Hawaiian is often offered up as a language revitalization success story, a model for other endangered languages to follow.
The decline of the language can be traced back to the end of Hawaiian royal rule. After a coup that dethroned the last Hawaiian queen, a law was enacted barring Hawaiian from being used in schools. That law stayed on the books for 90 years, contributing to the decimation of the language. By the 1970’s, Hawaiian was mainly spoken by elders. In short, it was dying — quickly.
Then in the 1980s a group of language activists began a serious effort to save Hawaiian. They formed a Hawaiian Lexicon Committee to coin new Hawaiian words for computer, cellphone, even a new word for native speaker. And most importantly, they started Hawaiian language pre-schools. Those initial pre-schools have mushroomed into many across the island chain. Today, the largest group of Hawaiian language learners are children.
This is all positive. The language is alive, and it’s surviving, thriving even, but language revitalization isn’t so simple. While activists are reviving the Hawaiian language, opening up pre-schools, teaching thousands of second language learners, there was and still is a small group of native speakers who have never lost the language, a group of native Hawaiians from the island of Niihau.
Niihau is a small, privately owned island just 17 miles off of the coast of the island of Kauai.
This week, The World in Words takes a trip to the Hawaiian Islands to meet some of Hawaii’s native speakers. How have they managed to hold onto the language? What struggles do they face going forward? Is the variation of Hawaiian that the Niihau speak different from the language spoken by the activists leading the Hawaiian revitalization movement?
Here´s a podcast of spread a little Aloha: