Hawaiian Language: History & Phrases

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

Many people know that the word Aloha is a Hawaiian greeting, but fewer people know much about the Hawaiian language beyond that greeting. In this lesson, you will learn the history of the language and some of the most common phrases.

Haiwaiian Languages

Aloha! E komo mai! This is a traditional Hawaiian greeting meaning 'Hello! Welcome!' If you were to vacation on the Polynesian island chain, this would be a phrase you would hear frequently. However, if you overhead Native Hawaiians speak to one another, you might catch them asking one another Olelo Hawaii? This means: 'Do you speak Hawaiian?' Although English is the most commonly used language throughout the eight main islands, both English and Hawaiian are official languages of the state. In Hawaii today, many Native Hawaiians continue to olelo Hawaii to keep their history and traditions alive.

Early History

Although the Hawaiian Islands were formed over 3.4 million years ago, the first record of the oral language comes from 1778 when Captain James Cook landed on the island of Kauai. At that time, Hawaiian was only an oral language. Captain Cook noticed that the language shared many sounds and grammatical concepts with other Polynesian languages.

After Captain Cook made the islands known to Europeans, a stream of missionaries began to visit the island chain. A part of the work of missionaries was translating the Bible into the local language. To do this, they needed to create a written language from the Hawaiian language that was only oral at the time. They created a written language using only twelve letters! This language continued to be used by Hawaiians and the government.

In 1893, there was a strong push for American imperialism that led to the queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, being overthrown in a bloodless coup d'etat by American sugar planters with the help of the American military. As a result, Hawaii became a protectorate of the United States. In 1898, Hawaii was annexed and officially became a part of the United States. With the growing influence of the United States, the Hawaiian language was banned from schools and the government in the 1896 Laws of the Republic of Hawaii. As you can suspect, this law severely decreased the number of Native Hawaiian speakers on the island. Today, there are approximately 8,000 people who can speak Hawaiian.

Modern Use

In recent times, there has been a revitalization to truly understand the Hawaiian language. In 1978, Hawaiian became an official language of the state again. On the island of Oahu, there are several charter schools that teach the majority of classes in Hawaiian. In 2012, state legislatures declared February 'Olelo Hawaiian Month,' encouraging people to use the Hawaiian language.

Pidgin (Hawaiian Creole)

In the mid-1800s, there was a massive rise in immigration to Hawaii as people from Asian and European countries arrived to work in on the sugarcane plantations. Immigration was so diverse during the time that there was no common language for workers to communicate with one another. This is what led to the initial rise in Pidgin English, also known as Hawaiian Creole. Pidgin is a mix of Hawaiian, English, and Portuguese.

Although it is not the official language of Hawaii, if you spend time with local Hawaiians, this is most likely the language you will hear them speaking. Pidgin is not a written language. Pidgin sounds similar to a slang language, but it also has its own unique words and phrases. Generally, th sounds are replaced with a 't' or 'd' ('that' becomes dat) and the letter r is not pronounced when coming after a vowel ('for' becomes fo). For example, 'father' is fadda in Pidgin and the phrase Howzit is the usual greeting. The word pau means finished and puka is a hole. In 2015, Pidgin was added to the list of recognized languages in Hawaii.

A translation of Mark 1:9-11 into Pidgin. Can you read what it says?

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