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Number of Speakers: About 1,000 first language speakers.

Key Dialects: Ni‘ihauan, University Hawaiian

Geographical Center: Ni'ihau Island and the Big Island of Hawai'i

Hawaiian is a language spoken on the Hawaiian Islands, mainly on Ni'ihau Island and the Big Island of Hawai'i. There are around 1000 native speakers of the language and around 8000 speakers in general. 'Olelo Hawai'i and 'Olelo Hawai'i Makuahine are alternate names of the language.

Hawaiian is a Marquesic language, part of the Oceanic languages of the Eastern Malayo-Polynesian group of the Austronesian family. Its full affiliation, according to the Ethnologue, is Austronesian, Malayo-Polynesian, Central-Eastern, Eastern Malayo-Polynesian, Oceanic, Central-Eastern Oceanic, Remote Oceanic, Central Pacific, East Fijian-Polynesian, Polynesian, Nuclear, East, Central, Marquesic.

There are no known dialects of Hawaiian, although some differences have been noticed between the Ni‘ihauan variety and the variety spoken and taught at the University of Hawai’i. The closest relatives of Hawaiian are the Tahitic languages Rarotongan, Tuamotuan, Tahitian, and Maori, and the Marquesan languages, all spoken in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands.

The Hawaiian alphabet was created in the 19th century by missionaries from the U.S. mainland. It consists of the consonants p, k, ' (glottal stop called ‘okina’ in Hawaiian and used in such words as Hawai'i and O'ahu), h, l, m, n, w, and the vowels a, e, i, o, and u. There is one diacritic but its use is not consistent: the symbol ‘¯’ (called ‘mahakō’ in Hawaiian) over a vowel indicates vowel length

Hawaiian has a phonetic inventory of 8 consonant and 5 vowel sounds. The distinction between short and long vowels is phonemic, i.e. a word with a short vowel has a different meaning when the vowel is replaced with a long one.

Morphologically, Hawaiian presents a rich paradigm of different particles, following other Oceanic languages. Reduplication is quite widespread in the language and expresses frequency, augmentation or plurality. The language also has verbal and nominal compounds. In the verbal domain a number of preverbal particles and prefixes mark primary verbal functions such as aspect, tense, and mood. Secondary prefixes mark causativity, stativity and adverbial modification. A small number of suffixes also exist, mainly nominalizers, passive-imperative markers and transitivizers.

On the other hand the nominal domain has almost no affixation, apart from a few exceptions. A number of particles mark the function of the following noun phrases. These markers have been traditionally defined as prepositions and/or case markers. They precede common noun phrases and pronouns. There are three numbers attested in Hawaiian pronouns: singular, dual, and plural. The dual and plural numbers have inclusive (including the addressee) and exclusive (excluding the addressee) forms. The language has an elaborate set of eleven demonstratives that encode distance between the speaker and the modified noun or the addressee. Definiteness is expressed with the definite determiner ‘ke’/‘ka’. Possession is expressed with three sets of possessives: those beginning with the prefix ‘k-‘, those prefixed with ‘n-‘ and those that carry no possessive marking.

The simple sentence word order is Verb – Subject – Object. Embedded sentences are introduced with a definite determiner and they do not have an overt subject if the subject is the same as that of the matrix clause. If the subject is different, then it is preceded by a possessive marker. A common process in Hawaiian is topicalization, which fronts phrases that receive a topic or focus interpretation. In particular the formation of questions follows this pattern, i.e. the wh-word is fronted in the sentence although it can also remain in its default position.

Hawaiian is the official language in the state of Hawai’i. Almost all native speakers of Hawaiian are bilingual with English or Hawai’i Creole English (Pidgin) as a second language. ‘Punana Leo’ private schools offer Hawaiian immersion programs (as a second language) for around a thousand Hawaiian students, from 2-year-old up to high school. The language is widespread in oral tradition and songs and there is also limited broadcasting of radio and TV programs in Hawaiian.

The first Polynesians may have traveled from the Central Pacific area, east, probably to the Marquesas Islands and in the 4th century A.D. to Easter Island and Tahiti. Other groups went north to Hawaii and south to New Zealand.

Hawaiian developed a rich oral tradition and remained a strictly spoken language until 1820, when American missionaries developed a writing system based on the Roman script. The language was very much alive during the 19th century when it was used in the print media, literature and other art forms. However, by the end of the 19th century, the Hawaiian population was reduced to a small number mainly because of disease. English gradually replaced Hawaiian as the medium of instruction in schools, especially after Hawai’i’s conversion to U.S. territorial status in 1899. Banning the language from schools and limiting its use to an extreme degree succeeded in bringing the language to the brink of extinction at the beginning of the 20th century.

By the last quarter of the century, only about two thousand native speakers, mostly over the age of twenty years old, remained. In 1978, Hawaiian was again made the official language of the state and renewed interest in the language led to its widespread teaching in elementary and secondary schools as well as in academic institutions in Hawaii and other states.

Campbell, G. L. 2000. “Compendium of the World's Languages”. Vol. 2. Ladakhi to Zuni. Second edition. First published 1991. Routledge, London and New York.

Elbert, Samuel H., and Mary Kawena Pukui. 1979. “Hawaiian Grammar. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Hawkins, E. A. 1979. “Hawaiian Sentence Structures”. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Tha Australian National University.

Phillips, N. G. 1994. “Austronesian Languages”. In: Asher, R. E. (Editor-in-Chief). 1994. “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 1. Pergamon Press, Oxford – New York – Seoul – Tokyo. 274 – 6.

Pukui Elbert. 1979. “Hawaiian Grammar. Honolulu:The University Press of Hawaii.

Schutz, Albert J. 1994. “The Voices of Eden: A History of Hawaiian Language Studies”. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

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