Thirty years ago, at the 1978 Constitutional Convention, Hawaiian was made an official language of the State of Hawai‘i. This new status given to Hawai‘i’s native tongue triggered a series of significant developments that would serve to revive and strengthen a language that was on the brink of extinction.
With great value placed on the power of the spoken word, Hawaiian culture flourished in isolation for centuries. Hawaiian thought and verbal expression had developed to a high level of sophistication without a system of writing. New England missionaries introduced reading and writing to Hawaiians upon their arrival in 1820. Within the span of a decade and a half, literacy rates rose dramatically. From the mid to late 19th century, Hawai‘i was among the most literate nations on earth, surpassing both the United States and Britain. This remarkable literacy thrived amid a hundred or so Hawaiian language newspapers that were in circulation from as early as 1834.
Previously under the Hawaiian Monarchy, Hawaiians sought to maintain Hawaiian as the first language of their people while also developing fluency in additional languages. As early as 1855, Hawaiian monarchs promoted English as an especially valuable second language for Hawaiians to learn. English was widely taught throughout the kingdom as both a course in Hawaiian language schools and in special English immersion schools, like Kamehameha. Further, proficiency in both Hawaiian and English was a passionate and long-standing topic of public discussion in Hawaiian newspapers. In 1896, the Republic of Hawai‘i passed an English-only law for instruction in the public school system. Hawai‘i’s ali‘i probably never imagined the day when Hawaiian would cease from the lips of their beloved people.
From a resurgence of culture in the 1970s until today, many communities, educational institutions, agencies and individuals have worked tirelessly to promote ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. We laud the beginning of the ‘Aha Pūnana Leo in 1983 which sought to create language nests where preschoolers could be nurtured in Hawaiian by native speakers. In 1988, the Board of Education approved the first K-12 Kula Kaiapuni Hawaiian immersion schools making it possible for students to be educated through the medium of Hawaiian for the first time since 1896. Today, Hawaiian language learning flourishes at many places: at the Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and at Ka Haka ‘Ula ‘O Ke‘elikōlani Hawaiian Language College at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, the only indigenous language college in the United States. Masters and doctoral degrees can now be pursued in the area of Hawaiian Language. And some 800 students are enrolled in Hawaiian language every year at Kamehameha Schools’ Kapālama Campus. There are online Hawaiian dictionaries located at wehewehe.org, and there is public access to some 9,000 pages of Hawaiian newspapers at nupepa.org. Hawaiian has the most developed computer system of any indigenous language in the world. Every Apple computer ships with a Hawaiian language keyboard setting.
‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i is the language of young and old, of native and non-native. It is on television and radio—on street signs and the worldwide web. It is spoken at supermarkets, banks and on the football field. And, our beautiful and expressive language remains the foundation of our hula and mele traditions.
Excerpted with permission from Kamehameha Schools (c) 2008.