The Kings of Hawai'i

Ua mau ke ea o ka 'âina i ka pono.

Although the flag of Hawai'i contains the British Union Jack, Hawai'i was never an official British possession -- though in February 1843 Lord George Paulet, captain of the frigate Carysfort, imposed British authority. When Hawaiian sovereinty was restored five months later by the commander of the British Pacific Squadron,
Kingdom of Hawai'i, 1795-1893
Kamehameha I the Great1795-1819
Kamehameha II Liholiho1819-1824
Kamehameha III Kauikeaouli1825-1854
Kamehameha IV Alexander Liholiho1855-1863
Kamehameha V Lot Kamehameha1863-1872
William C. Lunalilo1873-1874
David Kalâkaua1874-1891
Lili'uokalani,
Lydia Kamakaeha Dominis
Queen,
1891-1893,
d. 1917
Kingdom overthrown, 1893
Republic of Hawai'i, 1894-1898
Sanford B. Dole (R)Provisional
Governor,
1893-1894;
President,
1894-1900
Governor,
1900-1903
United States Annexation, 1898
Territory of Hawai'i, 1900-1959
George R. Carter (R)1903-1907
Walter F. Frear (R)1907-1913
Lucius E. Pinkham (D)1913-1918
Charles J. McCarthy (D)1918-1921
Wallace R. Farrington (R)1921-1929
Lawrence M. Judd (R)1929-1934
Joseph B. Poindexter (D)1934-1942
Walter Campbell Shortmilitary
governor,
1941
Delos Carleton Emmonsmilitary
governor,
1941-1943
Ingram M. Stainback (D)1942-1951
Robert Charlwood Richardson, Jr.military
governor,
1943-1944
Oren E. Long (D)1951-1953
Samuel W. King (R)1953-1957
William F. Quinn (R)1957-1959
Governor,
1959-1962
State of Hawai'i, 1959-present
John A. Burns (D)1962-1974
George R. Ariyoshi (D)1974-1986
John Waihee (D)1986-1994
Benjamin J. Cayetano (D)1994-2002
Linda Lingle (R)2002-2010
Neil Abercrombie (D)2010-2014
David Ige (D)2014-present
Rear Admiral Richard Thomas, King Kamehameha III is supposed to have made a thanksgiving speech in Kawaiahao Church, where he said, Ua mau ke ea o ka 'âina i ka pono, "The life of the land [ke ea o ka 'âina] is [or has been -- the perfect aspect] preserved [ua mau] by righteousness [i ka pono]," which became the motto of the Kingdom, Territory, and State. Officially adopted in 1845, the flag dates from 1816 and was perhaps based on a Union Jack presented to Kamehameha I by the British explorer George Vancouver. The Union Jack canton was introduced and retained, evidently, with the idea that Hawai'i might, or should be, a British possession. At one time, briefly, that was actually a goal of Hawaiian diplomacy, with the idea in mind that British protection would preserve Hawai'i from the interference of other nations. As it happened, contrary to the impression that many may have of 19th century imperialism, Britain was often not interested in taking on additional defense burdens, and was never particularly interested, except for Captain Paulet, in Hawai'i as a possession. The Kingdom, consequently, actually was left vulnerable to American inteference, which eventually resulted in the overthrow of the Monarchy and annexation -- though the refusal of Grover Cleveland to sanction annexation delayed that by seven years, giving Hawai'i, like Texas, a period as an independent Republic under the rule of American settlers.

Parades in Hawai'i usually contain many symbolic statements. There may be contingents of old women wearing black. These are the Tûtûs, grandmothers; and they wear black, of course, in mourning for the fallen Kingdom. There are also contingents symbolic of each Island, wearing leis made of a flower for each Island, as follows -- many details are from the entries in Mary Kawena Pukui & Samuel H. Elbert, Hawaiian Dictionary [University of Hawai'i Press, 1973]:

Big island
of Hawai'i
'Ôhi'a-lehua, or Lehua, red -- flowers of the 'Ôhi'a tree, genus Metrosideros.

Maui
Lokelane, pink -- a small rose, pink or red; the pink variety is now rare.

Kaho'olawe
Hinahina, gray -- Florida moss, or the beach heliotrope.

Lana'i
Kauna'oa, orange -- native orange dodder; I once lived on Kauna'oa Street in Honolulu.

Moloka'i
Kukui, green -- white flowers of the Kukui or candlenut tree; the Kukui is also the State Tree, and durable leis are commonly made out of its very hard nuts; note that the traditional color here seems to be for the leaves rather than the flowers.

O'ahu
'Ilima, yellow -- genus Sida, a relative of the hibiscus; the flowers only last a day, which makes preparing genuine 'Ilima leis for parades, or anything, very challenging.

Kaua'i
Mokihana, purple -- Pelea anisata, found only on Kaua'i.

Ni'ihau
Pûpû, white -- sea shells.

The State Flower itself is the hibiscus. My first wife claimed that hibiscus flowers always had ants in them and so should not be worn in one's hair.

Under American rule, Hawai'i traditionally had been a Republican stronghold; but after World War II the Democrats, led by Japanese-American veterans of the War, took over State politics. Unfortunately, this went a little too far, and Hawai'i has almost been a One Party State ever since -- and a good example of what
The Iolani Palace, 1972
would happen almost anywhere with unchallenged power by the Democratic Party:  Sky high taxes, socialized medicine, and labor unions so strong that they could get the State Supreme Court to overturn voter-approved measures to privatize government services. Among a population that is actually socially rather traditional and conservative -- locals often object that tourists swimming naked at secluded beaches are insulting Hawaiian culture (by which they mean Congregational Protestantism, and Catholicism, not the culture of the young women who used to swim out, nude and willing, to the whaling ships) -- the State Supreme Court was the first in the country to rule that same sex marriages were legal, a decision that was then reversed by popular vote for a constitutional amendment that would trump the Court. The presumptive heirs to the Monarchy, however, the Kawânanakoa family (in the line of succession by virtue of a proclamation of King Kalâkaua, no less) tend to still be Republicans. But even eight years of Repbulican Governor Linda Lingle don't seem to have changed the political culture of the State very much, and she is being succeeded by aging Sixities Radical Neil Abercrombie -- someone, I must confess, I actually voted for, for Congress, back in the 70's.

The Blue Hawai'i

The East-West Center Cafeteria

How to Pronounce "Hawai'i"

A Fantasy Syllabary for Hawaiian & Other Polynesian Languages

Governors of New Mexico (1598-present)

Spanish and Mexican Governors of Texas (1691-1836)

California, Governors of California (1769-present)

Sam Houston, Presidents & Governors of Texas (1836-present)

Spanish & Portuguese Colonial Possessions

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1999, 2002, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2018 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Austronesian
and Polynesian Languages

Until the modern spread of Indo-European languages out of Europe, the Austronesian languages were the most widely distributed in the world, stretching all the way from Hawai'i to Madagascar, Easter Island to Taiwan. The family, however, substantially consists of the Malayo-Polynesian group, with the other three branches all spoken on Taiwan. This makes Taiwan look like the source for the migration of subsequent Malayo-Polynesian languages, and presumably the island culture fostered the sailing technology that made the rest of the expansion possible. Voyages to Madagascar, Hawai'i, New Zealand, and Easter Island in sailing boats constructed with no more than Neolithic tools still stand as impressive achievements. Some doubted whether it could have been done deliberately, until a round trip was made recently between Hawai'i and Tahiti with comparable boats and supplies.

The simplest way to look at the Malayo-Polynesian languages was to divide them by geographical, cultural, and possibly even racial criteria into four groups:  Indonesian ("Indian Islands"), Micronesian ("Small Islands"), Melanesian ("Black Islands"), and Polynesian ("Many Islands"). There was some rough truth to this division, but there were exceptions to the classification, and especially in Melanesia it is impossible to keep everything in a neat group. The complication there, and the reason that the word "black" is used for Melanesia, is that the people are different. They are much darker than surrounding Micronesians and Polynesians, and this seems to be the result of migrating Malayo-Polynesian speakers intermarrying with the populations that were already there:  the older people of New Guinea and surrounding islands. Linguistically, New Guinea is a separate story. It not only has its own language family, but many of them, now called the Papuan languages, which still stretch as far East as the Solomons and even the Santa Cruz Islands. The intermingling of Papuan and Malayo-Polynesian languages on the coast of New Guinea and in the Bismarks, Solomons, and Santa Cruz Islands seems to accompany the genetic intermingling of the people. The Easternmost part of Melanesia traditionally is Fiji, just because of the look and culture of the people, who otherwise speak languages very closely related to Polynesian. There are other unrelated languages in the area, spoken by other darker skinned people, namely the Aboriginal languages of Australia. Australia may have been populated as much as 70,000 years ago, and Papuan peoples may have followed into New Guinea and Western Melanesia by at least 25,000 years ago. Such migrations can have been facilitated by lower sea levels during glaciations. Malayo-Polynesian speakers, from the evidence of the introduction of ("Lapita") pottery, had arrived in the Bismarks by about 1600 BC. Fiji and Western Polynesian were reached by 1000 BC, and all the major Polynesian Islands were settled by 1000 AD. Some of Micronesia may have been settled by about 1000 BC, with voyagers from the Philippines, leaving Chamorro and Palauan related to the Western languages; but most Micronesian languages arrived from the South about 1000 years later, apparently drawing on populations that had not yet intermarried with Papuans.

The Polynesian Outliers
LanguageLocationCountry
1NukuoroNukuoro IslandMicronesia
2KapingamarangiKapingamarangi Island
3NukuriaNukuria IslandPapua
New Guinea
4TakuuMortlock Island
5NukumanuTasman Island
6LuangiuaOntong Java AtollSolomon Islands
7SikaianaStewart Island
8RennelleseRennell & Bellona Islands
9PileniDuff Island
10Tikopia-AnutaTikopia & Anuta Islands
11EmaeEmae IslandVanuatu (former
New Hebrides)
12Ifira-MelePort Vila harbor
13West FutanaFutuna & Aniwa Islands
14Fagauvea (West Uvea)Ouvéa, Loyalty IslandsNew Caledonia
When Polynesian speakers began to spread out from the area of Samoa, a few headed back West as well as voyaging into the unknown East. The result was the Polynesian "Outliers," fourteen languages on islands in Micronesia and Melanesia that are Polynesian languages. Nukuoro and Kapingamarangi are isolated islands lying to the south of the Carolines, due west of Nauru and Kiribati (the Gilberts). Although three languages are listed in areas belonging to Papua New Guinea, they are actually on islands to the east of New Ireland (Nukuria) and Bougainville (the others). In the Solomon and Santa Cruz Islands, the Outliers are on peripheral islands, with Luangiua, Sikaiana, and Rennellese to the north, east, and south, respectively of the Solomons, while the other languages are east of the central Santa Cruz Islands. In New Calendonia, the Outlier is on one of the Loyalty Islands (Ouvéa) east of New Caledonia proper. Only in Vanuatu do we find the Outliers on central islands and intermingled with local (Southern Oceanic) languages.

The Outliers often absorb features from nearby languages and so begin to diverge from other Polynesian languages. Their very existence, however, is as great a testament to Polynesian voyaging as the more substantial discoveries and foundations to the East. The Polynesians were people who got around, and once they began crossing thousands of miles of ocean at a leap, there was little that could escape their attention. It still seems all but incredible that they could have found Easter Island (Rapa Nui). What now seems strange is that by the time Europeans arrived the voyages already seem to have ceased. Trips between places like Hawai'i and Tahiti were remembered, but they were lapsing into no more than legend.

Māori Grammar

When I lived in Hawai'i (1972-1975), I got interested in Hawaiian, other Polynesian, and other related Pacific Ocean languages. One book I acquired was Let's Learn Maori, A Guide to the Study of the Maori Language, by Bruce Biggs (1921-2000) [Reed Education, A.H. & A.W. Reed Ltd., 1969, 1973]. I'm not sure how it all happened, but at the time I had an account at Basil Blackwell's in Oxford, and I ordered the book from them. It took more than a month for the book to arrive, accompanied by 78 rpm records, what now we would call "audio files."

Although the publisher had offices in London, I imagined my order originated in New Zealand, traveling to Britain, and then shipped all the way across the Atlantic, North America, and the Northern Pacific to Hawai'i. It was still a long way from New Zealand, but not as far as all the way around the world through Britain. One thing that attracted my attention to New Zealand was a photograph in one of the Honolulu newspapers of Mt. Ngāuruhoe, a volcano on the North Island that had just erupted.

I thought that Let's Learn Maori was an elegant and clear presentation of Māori grammar. I have no desire to review it all here, but I do want to mention a couple of things that struck me as noteworthy and unusual about the language -- usually things shared with Hawaiian and other Polynesian languages. One thing I have changed is that Biggs writes long vowels with doubled vowels, e.g. Maaori, where I have substituted macrons to mark long vowels, e.g. Māori.

One of the most striking of those grammatical features of Māori reminded me of something about Arabic. The Caliph Omar [ʿUmar] is supposed to have said that words of Arabic consisted of nouns, verbs, and particles. One might think that something was missing there. Like adjectives (and adverbs). Well, there are adjectives in Arabic, but in morphology they are much like nouns, and they can be used as nouns, unlike adjectives in English.

Similarly, adjectives in Māori are not identified as such. They are verbs -- special kinds of verbs that Bruce Biggs calls "statives," which are defined as words that can be used verbally but not passively [p.52]. Biggs has created his own terminology for the language, without even using the word "verb." I don't think I need to go that far.

The example Biggs gives of a stative is Kia ora koutou! There ora is the stative, "well" or "be well." Kia is a particle that Biggs call "desiderative," but here is like a third person imperative or optative, "Let it be so!" Finally, koutou is the second person plural pronoun. So Kia ora koutou! means "May you be well!" or just "Greetings!" In turn, adjectival use is part of syntax. Nouns and verbs can all be used in an adjectival position. An example from Hawaiian would be Aloha 'āina, which is "patriotism," i.e. the "love of the land." We can add another word, Aloha 'āina Hawai'i, and that would be Hawaiian patriotism.

I like that grammar a lot. It is an excellent illustration of how different languages can do the same things in slightly different ways. Anyone learning English, or for that matter Arabic, Greek, or Latin, would never think of adjectives as verbs. That is not the way they are treated, either in morphology or syntax. But in Māori, Hawaiian, Tahitian, etc., it is perfectly logically and reasonable that what we would think of as adjectives are treated as verbs. This doesn't use some kind of extraterrestrial logic. It is the same logic as the other languages, just arranged a little different.

1st Person Inclusive1st Person Exclusive2nd Person3rd Person
Singularau, ahaukoeia
Dualtāuamāuakōruarāua
Pluraltātoumātoukoutourātou
Another extraordinary feature of Māori and Polynesian languages is in the pronouns. We don't find any grammatical gender or case structure, but we do find a dual number, as in Greek and Arabic. The extraordinary thing is what we find in the 1st person. There are "inclusive" and "exclusive" versions of the 1st person dual and plural. "Inclusive" means that the speaker includes the person addressed in the version of "we" that is used. "Exclusive" means that the speaker does not include the person addressed in the verson of "we" that is used. So if you are telling someone that "we" are going to the beach, they know immediately if you are including them in that group. So it is "We (and you) are going to the beach," or "We (but not you) are going to the beach." This is a very nice touch, and I have not seen it elsewhere.

Some minimal pairs in Hawaiian
o"of; lest, imperative marker"ō"to answer, reply yes, agree, yes; to remain, endure, survive, continue, exist; food provisions for a journey, sea rations"
'o"there, yonder; particle and clitic marking the subject"; Māori ko"any piercing instrument, fork, pin, pitchfork; a hula step; to hail, whoop; to fly, as as a kite"
Pukui & Elbert, Hawaiian Dictionary, U of Hawai'i Press, 1971, 1973, pp. 252-253
Minimal pairs with a here.
The next feature of Māori grammar that I want to consider is in the chapter that Biggs calls, "Dominant and Subordinate Possession: The Particles A and O" [p.43]. Thus, there are two words for "of" in Māori, a and o. This is common to Polynesian languages. Biggs says:

Possession of anything towards which the possessor is dominant, active or superior, is expressed by a; possession of things in respect to which the possessor is subordinate, passive or inferior, is expressed by o.

I am not aware of this kind of distinction elsewhere.

For example, Te kete a te wahine, is "The woman's basket," where we get a because the woman (also wahine in Hawaiian) carries the basket. On the other hand, Te waka o Hoturoa, is "The canoe of Hoturoa," where we get o because the canoe carries this fellow, Hoturoa. Similarly, we get Te rangatira o te iwi, "The chief of the tribe," with o because the chief is socially superior and, after a fashion, possesses the tribe. By contrast, Ngā mahi a ngā tūpuna, "The deeds of the ancestors," with a because the deeds were done by the ancestors.

Not only is this a fascinating distinction and device, but it is the source of groups of other words, such as in Arabic would be called the "sisters" of o and a.
1st Person2nd Person3rd Person
Singulartāku, tōku, "my"tāu, tōu, "your"tāna, tōna, "his, her, its"
Thus, these can be combined with the definite article, te, into possessive particles. Thus Te waka o Hoturoa can be Tō Hoturoa waka, "Hoturo's canoe," or "The canoe [belonging] to Hoturoa." These can then take the form of possessive pronouns, which in the singular combine the particle with the pronoun, as at left.

With a and o we also get "possessive prepositions," na, no, ma, mo. Na, no mean "belonging to," while ma, mo mean "possession not yet realised," i.e. that something if "for" someone, but not in their possession yet. These can also be combined with pronouns into sets of possessive pronouns. This is marvelous stuff, and we see it in other Polynesian languages.

Another noteworthy grammatical feature of Māori are its articles. Many languages, like Latin, Persian, and Russian, have no articles. Other languages, like Greek and Arabic, have definite articles but not indefinite. Māori has both, and more. Thus, he is the indefinite article, te is the singular definite article, and ngā is the plural. Since nouns are otherwise not inflected for number, the plural article may be the only way to indicate a plural. Also, the indefinite article may have a plural sense, with he kōtiro meaning either "a girl" or "some girls."

But there is more. Other languages, like Greek, can use the definite article with proper names. We can say ὁ Σωκράτης, "the Socrates," for Socrates. We can do that in Māori, but there is a dedicated article for that usage. This is another meaning for the syllable a. A nice example Biggs gives involves the name of a house: Ka kino, te whare ra, a Maru-pō, "That house, Maru-pō, is bad." Here we see a familiar word. Whare, "house," is fare in Tahitian and hale in Hawaiian. Otherwise, kino is a stative, "is bad" ('ino in Hawaiian and Tahitian), introduced by the verbal particle ka.

Hawaiian seems to have lost a dedicated article for proper nouns. Sometimes the particle 'o looks like one, but this is a particle that is used for nominal sentences, like ko in Māori, most famously in 'O Hawai'i, "This is Hawai'i," where the 'o was long confused as part of the name, as "Owyhee" or "Owhyhee."

The example that Biggs gives for the article leads to the next issue. The phrase te whare ra, "the house there," includes a particle, ra, that is part of a group of what Biggs calls "positional particles." These are nei, meaning "near me," na, "near you," and ra, "away from both of us." These can be used postpositionally with any noun, or combined with articles before nouns.

A famous example of this is Hawai'i nei, "this Hawai'i." This is intriguing in itself. If we are in "this" Hawai'i, does this mean that there is another one? Yes, it does. In Māori, that is Hawaiki. This is either the legendary homeland of the Māori, or of all Polynesians, or it is the underworld, the land of the dead, or something like the "Dream Time" to the Aborigines. Thus, it is Havai'i in Tahitian, Savai'i in Sāmoan, 'Avaiki in the Cook Islands, etc. Controversy over how to pronounce Hawai'i in Hawaiian is considered below.

Of course, Savai'i is not a mythic place, but one of the principal Sāmoan islands. Similarly, the Māori Hawaiki could simply mean Ra'iatea (Rangiatea) or Tahiti (Tawhiti) in the Society Islands, from which the Māori would have originally sailed to New Zealand -- Aotearoa, Hawaiian Aokealoa, the "long white cloud," meaning either the clouds formed over the high mountains of New Zealand, or perhaps the white snowcaps of the mountains themselves -- unusual in Polynesia, where otherwise we see snow on Maunakea, Māori Maungatea, in Hawai'i.

The final thing I'll consider for now are what Biggs calls "The Directional Particles." These are much like the "positional particles" except that they indicate motion or direction. These are the particles mai, which is motion or direction towards the speaker, atu, motion or direction away from the speaker, iho, downward, and ake, upwards.

The classic example with these is Māori haere mai, Hawaiian hele mai. These look like they just mean "come here," but they are used as greetings: "Come in!" "Welcome!" What you want to hear when you show up at someone's home in Hawai'i. For the opposite, Biggs has a couple of examples. One is haere ra, which literally could mean "Go there!" but is used just for "Goodbye," addressed to anyone doing the leaving. Biggs also gives us Hoki atu ki tōu kāinga! "Go away [to your] home!" Here we have seen tōu, "your"; and kāinga is Hawaiian 'āina, "land" -- as in ke ea o ka 'āina, "the life of the land." Biggs glosses the Māori word as "village, home."

Prime Ministers of New Zealand

Easter Island

When I was young a popular book was Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl [1950], who had his own theory that Polynesia had been settled from South America. He tried demonstrating the possibility of this with a voyage on a raft from Peru to, well, someplace. It ended up being in the Tuamotus, but then Heyerdahl really couldn't steer the raft. It just went where the wind took his square sail. Since the uncontrollable raft fetched up on a reef in the end, the practicality of the technology was, to say the least, dubious. It was already at the time clear where the languages had come from -- Southeast Asia -- and since then genetic studies have confirmed where the people came from -- Southeast Asia -- so there isn't much left of Heyerdahl's thesis. The Polynesians are Polynesians, not Incans.

Heyerdahl ended up believing that the strange megalithic sculptures of Easter Island were created by an Incan ruling class (which alone could have done such stonework) that subjugated the local Polynesians and forced them to do the quarrying and moving of the sculptures. His archaeological work on the island was recounted in his book, Aku-Aku, the Secret of Easter Island (1958). Although few believed his conquering race story (which sounds like Nietzsche's Eroberer-Rasse), the common understanding of the history of the island nevertheless continued to include belief in over-population, oppression, ecological collapse, civil war, massacre, and desperate cannibalism. Captain Cook's translator, the Tahitian Mahine, summed up his impression of their visit as, Ta'ata maita'i, fenua 'ino, "The people are good; the land is bad" (in Hawaiian, with all cognates, this would be Kanaka maika'i, honua 'ino)

Now we get a very different picture of the remote and extraordinary Rapa Nui. Terry Hunt and Carlo Lipo argue in The Statues that Walked, Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island [Free Press, 2011] that the island was never over-populated, there never was an ecological collapse, and that there never was civil war, massacre, or desperate cannibalism. The island had originally been forested, with mainly a single principal species of palm (Jubaea chilensis); but these had been destroyed, not by clear-cutting, but by rats -- who ate all the seeds and seedlings of the slow growing trees and also predated the native birds. Nor was the loss of the trees, which were unsuitable for canoe building or heavy construction in any case, a blow to the livability of the island. Mahine probably thought that the lack of forest is what made the land bad. But agriculture didn't need the trees; and Hunt and Lipo recount the discovery in Hawai'i that previously forested areas, such as 'Ewa on O'ahu, had also been lost to rats, after which the Hawaiians began cultivation there for food.

Most importantly, heavy lumber had not been necessary and had never been used for the movement of the remarkable sculptures, the moai. The locals had always insisted that the statues "walked" from the quarry to final placement. Since this was done with the sacred power of mana, Europeans did not take the explanation seriously. Hunt and Lipo now accept, however, that the statues did "walk," i.e. they were moved while upright by rocking, requiring no more than a small crew and ropes to accomplish the feat. The technique has been demonstrated in practice. This revelation now eliminates the picture of vast gangs, as in Ancient Egypt, dragging the heavy stones on wooden sledges. A fair number of the moai fell over and broke under transport, and they still lie where they fell -- revealingly on their backs going up hill, and on their faces going down hill, showing the minor damage on the bases consistent with the stresses of the rocking. Statues were still being made and moved up untill the arrival of Europeans in 1722.

These are all remarkable discoveries and theories. Hunt and Lipo eliminate the Easter Islanders from being the object lesson of the evils of race, class, ecology, war, or tyranny that had previously been the picture of them since the 18th century. Altogether, it seems far more reasonable.

Most of my information here is from John Lynch, Pacific Languages, An Introduction [U. of Hawai'i Press, 1998]. The actual table of the Outliners, for instance, is on page 51, and the list of Polynesian languages in the tree on page 52. However, for some of the larger picture of the Austronesian languages, I have used Ross Clark, "Austronesian Languages," in The World's Major Languages, edited by Bernard Comrie [Oxford University Press, 1987, p.901-912].

How to Pronounce "Hawai'i"

A Fantasy Syllabary for Hawaiian & Other Polynesian Languages

Philosophy of Science, Linguistics

Philosophy of Science

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2008, 2012, 2021 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

How to Pronounce "Hawai'i"


This exercise demonstrates one of the methods used in linguistics, in this case to examine the problem of the pronunciation of the "w" in the name "Hawai'i." Much of what is said about that "w" in popular discussions is not consistent with local usage and the pronunciation of local Hawaiian place names like "Wahiawâ".

Actual pronunciations are set off in slashes: // The audio files are intended neither as examples of paradigmatic pronunciation of the Hawaiian language, which the author does not speak, nor as examples of the accent of the local English language dialect of Hawai'i, which the author does not try to imitate. (While my late grandmother-in-law, a native speaker of Hawaiian, said my pronunciation was rather good, the examples here have been criticized by a correspondent for suffering from diphthonized vowels, which are characteristic of English but not Hawaiian.) The issue is a descriptive linguistic one about the rule for the use of /w/ and /v/ as this may be determined from idiomatic usage in Hawai'i by local speakers, though this does bear on the rules for pronunciation in Hawaiian itself. Note: The audio files may take a few moments to load.


Most mainlanders pronounce "Hawai'i" as /hawaiyi/. In Texas, that even becomes /hawaiya/. No local person in Hawai'i says it either way. The most important point is the transition from one "i" to the other. "Hawai'i" in Hawaiian is properly written "Hawai'i" and pronounced /hawai'i/, where the apostrophe stands for a glottal stop, a brief closure of the throat, like a little cough. There is no dispute about that, and no locals in Hawai'i pronounce it improperly; but a dispute occurs over how to pronounce the "w." Many people, inside and outside of Hawai'i, pronounce it as a /v/ rather than as a /w/ and may regard their pronunciation as a sign of their superior knowledge of the Hawaiian language. On the other hand, daily usage in Hawai'i is usually with a /w/. If this is just a "ho'ohaole" (making like a "haole") corruption of pure Hawaiian, why did not the glottal stop also get corrupted? It is a lot easier for a Mainlander to say /v/ than to make the glottal stop, which is why the glottal stop was usually not even written in former transcriptions of Hawaiian.

/w/
Waialua ("Two Waters")
Wai'anae ("Mullet Water")
Wahiawâ ("Place of Noise")

/v/
Hale'iwa ("Frigate Bird House")
'Ewa ("Cooked")
Hâlawa ("Curve")

/w/
i-alúa = /ialúa/
i-'anáe = /i'anáe/
hi-a- = /hia/

/v/
Hále-'íwa = /hále'íva/
wa = /'éva/
Hâláwa = /hâláva/

There is a way that this can be straightened out. There are many place names with "w's" on O'ahu. In some of them, "w" is exclusively pronounced /w/, and in others exclusively /v/, as seen at left.

Alternate pronunciations of all these names are really never heard. This data provides the answer to the difference between /v/ and /w/ and the pronunciation of "Hawai'i." Hawaiian words are mostly two syllables (e.g. hale, "house"), with the stress on the first syllable (hále). In three syllable words, the stress is usually on the second syllable (e.g. alóha, "love"). In the examples, it happens that "w" is always pronounced /w/ in stressed syllables, /v/ in unstressed syllables, as displayed at left. In linguistics, wherever one unit of speech (the "phoneme") is pronounced differently in different environments, the different sounds are called "allophones." In local Hawaiian usage, /w/ and /v/ are just different allophones of the phoneme "w."

In the Hawaiian language itself, "Hâlawa" should be accented on the first syllable, with its long vowel, but that is not heard in ordinary local pronunciation, probably because long and short vowels are not commonly distinguished. This does not affect the pronuncation of the "wa" anyway.

While this rule takes care of several exceptions to the rules that are often given for w/v alternation in Hawaiian pronunciation (which is usually just that initial "w's" are /w/ while midword "w's" are /v/), a conspicuous exception would be the common word for woman, "wahine," which is often used in local English, with a /w/ pronunciation in an unstressed first syllable, /wahíne/ (commonly Anglicized as /wahíni/, with the English pronunciation of the letter "e"). This exception can be accounted for (1) just by saying that "w" as the first letter of a word is always pronounced "w," (2) that "wahine" reflects older Polynesian pronunciation, where, as in Mâori, the stress is on the first syllable, e.g. /hine/ (see Bruce Biggs, Let's Learn Maori, A.H. & A.W. Reed Ltd., 1973, p. 133), or (3) that "wahine" often actually is pronounced /vahíne/, though I cannot say that I ever heard this form myself. The occurrence of the pronunciation /vahíne/ would at once contradict the initial "w" rule and confirm the stress rule.

In "Hawai'i" itself, a four syllable word (or three, if "ai" is regarded as a diphthong) of unknown meaning (although claims and speculation abound), the stress is clearly on the /wá/: /hai'i/. So according to the stress rule the "w" would be pronounced /w/, as it indeed is pronounced in ordinary conversation by most local people in Hawai'i and on Hawaiian television and radio. The pronunciation /havai'i/ is a misunderstanding (in tourists) or an affectation (in locals -- though the sincere impression that /v/ is "correct" is common). You know that someone really doesn't know what they're talking about if they say /havaiyi/. My own familiarity was with my own Hawaiian in-laws, especially during the two years my first wife and I lived with her grandmother, Lilia Nainoa Rathburn, who was a native speaker of Hawaiian born in 1893.

Unfortunately, the Hawaiian language has also become a political issue, and proprietary claims may be made about its pronunciation. The pronunciation /havai'i/ may be used, not really as an affectation or to claim superior knowledge of the Hawaiian language, but to contradict most local and Mainland usage of /hawai'i/ as a political act of identity and control -- as when modern Greeks stoutly maintain that Classical Greek was pronounced exactly the same as Modern Greek; "we should know" -- as though they are 2500 years old and can remember (and when the pronunciation of no language stays the same very long). This is a disturbing and unfortunate development but is of a piece with Mainland politics of ethnic identity and proprietary control over language. Political militancy does not sound like the aloha spirit, but I don't doubt that the use of /havai'i/ may be increasing for that kind of reason.

In Tahitian, in contrast to Hawaiian, there is a "v" phoneme and no /w/ allophone. The old name of the island of Raiatea was "Havai'i." Similarly, the largest island in Western Sâmoa is "Savai'i," where Sâmoan retains the Proto-Polynesian "s" which Tahitian and Hawaiian have lost. In New Zealand there is a place name "Hawaiki" in the Mâori language, where a "w" can be found (no /v/ allophone), but with a "k" in the place of the glottal stop. Another variation turns up in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands: "'Avaiki," where the old "s" has actually become a glottal stop instead of an "h." Since Hawaiians knew that there were a lot of other places that used the name "Hawai'i," they often said "Hawai'i nei," "This Hawai'i." They would also say "'O Hawai'i nei," with the particle for nominal sentences, which indicate a sentence without a verb. Captain Cook, asking "What is the name of this place?" heard "'O Hawai'i" and wrote "Owhyhee," although he may have actually understood, knowing some Tahitian, that there were two words there -- since the name is written as "OWHYHEE" on his chart (Atlas of Hawai'i, Second Edition, University of Hawai'i Press, 1983, p. 99), this may indicate something of the sort.

The Kings of Hawai'i

A Fantasy Syllabary for Hawaiian & Other Polynesian Languages

The Austronesian and Polynesian Languages

The meaning of haole

Philosophy of Science, Linguistics

Philosophy of Science

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 2002, 2021 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

A Fantasy Syllabary for Hawaiian and Other Polynesian Languages


The Hawaiian language has an extraordinarily simplified phonology, with only thirteen phonemes:  Eight consonants and five vowels. The vowels can be long or short; but this is a difference of quantity, not quality, and so a long vowel can simply be understood as two short versions of the same vowel. Hawaiian phonology also requires that every consonant be followed by a vowel. This makes for as many vowels, if not more, as consonants in each word. But it also makes, with no consonant clusters and no syllable final consonants, for a relatively small number of possible syllables.

Many languages are written with syllabaries, which have symbols for syllables rather than for individual phonemes. Among these are Korean, Japanese (with kana), the languages of Christian Ethiopia, the languages that use the Sanskrit Devanagari syllabary or its derivates (like Burmese, Thai, Cambodian, etc.), and Cherokee, which uses the syllabary invented by the great Sequoia. Syllabaries have more symbols than plain alphabets, and Devanagari has a very complex system, with irregularities, to represent consonant clusters. Hawaiian in that respect, with only fourty-five possible syllables, is supremely suited to representation in a syllabary. This, however, was never done, as Hawaiian began to be written in the Latin alphabet from the earliest days of European contact. There was no Hawaiian Sequoia.

This always seemed to me like an unfortunate oversight of history. In the summer of 1974 I played around by making up a system that I thought might look good printed on, for instance, tapa cloth. I think, initially, that the forms of the letters were suggested by, of all things, Cambodian, which of course uses a Devanagari derived syllabary, ; but the final forms do not look much like Cambodian.

There are some basic regularities in the system. The forms of the consonants are part of a box, of vowels, a line (these basic shapes could be called the "chair" of the character, as in Arabic). The box is complete for the glottal stop ('); for stops (i.e. k and p) and for h, the box is open at the bottom; and for all others (liquids and fricatives), it is open at the top. Nasals (n and m) have a loop at the top, and l a wavy line. In labials (w, p, & m), the box is empty; in dentals (n), the box has a diagonal line that goes up to the right; and in velars (k), the box has a diagonal line that goes down to the right. Not all of these syllables occur in native words. For instance, wu is only used to transcribe foreign words.

The vowels are indicated, as in Devanagari and Ethiopic, by adding marks to the basic letter. The basic form is understood to have the vowel a; a line to the side adds an i instead; and circle above adds an e; a circle below, an o; and a line below, a u. In order that letters can be written with a single stroke, these forms are modified in some letters. Thus, where a line to the side is inconvenient (as in n, l, and k), i is written with a line below, and the line below for u is doubled. The circle above for e is eliminated when the line must be brought up from the bottom of the letter, and just a line is left at the top (i.e. pe and he).

After some years, I decided to alter a couple of letters. Originally, added a line to the right and that was it, as . The problem here was the potential, especially in writing, to confuse with -- there is going to be no clear difference between full width and half width in the "chair." I decided that in writing, a loop needed to be added to the upper left. This could easily be done and would fortify the letters against ambiguity. The only other case where this device might help would between and . Now the actual width of the downward facing loop is irrelevant.

Now we can write some Hawaiian words, like , Hawai'i; , hale, the word for "house"; , kona, the word for "leeward" that is especially used as a place name for the leeward shore of the Big Island of Hawai'i (i.e. Kona); or , , "sun." Since most Hawaiian nouns and verbs are two syllables, like hale, these are all conveniently written with just two symbols. Even some words that look like they have only one syllable, but have a long vowel, like , now get written as two syllables, more in conformity with the other nouns and verbs. Hawai'i now looks like two words, which it probably is; but there is no agreement of what those words originally were.

The regularites for the formation of consonants mean that forms can easily be produced for letters that Hawaiian does not have but are in other Polynesian languages. For instance, in Tahitian, we need to show t and f. The forms would look like these:  . So we can write:  , Tahiti. Tahitian v is the same phoneme as w in Hawaiian, and can be written the same way. Similarly the Tahitian r and the Hawaiian l. A t has always occured in Hawaiian dialects and is still commonly used in the word tûtû, "grandmother"; so that can be written, with the special form for t:  . In Maori, the Polynesian language of New Zealand, the f phoneme can be pronounced wh, as in "whale" -- the loop on the f/wh does make it look like the h. And in fact Hawaiian hale is fare in Tahitian and whare in Maori:  .

Kings of Tonga
George Tupou I1845-1893
George Tupou II1893-1918
British Protectorate, 1900-1970
Sâlote Tupou III 1918-1965
Tâufa'âhau Tupou IV1965-2006
George Tupou V2006–2012
Tupou VI2012–present

Sâmoan and Tongan have the Tahitian sounds and a couple extra ones, an s and a velar nasal (the ng in "sing") that is written "ng" in Tongan and "g" (more efficiently, since there are no voiced stops, no b or d or g, in Polynesian languages) in Sâmoan. The forms would look like these:
, where s, as the only sibilant we have seen, is shown by a loop opening to the right. Thus we can write , Sâmoa, and , Tonga. "Tonga," of course, is simply the Tongan version of kona, "leeward." The capital of American Sâmoa is the city of , Pago-Pago.

In Maori, New Zealand itself is called , Aotearoa. Ao is a word that can mean "day," "light," or "cloud" and also "kingdom" or "world." Tea (kea in Hawaiian) is "white"; and roa (loa in Hawaiian) is "long." Aotearoa thus looks like it means the "Long White Kingdom" or "Long White World." This seems especially apt for the long snow-capped spine of the South Island, with mountains higher than in the entire continent of Australia.

This is perhaps a meaningless exercise. But, truly, there is no other language in the world more suited to a syllabary than Hawaiian (followed closely by other Polynesian languages), so there may as well be one, useful or not, produced by a moment's diversion.

The Kings of Hawai'i

How to Pronounce "Hawai'i"

Hawaiian Value Terms in Religion

The Austronesian and Polynesian Languages

Philosophy of History

Philosophy of Science

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1999, 2004, 2015, 2016 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved