiian language. They are the ones who are saving it.

In our evening classes, we have a grammar lesson; then a different teacher for mele a me oli (music and chant); and then another for paheona (art).

In art class we are learning the Hawaiian language through weaving. First we 'ohi'ohi ka lauhala (gather the lauhala); then, in Hawaiian, we cut off the ends, remove the thorns, wash the lauhala, soften it, roll it up.

Our kumu explains lauhala weaving in 10 steps. Ka ulana 'ana (weaving) is only the ninth. The tenth is to ho'ohana (use) what you've made. It's not artwork, he says. You don't put it on the wall and admire it. You use it.

It's like the language itself. You have to use it. When we're at home, we sometimes declare the whole day to be "ka 'olelo Hawai'i wale no." Hawaiian only. The first time we did that, we had to use a dictionary to say, "Nui ka hamau" (The silence is great). But by the end of that day, we were chattering, almost like the little boy at the airport.

My great-great-great grandfather Nalimu was born in 1835, and never flew in an airplane. He lived in older, but changing, times. Tutu Nalimu realized that the old ways and the old knowledge were in danger of being lost.

He told our family's stories again and again. He made the children in his family write them down. Because of him, many of my family's old stories and chants were recorded -- in Hawaiian.

Tutu Nalimu would have been proud of that 5-year-old piping up in Hawaiian. I was proud for him.

Leslie Lang is a writer and airline employee
who lives in Pepeekeo on the Big Island.

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