Why is Ni'ihau Hawaiian Language So Different?

Feb 18, 2020

February has been declared Hawaiian Language Month here in the islands. Its aim is to encourage the use of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. But which Hawaiian language?

One could argue that Niʻihau Hawaiian is the closest we’ve got to early forms of the language spoken in the islands. It’s been passed down from generation to generation uninterrupted largely because of Niʻihau’s isolation. The island is owned by the Robinson family and visits are tightly restricted.

Tuti Kanahele, 61, is one of about 200 native speakers from Niʻihau who use the Hawaiian language.

"Ka poʻe Niʻihau, poeko a nani ko lākou ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi ʻana," says Kanahele, "Eia nō naʻe nā keiki o kēia manawa, ke ʻano hemahema nei ka lākou walaʻau ʻana."

She says the people of Niʻihau's Hawaiian speech is fluent and eloquent. But she said the younger generation is using more English words than their elders when they speak Hawaiian.

"Ke mea, ke hoʻokomo nei lākou i ka ʻōlelo haole. Ke lākou ʻōlelo, a ʻōlelo me kēlā ʻano manaʻo haole," says Kanahele.

She’s worried that when young speakers use English, they'll start to think in English. That could lead them to abandon the Hawaiian way of thinking, and perhaps the language.

Niʻihau speakers don't use dicritics like ʻokina (glottal stop) and kahakō (macron), which have become invaluable aids for language learners. They do, however, use t's and r's in place of k's and l's – something that isn’t taught in universities and immersion schools.

Hawaiian language scholar Keao NeSmith says there’s a history there.

"Hele mai ka poʻe mikionali a ua huikau lākou," says NeSmith. "A ko lākou huikau pehea e hiki ai ke paʻi inā hiki iā ʻoe ke kuapo heleloa me kēlā, K me ka T, K me ka T, a pēia pū kēia L me ka R."

He says missionaries were confused by the Hawaiian language when they arrived. They were determined to translate the Bible into Hawaiian, but they couldn't figure out when to swap the "t" for the "k" and the "l" for the "r". So they created a standardized alphabet that dropped the use of t's and r's.

"Ka poʻe Niʻihau, ʻaʻole lākou hahai," says NeSmith. "Akā ka poʻe ʻē aʻe a pau loa Hawaiʻi hele loa a Kauaʻi ua hoʻololi lākou ka lākou ʻōlelo ma muli o ka piʻapā."

NeSmith says Niʻihau speakers chose not to alter their spoken language. But the missionary system gained a stronghold in the rest of the islands through the 1800s.

Many of the Hawaiian language documents developed during this period, including newspapers, would become a go-to repository for the revitalization of the ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi a century later as the number of native speakers began to decline. 

Hōkūlani Cleeland is one of the pioneers of the Hawaiian language revitalization movement and a teacher of Niʻihau Hawaiian at Ke Kula O Niʻihau ma Kekaha school on Kauaʻi.

“Iaʻu ʻaʻole hiki ke aloaʻe no ka mea kokoke pau nā mānaleo," says Cleeland. "No laila no ka malama ʻana i ka ʻōlelo pono e loli.”

Cleedland says changes are inevitable to make the language useful in modern times. But Niʻihau Hawaiian is often overshadowed by the Hawaiian language emerging from classrooms. He's working on a Niʻihau curriculum that would make the language more accessible to students.

"Aʻole mākou e ʻōlelo nei ʻo ia KA ʻōlelo Niʻihau," says Cleeland.

He says he isn’t trying to say his curriculum teaches THE Niʻihau language.

But if it perpetuates the island’s way of speaking, it would help keep Hawaiian from joining other indigenous languages that have faded away.