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Endangered languages: Hawaiian, a Polynesian language.

Updated on May 22, 2014
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Katia is a translator turned UX/UI designer. She is a digital nomad who loves surfing and is passionate about linguistics and sociology.


Following the series of endangered languages articles to preserve their cultural heritage, this one is going to be about the beautiful language, Hawaiian (Ōlelo Hawai'i), the Polynesian language spoken in the Hawaiian Islands.


The Hawaiian language (ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi) is a Polynesian language spoken in the Hawaiian Islands and has about 8000 speakers, 1000 of whom are native speakers, mainly on Ni’ihau Island and the Big Island of Hawaii.

The Hawaiian language belongs, like many other Pacific languages such as the Tahitian, Māori or Rapa Nui, to the Polynesian language family, which at the same time, comes from the Austronesian, a family language dispersed throughout the islands of South-east Asia and the Pacific.


In the past, Hawaiian was a spoken language and therefore all the culture and traditions of the Hawaiian population were transmitted orally from generation to generation. The explorer James Cook recorded the Hawaiian language for the first time in 1778, a language which they immediately related to Tahitian and Māori. Due to the reduplication of words and the abundance of vowels, James Cook and his men described Hawaiian as childlike, lilting and simple.

When in 1820 missionaries arrived to the islands to convert Hawaiians to Christianity and teach them to read the Bible, they created a Hawaiian writing system, and in 1826 an alphabet which initially consisted of only 12 letters and later comprised of 13 letters, composed of 5 vowels, 7 consonants and a glottal stop symbol (‘) named ‘okina.

Some grammar and other textbooks were published in Hawaiian and subsequently it became the language of the government and was commonly used in Hawaiian daily life, but the increasing influence of the United States promoted the use of English as the primary language. In 1893 with the overthrow of the Kingdom and the annexation by the United States in 1898, the Hawaiian language was soon banned from schools and government, which caused a considerably decline in the use of the language. By the 1980′s there were only 2000 Hawaiian speakers compared to the 500.000 speakers in the Cook’s time.

In the 1970′s a new generation emerged, focused on the renaissance of the Hawaiian culture and in 1978 the Hawaiian language was included, alongside English, as an official language of the state and became a mandated course in public schools. Since 1989, various Hawaiian language immersion programs have been funded and actually, about 1000 students are being taught in Hawaiian and another 4000 are studying it as a second language. Although is not a large amount compared with the 500,000 speakers reached in the past years, it is a great beginning to help preserve the Hawaiian culture and language.

Hawaiian Alphabet

The line above the vowels (-) is the symbol macron, “kahakō”in Hawaiian (“kaha“=mark; “kō”= long), and is used to mark when a vowel has a double or long sound.

The ‘okina symbol (‘) is used to mark a pause, similar to the pause we make when we say “oh-oh”. This symbol is only found between two vowels or at the beginning of a word.

Hawaiian words always end in vowels, and every consonant must be followed by a vowel, you will never find two consonants together.

a / ā
'ā / 'ā kō
e / ē
'ē / 'ē kō
i / ī
'ī / 'ī kō
o / ō
'ō / 'ō kō
u / ū
'ū / 'ū kō

Samples of Hawaiian

Sources for learning Hawaiian

If you are as passionate of this language as I am, here I give you a few websites, books and videos that will help you learn Hawaiian easily that you'll love. Hope you enjoy them. A hui hou!

© 2014 Katia De Juan


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