Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, June 29, 1999

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Emma McGuire, left and Lilinoe Andrews converse
in Hawaiian at 'Aha Punana Leo.

At this office, shop talk is in Hawaiian

All Hawaiian is its goal

By Burl Burlingame


ONCE upon a time, and near enough that it is almost within living memory, Hawaiian was the language of Hawaii. An oral culture that placed value on speech and memory had transformed itself into a modern society, and the island kingdom had Hawaiian-language newspapers, Hawaiian-language textbooks, Hawaiian-language arts and cultures and even Hawaiian-language bureaucrats.

Things change. English, that most democratic and easily understood of languages -- ask any air-traffic controller -- supplanted Hawaiian. About a century ago, the Hawaiian language became just another archaic native tongue within the United States, apparently only good for feeding new phrases to world culture. "Aloha" and "hula" are now English words, by the way.

And then something else happened. An interest in cultural and historical preservation recreated interest in the classic Hawaiian language. Along with Hawaiian music and dance and political activism, the revival of the Hawaiian language is one of the success stories of the Hawaiian "renaissance," begun nearly 30 years ago. Pukui and Elbert's Hawaiian Dictionary, created as a work of pure scholarship, became indispensable.

But, like Rip Van Winkle, the Hawaiian language has awakened behind its time. Placed on hold for a century, the language is behind the times.

Office talk

Database: hokeo 'ikepili

Spreadsheet: pakuhi maka'aha

Digital: kikoho'e

Contact (person): ka'a launa

Long range: hikialoa

Routing slip: pepa ho'oka'apuni

Job description: ho'ike kulana

Resume: mo'omo'ali

Spell check: loipela

Computer file format: hulu waihona

Except at the offices of 'Aha Punana Leo in downtown Honolulu. There, Hawaiian is not only spoken more often than English, it is the currency of the business. 'APL was created to provide learning materials for Hawaiian-immersion classes and for those simply interested in understanding the language. Signs on the walls are in Hawaiian. Words on the computer screens are in Hawaiian. Phone queries are answered in Hawaiian -- but quickly shift to English for the majority of the calls.

Unlike many other businesses in Hawaii, 'Aha Punana Leo is doing well. So well it sometimes has trouble finding help. It isn't easy hiring someone who's not only fluent in Hawaiian, but fluent in the business of producing educational materials as well.

Director Lilinoe Andews started as a volunteer at the Punana Leo o Hilo immersion school and quickly realized new learning materials were needed. "Hawaiian-language textbooks stopped being produced in the 1890s," she said. "We could use or reprint some of the technical Hawaiian textbooks from the 1800s -- such as those that cover subjects like algebra, geometry and calculus -- but others were hopelessly out of date."

'Aha Punana Leo was created to fill this need, and is a new breed of business called a "social entrepreneurship," a non-profit that can accept government grants to produce a commercial product, in this case learning materials with the goal of reestablishing Hawaiian as a primary language.

The Native Hawaiian Education Act provided seed money. This includes translating texts, curriculum development, production and distribution. Textbooks are handled by the 'APL office in Honolulu, videotapes and recorded cassettes by a satellite office in Hilo.

"The idea is to create small pockets, shells, where people can go and hear and speak Hawaiian as a primary language. Our own office is a good place to start," said Andrews.

"Hawaiian is more than an obscure cultural artifact," said Andrews. "Language helps guide how you think, and so the 'Hawaiian-ness' of Hawaiians is rooted in the language. It was close to the brink but it's being pulled back.

"One thing interesting is that we're starting to think bilingually. A chair is a 'chair,' but if I hear it called 'noho,' I know what that is, too. And if you factor in pidgin, we're becoming tri-lingual!" Andrews laughed.

Like most, she came to Hawaiian later in life, learning it in high school and college. "It's true of all of us that it's easier to understand than to to speak," she said.

"For myself, I'm a beginner," said consultant Cheryl Kauhane. "I'm taking classes in Hawaiian as a means of building my self-identity. It's funny, but my foreign language in school was French, and the translations come to me first in my head in French."

As a student at Kamehameha in the early '90s, Miki'ala Lidstone saw a sudden explosion of interest in the language. "Like overnight, there were more Hawaiian teachers, and you'd hear Hawaiian in the hallways between classes. It became cool to learn Hawaiian," said Lidstone.

"The miracle of products, real commercial products, is that they make ideas tangible," said Andrews. "Make a professional textbook for learning Hawaiian, and it's taken more seriously. And if you make a textbook that's hard-bound and has color illustrations, it's taken more seriously than a black-and-white, spiral-bound textbook, even if the content is the same."

Speaking of "black and white," that's one of the modern phrases not easily translated into Hawaiian. "Sometimes a contraction works in both languages," explained Andrews. "We know what 'B&W' means when we see it abbreviated in English like that. 'Black' in Hawaiian is 'ele 'ele, and white is ke'o ke'o, so if you smoosh them together -- 'ele ke'o -- you get a Hawaiian equivalent of 'B&W.' "

There is a network of Hawaiian-language experts around the state keeping track of all this, and you can keep up by going to the "kualono" University of Hawaii Hawaiian-language web site at

There's a list tacked to the wall with troublesome Englishisms that have no Hawaiian equivalent. What's Hawaiian for "N/A," for example? Or "screen tint"? "Paperwork?" "Layout?" "Mock-up?"

Proper names in English -- just like proper names in Hawaiian -- are retained when passed over to the other language. At the 'APL offices, words like "Road Runner" or "Coca-Cola" will jump out from the Hawaiian murmurs.

"It gets easier the more you do it," said Andrews. "We're not there yet but we're a hundred percent ahead of where we were even a couple of years ago."

"Some Hawaiian is so tied to its natural environment that it might never translate easily," said Kauhane, using as an example various Hawaiian words for the color of the ocean. Valuable while paddling, useless in an office context.

Hawaiian, originally solely a spoken language, was deeply modified as it moved to the printed word. Inflections were handled by punctuation, and since a word is easily mispronounced without this punctuation, technically it's misspelled without them. Or they can be used wrongly. The Hawaii Convention Center, for example, used 'okinas throughout, but got them all upside down and backward.

"Any Mac-based publishing systems can use Hawaiian-language fonts -- they're easy to install," said Andrews. DOS-based systems are more flighty. (Although the Star-Bulletin uses some Macintoshs for production, we're not completely there yet.)

The use of Hawaiian around the 'APL office has created a different kind of work atmosphere, noted all three. "The language gives us direction," said Lidstone. "It's a very happy, positive office environment."

"Almost the best of worlds," said Kauhane. "Happy people with a sense of passion and a mission. It's very welcoming. It's also surprisingly pervasive and touches every little thing we do."

As an economic model, 'Aha Punana Leo is structured more like a hula halau, said Andrews. The "boss" is more of a guide and choreographer. "It probably wouldn't be possible unless we were speaking Hawaiian. The language has that effect on people. It's very exciting to see.

"It spins off -- people who deal with 'Aha Punana Leo are struck by that. We've been so involved in the nuts and bolts of producing textbooks that we are just now discovering the intangible benefits. There is definitely mana in the language itself -- it changes people and personalities."

"I'm waiting to dream," said Kauhane, and we all looked at her. "What I mean," she said, "was that when I was taking French, there was a moment when suddenly you started having dreams in French. I want to start dreaming in Hawaiian!"

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