There's Craft, Conflict In Creating New ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi Words

Feb 5, 2020

Languages often adapt naturally to the world around them. Speakers create new words to communicate new concepts. But when a language isn’t spoken widely enough to adapt on its own – as with Hawaiian – it may need help to move things along.

The Hawaiian language has nearly 30,000 words. But up until the late 1980s, the language didn’t have words for subjects like soccer, computer or recycling.

So a group of linguists and language advocates formed a lexicon committee in 1987 to invent new words. Keoni Kelekolio has served on the committee for over 20 years.

“Mamake e hoʻolako i nā koho i ka poʻe haumāna, i nā ʻōpio i hiki ke ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi ma nā pōʻaiapili a pau,” said Kelekolio.

He said the ultimate goal of the committee is to aid in the revitalization of Hawaiian by creating words that language learners can use in everyday conversations.

“Nui nā ʻenehana hou. Nui nā mea ʻepekema hou i kēlā lā, kēia lā,” said Kelekolio, “Inā ʻaʻole hiki iā kākou ke ʻōlelo i kēlā mau mea ma ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, he aha ka waiwai o ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi ʻana?”

He said new technologies and scientific discoveries are being made every day. And if these words can’t be said in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, what’s the use of even speaking Hawaiian?

Kelekolio estimates the committee has created at least 7,500 new words since its inception. Many of the committee's entries have been published in a modern Hawaiian language dictionary called Māmāka KaiaoMuch of the group’s work helped to make Hawaiian teachable in language immersion schools.

But some are skeptical of the committee’s work.

Aloha ‘o wau Kapōmaikaʻi Stone a he kumu aʻo wau ma ke Kula Nui ʻO Hawaiʻi ma Mānoa.”

Kapōmaikaʻi Stone is a Hawaiian language instructor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

“No laila aia kekahi hui liʻiliʻi e haku ana i nā huaʻōlelo “pono” iā kākou i kēia manawa, a ʻaʻole paha akāka iā kākou ke kumu, ke ʻano i haku ʻia ai, a i kekahi manawa ka puana,” says Stone.

She said, basically, there is a small group creating words that we "need" now, but it’s unclear why that word was chosen or how. Even the pronunciation of new words can be confusing, she adds.

Disagreements among Hawaiian speakers may seem like bad news for spreading the language. But Larry Kimura, UH-Hilo Hawaiian language professor, says it’s a sign that the language is growing.

He said the lexicon committee helps speed up what would have been an otherwise natural process of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi adapting to the world around it.

“‘Aʻole hiki ke kali na ke au o ka manawa e loaʻa mai ai,” said Kimura, “No ka mea ʻaʻole lawa nā kānaka ʻōlelo ana i ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.”

Kimura said time is of the essence because there simply aren’t enough speakers of Hawaiian language.

Advocates say if creating more words helps encourage more Hawaiian speakers, then it’s all for the good.

February is ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi Month in the state of Hawaiʻi dedicated to celebrating, preserving, and encouraging the use of Hawaiian language. Throughout this month, we'll be exploring discussions surrounding the role that standardization has played in efforts to perpetuate and grow ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.