The changing Hawaiian language, 1880.


Before the arrival of the teachers and the educated haole from foreign lands, documents were not written in the Hawaiian language. But not long after the teachers began living here, they sought to write down this language, and in the year 1822, the first book was printed in Hawaiian. From that time until this day, the progress of book printing has been quick.

In the year 1834, the first Hawaiian-language newspaper was published. These days, newspaper publishing has become a big industry, and the nation is enriched by the spreading of knowledge and enlightenment by reading the newspapers.

This blessing described above has been accompanied by a problem, and I would like to express some thoughts on the subject. Therefore, O Readers, please be kind as I explain to you some things on the topic.

If we observe a newborn child, he comes into the world not knowing how to speak; but after a few months, he takes up this new task and attempts speaking a few words.

When a child gets new ideas and learns new things, he searches for new words, and along with the increase in his knowledge and awareness, so too does his number of words he can properly produce; and should he later become enlightened, he will be very well equipped with words for all of his thoughts.

By this, we understand that words are manifestations of thought.

Just as a child searches for new words, so too does a people when they acquire a new idea, or new things; they want to search for new fitting words to represent those new ideas or things. With the spreading of knowledge in this land, Hawaiians have come to know many new things which they did not think of before, like animals, plants, food, clothing, tools, usable electricity, iron, copper, silver, gold, and names for foreign lands, as well as descriptions for many new ideas. If the new vocabulary added to the Hawaiian language by educated foreigners and by Hawaiians searching for knowledge were counted, they probably would total no less than a thousand, or a number of thousands. The majority of these words are valuable words for the people, valuable for those who ponder and search for knowledge; however, a small fraction of these words are useless, and has been included in our language in error; and as a result of this mistaken inclusion, the true nature of the Hawaiian language has nearly been altered, and it has become strange and confusing. When the Bible was translated into Hawaiian, it was not possible without also introducing new words into the Hawaiian language.

Here are some words we gained through this translation: anela [angel], liona [lion], berita [covenant (from Hebrew, b’rith)], kumumanao [subject], and there are many new words of that sort.These words were not introduced into the language without thought, it was done with careful consideration with much thought as to the nature of the word being translated.

But during the years gone by, many words have crawled into the language and are being printed in the newspaper that are very strange, not at all akin to how the old people of Hawaii really spoke.

The majority of these improper new words are spread through the newspapers; they are holes always left wide open where may enter, if not watched over, foreign words not understood in the language of Hawaii nei.

I should perhaps tell you some of these worthless words which I have seen, lest someone asks, “Where are these words which you have decided to criticize? We don’t know them.”

Here are some of those words: duke [duke], visakauna [viscount], baroneti [baroness]. What in the world are these things? Who will answer? These words were seen and continue to be seen in some newspapers printed in Honolulu.

Here is one more: kakela. In my mind, as I understand it, the word kakela is not a Hawaiian word, but a recently acquired word. The haole word that was altered and became that which was written above is castle.

What it is, is a fortified structure solidly built to fend off robbers or enemies [it is interesting that the word “enemi” is used here, because it is also one of those Hawaiianized English words of which he speaks]. Who would understand the meaning of this word if he didn’t speak English? Here is yet another: bateri [battery]. It is a brand new word. Who can say what it means? Only after perhaps agreeing on a loan of a million dollars, with which they would purchase a number of huge cannons, would Hawaiians understand the meaning of bateri.

The word hokele (English, hotel) has perhaps become a Hawaiian word, so I suppose I can’t criticize it. But what is a coroneta [coronet]? Let one who knows answer.

As for the word kanikela [consul], I guess I can’t criticize it much, for it has almost become a fixed word that is understood in Hawaiian.

Here however is a word that has only just entered recently which I thought over with consternation, that is fea (fair in English). Only the kamaaina here in Honolulu will most likely know the meaning of this word, and not the general public.

These are some atrocious words: Regimana (English, regiment), a thousand soldiers; kaina, “all sorts of kaina” (English, kind); this is really bad; materemonio (English, matrimony), marriage; uko ole (English, useless). These words should be discarded for good.

In the consideration of those knowledgeable and skilled in the subject of the appropriateness of words, it is clear that these are words that should be allowed into the Hawaiian language, for if they are allowed to be included, then this language will be a thing that is scorned. There are many other words that I can give, but those were maybe sufficient.

Here is another problem with allowing these words in, because good, clear words from the past will be forced out.

These new words which I criticize resemble shadows, or a gust of wind, because it is just a wind or dust without substance within.

For a word is a manifestation of thought, and void of thought, a word becomes nothing.

This critique does not apply to all words, as was said earlier. Because like a child, when he has a new idea or ideas, he desires new words as representations for his thoughts, and so too must a people that are progressing search for and acquire new vocabulary—good representations for the new ideas that come up and are incorporated. However, before taking up these new representations, it is necessary to consider it carefully, for we may already have in the gracious, native Hawaiian language, a representation very similar to this new word, this malihini that we are about to welcome.

It is a fact that the Hawaiian people have discarded their blunt stone chisels of the olden days, because they are no longer valued now that we have sharp metal chisels; but that is no reason to set aside the stone poi pounder, or even the ulu maika stone—these are still valuable to this day, and if these were abandoned, then the lahui would be made poor. This is can be well applied to the vocabulary of Hawaii nei. For it is true that the Hawaiian language has acquired many words from the outside, and thus the language has benefited and been enriched. But for this reason, if important words from the past were abandoned, and these new words not understood by the many were grabbed haphazardly, the Hawaiian language would become a thing worthless, emaciated and castrated.

Regular old words taken and used regularly by people from the old times to this day, those are the blood, the breath, the prize of the true language of the Hawaiian Archipelago. And the abandoning, the leaving to the side, and the forgetting of these familiar words that were sanctified by Hawaii’s kupuna from ancient times, would be wrong in my mind; and the taking up of brand new inappropriate words as replacement for the old words that were abandoned—the foolishness of this is like abandoning fish and poi and instead filling the stomach with just haole food, snacks that are no good.

“A lahui that takes up another language and forgets their own, that lahui will live conquered and defeated.” That is what was said by an educated man.

This being said, it is not my desire to criticize the educated search in the English language or perhaps other foreign languages; it is a good and much appreciated thing.

I do however want to raise an emphatic voice and to ward off the speedy acceptance without proper consideration of strange new words with no worth, making the Hawaiian language a mixed up and unclear thing.

For this reason, the heads of newspapers; the translators of stories from foreign languages into Hawaiian; and all knowledgeable ones wanting the well being, the steadfastness, and the independence of Hawaii nei; must all be vigilant and guard against the improper inclusion of words that are ill-fitting and ill-suited to the inherent nature of the fine, melodic [palale?] language of the Hawaiian Islands.

N. B. Emerson.

Honolulu, April 26, 1880.

(Ko Hawaii Pae Aina, 7/31/1880, p. 4)


Ko Hawaii Pae Aina, Buke III, Helu 31, Aoao 4. Iulai 31, 1880.

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