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Leilani Poliʻahu shares the legacy of 'Hawaiian Word of the Day' and its impact on ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

paige okamura and leilani poliahu
Hawaiʻi Public Radio
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Host of HPR's "Hawaiʻi Kulāiwi" Paige Okamura and the voice of "Hawaiian Word of the Day" Leilani Poliʻahu at Hawaiʻi Public Radio on April 15, 2022.

Leilani Poliʻahu first recorded Hawaiʻi Public Radio's "Hawaiian Word of the Day" series in 1994. In the decades since then, people from across the islands and beyond have come to recognize her voice and the words it shares. The word that started it all on July 5, 1994? You guessed it — aloha.

Poliʻahu sat down with Paige Okamura, host of HPR's Hawaiian music show "Hawaiʻi Kulāiwi," and HPR's Savannah Harriman-Pote to talk about the importance of teaching ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, the legacy of "Hawaiian Word of the Day" and more.

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SAVANNAH HARRIMAN-POTE, HOST: When I was growing up, it was like Leilani Poliʻahu and then the voice of God. And those were the two disembodied voices that existed in my life that impacted my day.

 An article about the Hawaiian news program Ke Aolama on HPR in March 1994. leilani poliahu poliʻahu
Courtesy Office of Hawaiian Affairs
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An article about the Hawaiian news program "Ke Aolama" on HPR in March 1994.

LEILANI POLIʻAHU, "HAWAIIAN WORD OF THE DAY": Sometimes I think back when I hear it and I cringe, "Oh, she was so young and if only she knew now." But it's nice to hear. I think maybe my voice has changed a little.

HARRIMAN-POTE: I definitely think that your voice, the voice of Leilani Poliʻahu is one of the voices that people think of when they think of Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

PAIGE OKAMURA, "HAWAIʻI KULĀIWI": It's probably the most well-known voice.

HARRIMAN-POTE: Paige, do you remember the first time you heard "Hawaiian Word of the Day"? Or what was your interaction with it growing up?

OKAMURA: I don't clearly remember the first one. I just remember that it was part of the routine of the programming for HPR. At some point after I started working here, I think I still didn't realize it was a one-off and we just had banked these words that we kept using for the last 30 years. And so it actually took a while before even I realized, "Oh, wait a minute. We've done this word before."

HARRIMAN-POTE: Do we know how many words are in rotation right now?

POLIʻAHU: I believe it's around 300.

OKAMURA: I'm pretty sure there's over 365 to account for every day of the year, plus some extra to rotate. And I think over the years, maybe a couple have been pulled off the air.

HARRIMAN-POTE: That's fascinating because I feel like every time I'm hearing "Hawaiian Word of the Day," I'm hearing that word for the first time.

OKAMURA: Yeah, because there's enough to rotate. There's probably like 380 words or something in order to rotate them every day in such a way that you wouldn't realize that you've already heard that word.

HARRIMAN-POTE: This was a bank of words that was created 30 years ago. And I'm wondering if you have examples of words that might need to be updated or have been taken out of rotation, either because our understanding of them has changed, or just our culture has changed. I know floppy disk was in rotation as part of "Hawaiian Word of the Day."

POLIʻAHU: And fax machine, I think they took that one out.

OKAMURA: I was gonna say, I thought floppy disk was still in there. I think we did take that out.

HARRIMAN-POTE: Are there other examples of words that have been reconsidered in the 30 years since this started?

OKAMURA: I know that we've reconsidered a few. I think we pulled haole off the air because our understanding of the word haole has evolved beyond what it was in 1994. You know, our understanding has shifted and so that should be reflected in the presentation for "Hawaiian Word of the Day."

POLIʻAHU: Yes, I believe that we could definitely use maybe some words that are more timely now with things that are going on in the news now. I would be willing to come back and do any number of words. I think one of the initial goals of the "Hawaiian Word of the Day" was to help people learn correct pronunciation of certain words, certain words that maybe get commonly mispronounced in daily conversation such as place names. So I know one such word was Līhuʻe, which is the place on Kauaʻi. The person who wrote all of the words, I was just the voice, the person who wrote them was Keith Haugen. And he specifically chose words that he thought would benefit the general public. So hopefully nobody once they hear that will mispronounce Līhuʻe again.

OKAMURA: Yeah, for your average listener it's like a nice doorway for them to sort of understand either a word that they've heard before, or to find a new word. I do see a lot of folks always replying to our social media with mahalo so I always feel like they've learned one more word outside of mahalo. It's nice. It's a good way to sort of be that first step for some people.

HARRIMAN-POTE: I think that pronunciation is a critical component because even if you see a word over and over, written down, if you're not familiar with the sound of that word, you can't really bring it into your everyday. Paige, I want to step back for a moment and I want to ask what your experience has been with ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi both personally but also in scholarship and in study.

Paige Okamura
Paige Okamura

OKAMURA: Like most Hawaiian people, my age — adult, I'm an adult now that's right — we, you know, I grew up in a Hawaiian household that used Hawaiian words, but I also still grew up in a household where my grandparents prioritized English over Hawaiian, so we had certain words and phrases all my life, but really nobody spoke the language fluently in our household. So I think for us, we lost the language in two generations. So quite quickly, I started taking Hawaiian in high school, and then into college, and now I have a degree in Hawaiian language. And so my fluency has increased, but so has my understanding, not just of the language, but of the world, you know, of our world, of a Hawaiian worldview. And when I was in college, I worked for Puakea Nogelmeier for probably like six years, for my undergrad into my graduate studies, so I'm doing my master's in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. We've really kind of come full circle because really, our children today can learn in Hawaiian from the time they're born, preschool all the way through a Ph.D. program. So that wasn't really an option for my parents, but I've also seen it really change the landscape of the community as well, you know, because you're moving from a certain level of surface fluency, to really being able to dig into not just the language and what the words mean, but what it means to be Hawaiian, you know, and really digging into our history.

HARRIMAN-POTE: And Leilani, what has your relationship been to the language? Where did you start?

POLIʻAHU: I actually didn't start till I was at UH Mānoa and it was just this amazing thing that happened in my life. And I just wanted to do it for the rest of my life. So that's why I went into education and became a teacher in the Hawaiian immersion program. So that's where I've been the last 20, 20-somewhat years, and to see the growth from where the language was back then, to see where it is now and how it's everywhere — so many more people are learning the language and so many more opportunities and things are available in Hawaiian.

HARRIMAN-POTE: We've talked about the merits of giving people just vocabulary on the day to day that they, as Paige said, can have just one more word that they know in Hawaiian. But as two people who speak ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi and have studied and taught ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, what do you gain when you go beyond vocabulary?

POLIʻAHU: Well vocabulary is important. It's the building blocks that you can build sentences with. But the ʻŌlelo gives you a different thought, even a different thought process, like the importance that the culture places on certain items are evident in the language, or the not importance of the self. Because a lot of Hawaiian sentence structures are passive, meaning they don't even tell you who the actor was whereas in English, the actor is always the first thing in the sentence. "I did it." It just kind of changes your worldview, and helps you understand the way that Hawaiians thought. And I think it's critical to learn the language if you're going to understand the way that Hawaiians thought, and I think it's really important for our Hawaiian people to learn, but not just Hawaiian people — everyone can learn it because they live here and just to live here and as Aaron Salā says: if you breathe Hawaiian air, you're breathing in the mana of this place, and the language is all part of that.

OKAMURA: Yeah and I think, you know, it's important that we don't get stuck, right? We give people "Hawaiian Word of the Day" but it's the same. Because the Hawaiian language community has grown exponentially, they've noticed. I've seen people say, "I've heard this word before. What's going on here?" We have access to so many more resources. So why aren't we using them? Because really what happens and what you want out of people is maybe they hear a word on "Hawaiian Word of the Day" and they're interested. And maybe they learn a little more, a little more. But really what happens is once you've reached a certain level of, you know, kind of functional fluency, but even a little more than that, you're able to access a narrative that we, as a people, have not been able to access on our own for generations due to language demise. So we've only been used to the narrative that's been fed to us, that's been given to us in someone else's language. But once you're able to really see our history as a people in our own language, as told, written by our own people, that's a whole different world. And it really changes the way you perceive everything. You don't even wake up in the morning the same way. You can't because now you know things that you'll never be able to forget. And Leilani is right, we want you to see Hawaiʻi the way that the language tells you, which actually has so much more depth than English does. So really, the importance for us to expand that resource at Hawaiʻi Public Radio is in hopes of encouraging that. Because it's easy, I think we've been used to folks telling us, "Oh, you don't need it." But once you learn enough about Hawaiʻi's history from that primary source, it changes everything you look at — the political landscape here completely shifts for you because now you're able to understand history as it was for Hawaiians, not just as it was, for, you know, the colonizer to tell you what your history was. You can tell them what your history was.

HARRIMAN-POTE: You both came to the Hawaiian language in a fuller way in an academic setting. And you both still utilize it in an academic setting. I'm curious where else gains have been made in terms of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi that really excite you. What other places the language is being used that make you think, "Okay, this is bringing the language into a really practical everyday use."

POLIʻAHU: Our goal is to have the language everywhere. With the immersion program, we don't want to raise just teachers. We want people that speak Hawaiian in all the industries — doctors, lawyers, everywhere. And I think we've kind of made a lot of progress in that. We have pilots, we have people in the movie industry, the TV industry and just getting ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi out there into the media. And it's not just what you do in the industries — it's in your home. That's one of our other goals is to have ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi in the homes of people, have people raising their keiki in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. Yeah, and I think we are seeing that come to fruition.

This interview aired on The Conversation on April 19, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Savannah Harriman-Pote is the energy and climate change reporter.
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