Giving Hawaiian meaning saves language
With many tongues dying, UH linguists point to success here
SAN FRANCISCO » As thousands of indigenous languages approach extinction, two linguists from the University of Hawaii at Hilo shared success stories yesterday in keeping the Hawaiian language alive and relevant.
The keys, they said, are to expose children to the language at home and in schools and to create terms for new technology that are concept-driven rather than simple phonetic mimicry of the English.
"In language revitalization, everybody wants to be distinct, so there are less phonetic things," said UH-Hilo professor William Wilson. "We have that big issue for scientific terms -- are we going to make Hawaiian terms for everything or just have a Hawaiian pronunciation? But for things like the Internet, we have our own Hawaiian root terms."
The Hawaiian term for the World Wide Web, Punaewele puni honua, means literally "network around the world." Similarly, the word for photosynthesis, ka'ama'ai, means "acting through light to produce food."
Wilson and his wife and UH-Hilo colleague, Kauanoe Kamana, said much of the credit for re-establishing the language among young families goes to the Punana Leo Hawaiian-language immersion programs for schoolchildren.
"We believe that the only way for our language to come back as a living language today is to use it all the time every day, everywhere, with everyone," said Kamana. "The answer is with children. It needs to be generational."
Wilson and Kamana made their remarks as part of a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Also weighing in on the topic, "Language Revitalization for Societal Well-Being," were experts in the Miami Indian language once prevalent in Illinois, Indiana and western Ohio; and in Karuk, one of the 100 indigenous languages of California.
The panel was moderated by Blair Rudes, a University of North Carolina linguist who as a consultant wrote the Algonquin dialogue for the movie "The New World," starring Colin Farrell as Capt. John Smith and Q'Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. This he accomplished from a list of 600 known words of a language that had not been spoken since 1783.
Hawaiian and other indigenous languages have the advantage of a more extensive written record, but many simply fell from use as English became the new lingua franca.
Of the world's 7,000 languages, most are endangered, Rudes and others estimate.
"Over half of the languages have so few speakers that they are in danger of extinction," Rudes said.
Daryl Baldwin, a linguist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, said the far-flung descendants of the Miami nation have found some success with a master-apprentice program that assigns one student to a trained mentor.
"For many of us, our language provides us with the lens for our accumulated and ongoing human experiences," Baldwin said.
The responsibility for coining new phrases falls to a committee of experts for both the Miami language and for Hawaiian, although both processes are largely informal.
"We have a committee, but we also have people that propose words to them and they approve it or develop it," said Wilson. "Because we now have people who have expertise in different areas, like telecommunications, they try to make the word and bring it to the committee. And sometimes (the word) spreads before the committee approves it. Sometimes we have competing words because of that."