And so I made my first trip to Hawaii. It’s a long way from everywhere, specks of black lava, folded green jewels in the middle of the largest body of water on the planet – you will now know that, Hawaii is the further from a continent than any other on the planet. No wonder the creation story here, the Kumulipo, begins underwater, with the creation of fish, coral and octopus, and rises up with the spirit of Pele, the Goddess of Fire, a real place—the active volcano in the center of the Big Island. Pele is a real person, too. I met her many-times-Great Granddaughter, Pele Harmann, a teacher at Nawahi, the K-12 immersion school outside Hilo where I spent many a day hearing No English. It’s an honor to be allowed to step inside someone else’s culture. Tread lightly. As Pele said to me, “To you it’s a myth. To me it’s my genealogy.”
This is what you learn. That unlike the rest of the world’s crises, the Language Crisis has a seemingly simple answer: Respect Mother tongues. Let the children born into minority languages live there as much as possible. They will get plenty of the bully language as soon as they walk out the door, as soon as they turn on the TV.
Today there are Hawaiian language immersion schools on every island, but back in the 60s there were none. The number of speakers had shrunk to about 400 with most of them living on the tiny island of Ni’ihau, which was owned (still is) by a single family who allow no non-Hawaiians to set foot there. So the native population lives on in a kind of time capsule of pure Hawaiian. When Larry Kimura, the godfather of the Hawaiian language, and his Hawaiian language students at the University of Hawaii Manao came to the conclusion that just speaking Hawaiian with each other for hours a day was not making the kind of substantive change necessary to keep Hawaiian culture alive, they decided the way forward was to start schools where children would learn Hawaiian the way all children learn languages – by hearing, by mimicking, by conversing. By spending time in a place where the sound environment was always the flowing lilt and glottal stops of Hawaiian. This was the beginning of the punana leo, a language nest. Here children would spend hours daily in a protected place—a nest of Hawaiian. Parents must accompany their little ones (3 months to 5 years ) here, and parents too are bound by the rules. So they end up learning baby Hawaiian, just to keep up with their child. I’m sitting there and a toddler purposefully approaches and starts speaking to me—in Hawaiian. Wants me to read him a book in Hawaiian. I oblige—I may not know all the meanings, but I can read the words, and I’m learning, like he is. But I don’t speak Hawaiian! I’d said to the teacher. Not yet, was her reply.
It was a few kapunas (elders, but like so many Hawaiian words, much more than elders), those remaining from the 400 speakers in 1960, who brought the sounds and traditions of real Hawaiian direct to these students. Auntie Lolena Nichols—I could devote a whole blog to how kinship patterns in orality are as complex as nuclear fission, but right now let’s just say “Auntie”—was one of these native speakers from Ni’ihau. These days she divides her time between the children at the punana leo and graduate students at the University of Hawaii, Manao. In oral consciousness, people are books, and as the language activist/scholar Puakea Nogelmeier is fond of saying, Auntie Lolena is a PhD in living Hawaiian. When I first met Lolena, I presumed a Hawaiian greeting: forehead to forehead, nose to nose, you breathe in the breath of the other. Lolena’s power almost knocked me over.
Nogelmeier, himself is a very special man with a deliciously deep voice. You get to hear it every time you take a bus in Honolulu. Most of the streets still have their original Hawaiian names, but as the language died out so did proper pronunciation. The names became haole, the Hawaiian word for white people, but as the language movement (not Bernstein/Andrews, but the push for mother tongue survival) gained momentum one of the successes was hearing Puakea’s dulcet tones pronounce real Hawaii’an as you take public transportation in Honolulu.
One thing you notice right away in the language is the ‘okina, the glottal stop, considered an actual letter in Hawaiian, one of eight consonants. There are five vowels. Thirteen letters altogether, and one of them is the silent “hitch” you hear when you say uh-oh. Having a language with such a few number of letters, each of which is pronounced in only one way (well, vowels are short and long, but long just means they are longer, not that they have a different sound), gives Hawaiian only 18 phonemes, one of the fewest of any language (English has 57, the Koisan click languages over 140).
It also makes Hawaiian an extremely easy language for speakers to read. Think of the evolution of written English, its centuries of inconsistent spellings and idiosyncratic pronunciations. How different it was for literacy to arrive in Hawaii. When the first missionaries arrived in 1820, they quickly developed a written language and translated the Bible into Hawaiian, the better to convert the populace. They gained the full support of the royal family, who even at this time were considered not the descendants of gods, but actual gods. And when these kings and queens took up the advocacy of reading, it took less than fifty years for Hawaii to surpass the Mainland in literacy, eventually having one of the highest literacy rates in the world. It was said that Hawaiians could read upside-down – because of the lack of reading material, four people would stand around a book or newspaper – two read sideways, one straight on, one upside down.
One of the reasons this happened was the advent of Hawaiian newspapers. Over the next 100 years, more than 100 native language newspapers were founded. But it wasn’t the news they were reporting, it was the incredibly rich Oral culture that they were recording. Every endangered language that is being revived develops techniques for adding vocabulary for new things and concepts (computer, cell pone, defriend, Pringle-ization), and for words that have been lost. But it’s only Hawaii, where the people fell so in love with reading that now researchers can “mine” this trove to find forgotten vocabulary, ideas for new words, and still hear the voices from the days when the language was teeming with energy, the essence of Hawaiian culture full flower.
I want to talk about my visit with William Merwin, who of course lives in Haiku on the island on Maui, telling me that Hawaiian will be back when it is “considered a first language, when you make jokes in it, play around with it.” I want to travel way up the mountain and tell you about my visit with Keali’I Richel,who told me how hula became the way that language survived during the years that the American colonists outlawed it, how “you can have a hula poem without the dance, but you can’t have the dance without the poem.” I want you to meet Kaui sa-Dudoit, the Mother of the Language Movement, whose dozen kids all grew up in immersion schools, all rebelled as teenagers and stopped, and all came back.
And I want you to see David Grubin and me actually getting in the water, up to our knees, daring the Pacific in our bermudas, trying to write a poem while the waves tried to push us over. But instead, it is time to go to Wales, and meet a language that has survived for over a thousand years while the powerful onslaught of bully English ruled the land.