Paradise Redefined

Posted May 29th, 2009 at 5:49 pm (UTC-4)
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Wh`y Hawai`i?
Hawaiian flag
The Hawaiian state flag is certainly a curious one for a U.S. state. It’s actually a hybrid of the British Union Jack and the American standard’s stripes, with blue ones thrown in

Until relatively recently, most Americans, including me, have identified our 50th and newest state – if you call admission to the Union in 1959 “new” – as Hawaii.

Nope. America’s most ethnically diverse and distant state – farther from another landmass than any other inhabited place on earth – is Hawai`i.

And yes, what appears to be an apostrophe in “Hawai`i” is facing the wrong direction, according what English-users are used to.

It turns out that the reasons for the distinction – Hawai`i rather than Hawaii – are a lot more complex than I imagined when I began asking about them.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
This is the breathtaking view from Kaua`i’s Pu`u o Kila Lookout

I didn’t pay much attention to, or try to make sense of, any of it until the last time Carol and I traveled to the archipelago of eight inhabited Pacific islands a couple of years ago. Then we noticed that these odd words with their backward apostrophes – odd if you’re from Ohio – had sprouted like wild Hawaiian orchids: Pu`u o Kila Lookout and the Nu`alolo Valley on the “Garden Island” of Kaua`i, and Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park on the volcanic “Big Island” of Hawai`i (like the state), for example.

Wiki Wiki
No apostrophe needed in this commonly seen Hawaiian sign, for a Wiki-Wiki (quick-quick!) convenience store

No longer, in blissfully incurious tourist fashion, could we chalk up all these apostrophes to “local color” and pay them no mind. And here’s what we found out:

Hawaiian – one of the state’s two official languages, along with English – has Polynesian roots, tracing to the settlement of the archipelago by Marquesans and Tahitians from even more distant Pacific islands beginning about 300 A.D. When certain vowels in certain places within certain words bump into each other in Hawaiian, those who are speaking the word take an almost imperceptible breath – something that linguists call a “glottal stop.” You hear it in English, for instance, when one puts a brief, breathy pause in “Oh-oh!”

Vocal chords
The human throat isn’t all that attractive, but as this old Grey’s Anatomy sketch illustrates, it’s functional. The glottis is the expanding and contracting opening leading to the trachea

“Glottal,” in case you’re curious – and even if you’re not – derives from the glottis. That’s the space in the back of the throat that’s created when one’s vocal chords open and quiver.

The glottis produces that slight sound during that ever-so-brief interruption in some

Here’s Arthur Godfrey in 1953, strumming his ukulele. Godfrey was a headstrong fellow who routinely fired others on his show, including singer Julius LaRosa once, on the air!

Hawaiian words. You can almost hear the fleeting exhalation that turns the common English pronunciation of “Huh-wy-ee” into “Huh-WHUH,ee,” with a little puff of air between the “whuh” and the “ee.” Native Hawaiians prefer “Huh-VUH,ee” – with a “v” – but still with the tiny pause toward the end of the word. For those of us long-toothed enough to remember: Arthur Godfrey, the venerable, red-haired radio and television personality who wore a gaudy, floral Hawaiian shirt, didn’t miss the authentic pronunciation by much when he sang about “going back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua, Huh-vuh,ee” while strumming his ukulele.

Now that you’re up to speed with the glottal stop (aren’t you?), a word about that funny apostrophe. It’s not an apostrophe at all. “Well I’ll be,” I can hear you saying.

That’s the okina key, shared with the tilde (~). Usually it’s overlooked, up there next to the much more useful No. 1

It’s an “okina” – a mark that exists specifically to indicate those glottal stops within a word. Most English computer keyboards do park an okina symbol way up on the far left corner of the “numbers” row, on the key that also houses the tilde diacritical mark (~) , not that you ever notice them up there.

All of this, including the reference to a radio guy who’s been dead for 26 years, would be mighty arcane if it weren’t associated with a highly serious nationalist movement in the Hawaiian Islands. (The adjective “Hawaiian,” by the way, isn’t spelled with the okina – it’s not “Hawai`ian” – because it’s a purely English word; there’s no direct equivalent in the Hawaiian language.)

An Offering Before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands
This is a 1778 illustration, “An Offering Before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands,” by Andrew Middleman. Cook made three trips to Hawai`i. He was killed in a fight onshore after the third one

This all goes back to the islands’ colorful history. They were ruled by one Polynesian monarch or another until British naval captain James Cook “discovered” them in 1778 and named them the Sandwich Islands, after his patron, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. It wasn’t long before other European ships stopped there on voyages to and from the Far East. They brought wondrous new goods, Christianity, and diseases that killed a huge proportion of the indigenous population.

King Kamehameha I – Kalani Pai`ea Wohi o Kaleikini Keali`ikui Kamehameha o `Iolani i Kaiwikapu kaui Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea in Hawaiian – whom Hawaiians consider a founding father equivalent to the first U.S. president, George Washington – unified the islands in 1810 into a new and independent country, and his descendants and their families maintained control for a century.

Pineapple harvest
This view of a Hawaiian pineapple harvest was shot about 1920. The backdrop is beautiful, but the work was grueling

The 19th century also brought foreign “investment” to Hawai`i in the form of vast sugarcane and pineapple plantations, owned and run by whites, and worked largely by a steady stream of imported Asian immigrants. Remember, the Hawaiian population had been cut to one-sixth its original size by disease, and most of its survivors preferred the traditional life of subsistence farming and fishing to backbreaking work in the steamy sugar and pineapple fields.

In 1893, a revolution led by American pineapple baron Sanford B. Dole deposed Queen Liliuokalani and brought forth a short-lived Hawaiian Republic.

Three guesses as to its president.

You got it on the first guess: Sanford B. Dole.

This takeover, more than a century ago, infuriates Native Hawaiians to this day. To them, it represented a theft of their kingdom, their lands, and their identity. That identity is re-emerging, at least symbolically, with the appearance of so many Hawaiian word forms in official parlance.

In 1898, 11 years after King Kalakaua had given the United States exclusive use of Pearl Harbor as a naval base, the American Stars and Stripes replaced the Hawaiian flag when the United States, with President Dole’s blessing, annexed the islands as a territory.

Another guess: Who was the first territorial governor?

My, you’re a sharp one: Sanford B. Dole.

Sanford Dole takes the oath of office as territorial governor of Hawai`i in Honolulu in 1900

The islands have a rich 20th- and 21st-century history, too, of course, notably including the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that

Pearl Harbor
Fireboats pour water onto the U.S.S. West Virginia, burning at Pearl Harbor following the surprise attack by Japanese planes on Dec. 7, 1941

brought the Americans into World War II, and a different kind of explosion – of the tourism industry around Honolulu’s Waikiki beach and beyond. For Native Hawaiians, the indignities of life at the bottom of the archipelago’s economic barrel only intensified as prosperity for others swelled. On islands so far from Asian and continental-U.S. supply lines, life is inordinately expensive, even for the handsomely employed. Haoles (Caucasians, who constitute 25 per cent of the population), those of Japanese origin (16 per cent), ethnic Filipinos (15 per cent), and people of mixed race have cornered the lion’s share

Dancers entertain at a luau on Maui, known as the “Valley Isle” or the “Magic Isle.” It’s the archipelago’s second-largest island, after (of course) the “Big Island”

of good jobs, including federal government positions that make up one in eight jobs in the islands. So prevalent are low-level tourism gigs – as waitresses, busboys, porters, luau hula dancers – among full-blooded and part-Hawaiians that many have moved to what some call “the ninth Hawaiian island” – Las Vegas, Nevada, deep into the U.S. mainland, to find better jobs in casinos, and more affordable housing.

Even though full-blooded and part-Hawaiians now make up only 6 per cent of the state’s population, their nationalist movement, embodied in the prideful expansion of the Hawaiian language into official commerce, has grown many tentacles.

Native Hawaiians have so far successfully fought off court challenges to their Kamehameha School program – a system in which money from lands once ceded to private interests, such as big hotel chains, is set aside for excellent private schools exclusively for Hawaiians.

At one Hawaiian-rights protest, “Mele Welte, a former Kamehameha teacher, carried a placard reading, ‘Honor, preserve, protect and celebrate the Hawaiian people,’ as she gave a mini lecture to a couple of tourists,” the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper reported. “’I feel that people who attack Native rights need to consider the diversity of our country,’ she said.”

Akino Falls
Water drops 134 meters (440 feet) down Akino Falls on Hawai`i’s Big Island. This is the island from which lava flows spectacularly into the sea from one of many active volcanoes

In 1997, the University of Hawai`i Hilo, in the Big Island’s largest city, established a College of Hawaiian Language. “`O ka ‘ōlelo ke ka`ā o ka mauli,” reads the first line of the online description of the program. “Language is the fiber that binds us to our cultural identity.”

And as a result of recent amendments to the Hawai`i state constitution, Hawaiian-studies programs are proliferating in lower schools and government departments as well.

This was considered an “Eskimo” family when this photo was taken in 1929. Now these Alaskans’ own word for their people – “Inuit” – is preferred

These developments dovetail with those by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks among the Inuit people – also called Eskimos, though activists in the population consider the term, applied by outsiders, to be insulting – by the University of Montana and Montana State University among other western American Indian tribes, and through worldwide higher education programs called WINHEC – the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium, based at Sámi University College in Norway. Its charter reads:

“We gather as Indigenous Peoples of our respective nations recognizing and reaffirming the educational rights of all Indigenous Peoples. We share a vision of Indigenous Peoples of the world united in the collective synergy of self determination through control of higher education. We are committed to building partnerships that restore and retain indigenous spirituality, cultures and languages, homelands, social systems, economic systems and self-determination.”

Ice fishers make a good haul of muikku – a small but tasty variety of fish that they bake, fry, or pickle and eat whole – in the Lapland region of Norway

Sámi University College, in frigid northern Norway where the Sámi people, once known as Lapps or Laplanders, have hunted, trapped, fished, and herded reindeer for centuries, has developed a Sámi-language preservation program, just as the University of Hawai`i Hilo has done on the temperate coast of the Big Island, 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) away.

And Carol and I could not help but notice another of the world’s notable and impressively successful language-preservation efforts on a trip that was closer to Norway than Hawaii – back to my ancestral home in Wales. There, Welsh names and signs and language courses are everywhere, not just as a matter of pride, but also as government policy bent on saving the difficult language at all costs.

Did I say difficult? Let me tell you, a few sprightly okinas stuck into prominent words in Hawai`i are a piece of cake to comprehend, compared with what those Welshmen have going. Try this one on for size: “Cynhaliwyd Eisteddfod Genedlaethol yn Llanelwedd.” I have no idea what that means – and no clue how to pronounce a single one of those words – but it has something to do with the town from which the first bunch of American Landphairs came: Llanfair-ym-Muallt.



A postscript

You might think that most Hawaiians would be pleased, or at least benignly tolerant, of the renewed emphasis on the Polynesian-based Hawaiian language. It’s still easygoing Hawai`i, after all, fifty years into statehood, where, as the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” reminds us, “Blue skies of Hawai`i smile” and “Clouds won’t hide the sun.”

Because of its multiethnic population, Honolulu, on the Island of O`ahu, is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities

But as I noted, many ancestors of the islands’ current population emigrated from Japan, the Philippines, and other Pacific destinations. More than twice as many people of Japanese ancestry, and twice as many of Filipino origin as well, live in Hawai`i than do Native Hawaiians. These citizens of Asian extraction, whom Native Hawaiians call “Asian settlers,” argue that while the Polynesians got there first, everyone who arrived on the uninhabited islands and stayed was an immigrant, and that immersion schools in Japanese and Tagalog (the most widely spoken Filipino language) ought to be offered along with lessons in Hawaiian.

Especially, they argue, in one of the world’s most multiracial crucibles, where official discrimination based on race or national origin has long been unfashionable. Just ask U.S. President Barack Obama, now the world’s most famous Hapa (Hawaiian of mixed racial ancestry). Son of a black African father and white mother from the American heartland in Kansas, he was born in Hawai`i, returns whenever possible, and considers himself very much a kamaaina – a native or local.


Another postscript

Or “p.p.s.,” as I sometimes write at the end of my long letters, never having checked “Miss Manners” to see if there really is such a thing:

If you can’t get to sleep at night, worrying yourself sick wondering whether there’s a connection between the Earl of Sandwich of Hawaiian Islands fame and the everyday bite or two that we call the sandwich, there is!

At least according to legend. John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), was a gambler so inveterate that he did not want to step away from the action for a heavy, time-consuming British meal. Kidney pie, potatoes and a pint, and all that. Supposedly he asked a waiter to bring him a hunk of roast beef stuck between slices of bread, so he could balance this edible in one hand while holding his cards or rolling the dice, grease-free, in the other.

Voila! The sandwich!

As to which child in which country first corrupted this into wanting a “sammich,” you’ll have to do your own research.

Good life
This photograph, by Carol, of Hawaii’s “good life” has nothing to do with sandwiches. But I had to include it somewhere to illustrate, yet again, the beauty of this Pacific paradise

It’s a good thing for Sir John’s legacy that he ordered a snack. Sandwich was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, in the late 18th century, when Britain lost its American colonies in our revolution, and he was assigned much of the blame. Better to be known for roast beef on a roll than as the fool who lost New England. (I threw in the American Revolution reference to give his story a skosh of Americana so you’d not think this was Ted Landphair’s British Empire.)


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Crucible. In concrete terms, a crucible is a strong vessel, often made of porcelain, in which materials can be combined and melted, even at extremely hot temperatures. Metaphorically, one who is thrown into a crucible, say a roiling controversy, had better be ready for some heat as well.

Gig. As I’ve used the word in a mention of Hawaiian entertainers, a “gig” is a job, often in some form of show business. The online “Word Detective” notes that “Every job is a ‘gig’ today. Calling your job a ‘gig’ is a way of saying ‘I’m not really emotionally invested in my job, which I find boring and soulless, and I’m only doing it so I can act/write novels/play jazz saxophone on the weekends.’” “Gig” also has many other meanings. It’s a small spear used to snare fish, for instance, and it was once an object that spins, such as the child’s toy called a “whirligig.”

Luau. A Hawaiian feast, originally named after one of the dishes served there: chicken wrapped in Taro leaves and baked in coconut milk. Guests who arrive are often greeted with leis – necklaces of flowers or shells. One of the traditions at touristy luaus, in addition to the strumming and singing of soft Hawaiian melodies, is the dangerous fire dance, borrowed from the Samoan Islands.

Skosh. A dab, a touch, a teeny bit. People often ask their tailors for a “skosh more room” around the waist, for instance, when getting fitted. (I know I would if I could afford a tailor.) Skosh, pronounded “SKOHsh,” is one of a few English words borrowed from the Japanese, where sukoshi means “little.” Supposedly, United Nations troops heard the word while on leave in Japan during the Korean War of the early 1950s and mangled it, and the shortened version of the word became part of military jargon.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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