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We’ve actually received calls asking if it would be a good idea to learn the Hawaiian language before coming to Hawaii. The answer to that is no.
English is the dominant language here, although there is such a variety of nationalities that a lot of people who live here have trouble with English.
The Hawaiian language is spoken only by about 9.000 residents. You’ll notice that most of the street and place names in the islands are Hawaiian, and you might find them unpronounceable. (One of the main roads is Kalanianaole Highway, for example, and there’s a place called Kaaawa on Oahu’s North Shore.) Hawaii’s early immigrants communicated with each other using pidgin, which still is pervasive. You’ll hear pidgin a lot while you’re here and you’ll get used to it.
Captain James Cook and his crew recorded the Hawaiian language for the first time on Kauai in 1778. They immediately noticed the great similarity to Tahitian and Maori. In order to communicate with the Hawaiians they used Tahitian words and gestures. They described the Hawaiian language as “primitive, childlike, lilting, effeminate, and simple.” Reduplication (‘ele’ele, wikiwiki) and all the vowels sounded to the explorers like baby talk.
Hawaiian had been an oral language only. The 19th century missionaries, however, were supposed to teach their converts to read the Bible, so they created a writing system with an alphabet that contained only twelve letters for words of Hawaiian origin. The Hawaiian language became the language of the government, remained the most commonly used language in daily life, and was used among the numerous different ethnic groups who had all arrived here to work the plantations. The alphabet was later expanded to allow for two unique characteristics in the Hawaiian word that the missionaries had missed.
First, there was the unnoticed consonant, a glottal stop. Try the sound in the American exclamation “oh-oh.” The ‘okina symbol (‘) now indicates this stop. Secondly, the five vowels could all function as longer sounds, now symbolized with a short line above the vowel. (You’ll see those on signs everywhere.)
The increasing influence of the United States pushed English forward as the language of choice. Then, with the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and its annexation in 1898, the Hawaiian language was banned entirely from schools and government.
Imagine this: 500,000 Hawaiians spoke the language when Captain Cook arrived. Today, there are only 1,000 native speakers left, most of whom live on isolated Ni’ihau. Another 8,000 people can speak and understand Hawaiian, and use it among themselves.
So, even if you were to learn the Hawaiian language, you’d have trouble finding somebody to speak it with.