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Why is Ni'ihau Hawaiian Language So Different?

Christopher P. Becker
Aerial view of Ni'ihau. CC BY-SA 3.0

February has been declared Hawaiian Language Month here in the islands. Its aim is to encourage the use of ??lelo Hawai?i. But which Hawaiian language?

One could argue that Ni?ihau Hawaiian is the closest we’ve got to early forms of the language spoken in the islands. It’s been passed down from generation to generation uninterrupted largely because of Ni?ihau’s isolation. The island is owned by the Robinson family and visits are tightly restricted.

Tuti Kanahele, 61, is one of about 200 native speakers from Ni?ihau who use the Hawaiian language.

"Ka po?e Ni?ihau, poeko a nani ko l?kou ??lelo Hawai?i ?ana," says Kanahele, "Eia n? na?e n? keiki o k?ia manawa, ke ?ano hemahema nei ka l?kou wala?au ?ana."

She says the people of Ni?ihau's Hawaiian speech is fluent and eloquent. But she said the younger generation is using more English words than their elders when they speak Hawaiian.

"Ke mea, ke ho?okomo nei l?kou i ka ??lelo haole. Ke l?kou ??lelo, a ??lelo me k?l? ?ano mana?o haole," says Kanahele.

She’s worried that when young speakers use English, they'll start to think in English. That could lead them to abandon the Hawaiian way of thinking, and perhaps the language.

Ni?ihau speakers don't use dicritics like ?okina (glottal stop) and kahak? (macron), which have become invaluable aids for language learners. They do, however, use t's and r's in place of k's and l's – something that isn’t taught in universities and immersion schools.

Hawaiian language scholar Keao NeSmith says there’s a history there.

"Hele mai ka po?e mikionali a ua huikau l?kou," says NeSmith. "A ko l?kou huikau pehea e hiki ai ke pa?i in? hiki i? ?oe ke kuapo heleloa me k?l?, K me ka T, K me ka T, a p?ia p? k?ia L me ka R."

He says missionaries were confused by the Hawaiian language when they arrived. They were determined to translate the Bible into Hawaiian, but they couldn't figure out when to swap the "t" for the "k" and the "l" for the "r". So they created a standardized alphabet that dropped the use of t's and r's.

"Ka po?e Ni?ihau, ?a?ole l?kou hahai," says NeSmith. "Ak? ka po?e ?? a?e a pau loa Hawai?i hele loa a Kaua?i ua ho?ololi l?kou ka l?kou ??lelo ma muli o ka pi?ap?."

NeSmith says Ni?ihau speakers chose not to alter their spoken language. But the missionary system gained a stronghold in the rest of the islands through the 1800s.

Many of the Hawaiian language documents developed during this period, including newspapers, would become a go-to repository for the revitalization of the ??lelo Hawai?i a century later as the number of native speakers began to decline. 

H?k?lani Cleeland is one of the pioneers of the Hawaiian language revitalization movement and a teacher of Ni?ihau Hawaiian at Ke Kula O Ni?ihau ma Kekaha school on Kaua?i.

“Ia?u ?a?ole hiki ke aloa?e no ka mea kokoke pau n? m?naleo," says Cleeland. "No laila no ka malama ?ana i ka ??lelo pono e loli.”

Cleedland says changes are inevitable to make the language useful in modern times. But Ni?ihau Hawaiian is often overshadowed by the Hawaiian language emerging from classrooms. He's working on a Ni?ihau curriculum that would make the language more accessible to students.

"A?ole m?kou e ??lelo nei ?o ia KA ??lelo Ni?ihau," says Cleeland.

He says he isn’t trying to say his curriculum teaches THE Ni?ihau language.

But if it perpetuates the island’s way of speaking, it would help keep Hawaiian from joining other indigenous languages that have faded away.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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