Volume 76 1967 > Volume 76, No. 3 > The historical development of the Hawaiian alphabet, by David B. Walch, p 353 - 366
                                                                                             Previous | Next   

- 353

In accepting David Diringer's statement that, “the earliest examples extant of human attempts to scratch, draw or paint . . . are to be considered a preliminary stage of writing,” 1 it becomes necessary to consider what may be termed the first efforts of the Hawaiian people to construct a language of symbols.

Archaeological investigations have brought to light rock-carvings on nearly every island of the Hawaiian group. As far back as 1822 William Ellis discovered, in the course of his tour along the southern coast of Hawaii, a number of straight lines, semicircles, or concentric rings accompanied by rather crude imitations of the human figure. These were carved on the hard rock of lava. Ellis made the following observations:

. . . they had been made by former travellers from a motive similar to that which induces a person to carve his initials on a stone or tree, or a traveller to record his name in an album to inform his successors that he has been there. When there were a number of concentric circles with a dot or mark in the centre, the dot signified a man, and the number of rings denoted the number in the party who had circumambulated the island. In some of the islands I have seen the outline of a fish portrayed in the same manner, to denote that one of that species or size had been taken near the spot. 2

With this lone exception all other references relating to Hawaiian petroglyphs appear to be silent as to their meaning and origin. It has been - 354 suggested that these carvings have been made by school children, cowboys, Spaniards, Japanese, and even North American Indians, who were familiar with picture writing. However, each of these theories has been discounted. 3

If the Hawaiians were responsible for these pictographs they made no effort to further develop a means of written communication. For with this slight exception, if such it can be called, the natives of Hawaii had no symbols for sounds or ideas, nor any pictorial representation of events.

Theirs was an entirely oral language until January 18, 1778, when Captain James Cook of the British Navy, commanding the sloops Resolution and Discovery, came, by sheer chance, upon the Hawaiian Islands.


For this, his third voyage to the Pacific, Cook had been commissioned to sail around Cape Horn to the South Sea Islands, on to New Albion (northwest coast of America), and then home through the anxiously anticipated north-west passage. 4 The Hawaiian Islands lay in his path between Tahiti and the coast of North America. Thus he came upon this small group of islands and named them the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, for whom he sailed.

On the day of discovery he recorded the name of the first island he came to as Atooi, which was what he seemed to hear the islanders say for Kauai. This was the first time a Hawaiian word had been recorded. 5

Cook found the Hawaiian language to be similar to that of Tahiti which he had visited previously. He states in his journal: “We were agreeably surprised to find that they spoke the language of Otaheite [Tahiti] and of other islands we had just visited.” 6

He had assigned a rough, inconsistent, quasi-phonetic spelling in Latin characters to the language of Tahiti. In view of the familiar pattern of the Hawaiian language he followed the same practice here. In his journal he recorded the names of the islands as Eneeheeou (Niihau), Wouahoo (Oahu), Atoui (Kauai), Owyhee (Hawaii), and Mowee (Maui). As he became more familiar with the language he recorded other words such as makai (good), tarro (taro), and Terreoboo (Kalaniopuu, a chieftain).

A series of altercations led to the killing of Captain Cook on February 14, 1779. Shortly after this, on March 15, the British expedition left Hawaii under the command of Captain Clerke to continue its exploration of the northwest coast of America. Before doing so however, three of the expedition's officers, Charles Clerke, George Vancouver, and James King, recorded various Hawaiian words in their journals. Following is a - 355 sample of their efforts to record some Hawaiian names as they heard them spoken. The present day spelling is indicated in the parenthesis.

Arei (alii, chieftain)
Akona (Kona, district of Hawaii)
Koah (Koa, name of a chief)
Orono (Lono, the god of harvest)
Maiha-Maiha (Kamehameha, name of the King) 1
1   Wise and Hervey 1952:312.

From the time of these crude beginnings, until the missionaries arrived in 1820, visitors and explorers in the islands continued to apply English spelling to the Hawaiian language. All of these efforts, with one notable exception, were anything but systematic. The one exception was Archibald Campbell who was making a voyage around the world and stopped to sojourn in the islands for nearly a year. He came to what was then known as the Sandwich Islands in January of 1810, and was immediately befriended by King Kamehameha. His journal is replete with Hawaiian words and one note regarding the spelling of King Kamehameha's name is of particular interest since it illustrates so well the problem of adopting English spelling to the Hawaiian language.

The writer has not thought himself at liberty to alter the orthography of the king's name adopted by Vancouver and Broughton. Although, to his ear, it would be more correctly Tameamea. Every voyager has spelt [sic] it Maiha Maiha; Mr. Samwell, the surgeon of the Discovery, who published an account of Captain Cook's death, Cameamea; Portlocke, Comoamoa; Meards, Tomyhamhaw; Vancouver and Broughton, Tamaahmoah; Langsdorf, Tomooma, and Turnbull, Tamahame. As the hard sound of C and T is scarcely to be distinguished in the pronunciation of the language, and the h is silent, the reader, from a comparison, will be able to ascertain the most correct way. 7

Campbell also compiled “A Vocabulary of the Language of the Sandwich Islands,” which marks the initial effort to systematically record Hawaiian words with English spelling. His list contains 449 words plus numerals and a number of common phrases. 8 This perceptive traveller also states in his journal, “There were no missionaries upon the islands during the time I remained in it, at which I was often much surprised. 9 Within ten years his concern about the lack of missionaries became the concern of others and efforts were made to “Christianize” the natives of Hawaii.


“Aside from conversions, the most notable and noble achievements of the Congregational and Presbyterian missionaries, who journeyed to the Sandwich Islands under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners - 356 for Foreign Missions, were the systematization of the Hawaiian Language, the development of an educational system, and the preparation of literature to be used in the churches and schools.” 10 Indeed, “preaching the gospel” may have been the principal purpose of the mission, but reducing the native tongue to writing and the subsequent printing of it played a most important role in making the mission a success. As one historian states, “Through the printed word the missionaries gained access to the hearts and minds of their pupils; religious concepts and ideas were incorporated in the reading material, thus teachers converted as they taught.” 11

Prior to leaving Boston on October 23, 1819, they received, from the “Prudential Committee,” the following instructions pertinent to their future labours in the islands: “to obtain an adequate knowledge of the language of the people; to make them acquainted with letters;” and “to give them the Bible with skill to read it. . .” 12 This was a formidable task indeed, especially in view of the fact that the Hawaiian language had never been formally reduced to a practical written form. Thus it was necessary for them to develop a system of transcribing the native tongue into Roman characters.

At first the missionaries continued the same practice that other visitors had, i.e., their spelling was one of imitation and invention. The establishment of a more uniform spelling received impetus when a shipment of “seasonable and valuable supplies” arrived on the first day of the new year 1822.

We received, also, two copies of the New Zealand Grammar and Vocabulary; and were happy to see at once such a striking resemblance between the languages of the Sandwich and Society Islands. This work will afford us considerable aid in settling the orthography of this language. We are confirmed by it, in some measure, in the choice we had made of five vowels, viz. a as in father, e as in hate, i as ee in feet, o as in pole, u as oo in boot, and ai for the sound of the English i. These five vowels, with twelve consonants (b, d, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, t, v, w), will be sufficient to express, with very little variation, all the sounds in the language, which we have yet been able to analyze. Indeed, seven consonants, with five vowels, might very well serve for the notation of the language. The b, d, r, t, and v, might be omitted; for, though their sounds are heard, and it is believed they would be of use, their places might be supplied by using the p invariably for b and p, the l for d, l and r, the k for k and t, and the w for w and v. The interchange of such letters, the unsettled, doubtful, varying, and widely diverse pronunciation among the people, we find to be no small embarrassment in fixing the spelling of the language. This, together with the diversity of spelling used by voyagers, in their accounts of these islands already published, must be our apology to our patrons and the public, for the want of that decided uniformity, so desirable in spelling names, which has appeared in the communications from the mission. 13
- 357

After receiving this valuable New Zealand Grammar, a week did not pass before Elisha Loomis, a missionary of the first company and a skilled printer, set his printing press into operation and struck off the first printing ever done in Hawaii. This first publication was an eight page booklet known as the Pi-a-pa and contained the alphabet, some spelling lessons and selections for reading. 14

Several members of the royal family and other native people visited the small printing shop and stood in amazement as the printing machine made palapala (writing) on blank sheets of paper.

A month following the introduction of printing, Kuakini, governor of Hawaii, sent a letter to Hiram Bingham written by Roleta, a Tahitian, which communication the clergymen answered in Hawaiian. Thus commenced epistolory correspondence in that language. 15

However, initial efforts to teach the Hawaiians the art of expressing thoughts on paper met with surprise as indicated by the following two incidents.

The people started back from it [writing] with dread, as though it were a sort of enchantment or sorcery. A certain captain said to Kamehameha, “I can put Kamehameha on a slate,” and proceeded to write the word Kamehameha. The chief scornfully replied, “That is not me—not Kamehameha.” The captain then said: “By marks on this slate I can tell my mate, who is at a distance, to send me his handkerchief,” and proceeded to write the order. Kamehameha gave the slate to a servant, who carried it to the mate and brought the handkerchief. Kamehameha then took the two—the slate and the handkerchief—they did not look alike. He felt of the two—they did not feel alike. And what connection there could be between the one and the other he could not imagine. With this ignorance, it is not strange that the people formed very wild conceptions of the power of letters. They even imagined that letters could speak. Every article of clothing was safe for a time; no one would steal it—for there were letters there, and they did not know but they might tell the owner where it was. 16
When he [Mr. Williams] was erecting a chapel . . . he came to the work one morning without his square. He took a chip, and with a piece of charcoal wrote upon it a request that Mrs. Williams would send him that article. He called a chief, and said to him, “Friend, take this, go to our house and give it to Mrs. Williams.” “Take that!” he replied, she will call me a fool, and scold me if I carry a chip to her; and if I carry it what must I say?” “You have nothing to say,” replied Mr. Williams, “the chip will say all I wish.” “How can this speak?” replied the chief, “has this a mouth?” He carried it, however, gave it to Mrs. Williams, and she handed him the article written for. “Stay, daughter,” said the chief, “how do you know that this is what Mr. Williams wants?” “Why,” she replied, “did you not bring me a chip just now?” “Yes,” said the astonished warrior, “but I did not hear it say anything.” “But I did,” replied Mrs. Williams, and upon this the chief leaped out of the house, and catching up the mysterious piece of wood, ran through the settlement with the chip in one hand and the - 358 square in the other, holding them as high as his arms could reach and shouting as he went: “See the wisdom of these English people; they can make chips talk.” 17

These anecdotes may be somewhat exaggerated but even so they express so well the important fact that the people were entirely ignorant of the art of reading and writing and found it so difficult to comprehend. Certainly the introduction of writing, and more especially printing, marked an interesting and significant era in the nation. As the presiding minister, Hiram Bingham, said, writing presented a “source of light never known to their ancestors,” and is “like laying a round cornerstone of an edifice for the nation.” 18


Although the New Zealand Grammar and Vocabulary of the Society Islands was of prime importance in bringing the spelling and writing of the Hawaiian language to some degree of uniformity, it provided by no means a panacea. The twelve letter alphabet with which we are now familiar was not adopted until 1826, when printing had already been in progress more than four years. Until then seventeen letters were in regular use and four others, f, g, s, and y, were used in spelling foreign words. This omitted c, j, q, x, and z, entirely from the first alphabet printed in 1822. 19

In developing this first alphabet the consonants were assigned the same value as in English. However, the vowels were given what the missionaries called the “continental sound” and they were somewhat relieved when the New Zealand book corraborated this decision. (Viz. a as in father, or shorter as in the first syllable of aha, e as a in hate, i as i in machine, or as ee in feet, o as o in pole or note, u as oo in boot or food, or short as in bull, and the dipthong ai as i in wine.) 20 If they had adopted the English usage of vowels the Hawaiian sounds could not have been definitely indicated without the awkward use of double letters.

The consonants however, posed a more difficult problem than the vowels to the transcribers. There are some sounds in the Hawaiian language which are represented by two consonants in English. The particular consonants which appeared to the missionaries to be somewhat variable, interchangeable and vague in the mouths of the natives were: b and p, k, and t, l and r, v and w, and d which was used by some speakers in situations where others used k, l, or t. 21

An exerpt from a letter written by William Richards graphically indicates the problem with which the transcribers were confronted.

A large circle of natives were present. I selected a word where in the last syllable I most frequently hear a sound approach to the sound of d. - 359 I turned to one of the company and said is the word dido? He said yes. I asked again, is the word dilo? He answered as before yes. I proceeded and said, is it diro? The answer was yes. Did you say the word was lido? Answer yes. Is the word lilo? Answer, yes. Is the word liro? Answer yes. Is the word rido? Answer, yes. Is the word rilo? Answer, yes. Is the word riro? Answer, yes. I next inquired of the next one in the circle who answered in the same way. Thus I went round the circle, not one of which perceived but that I asked the same question nine times. I give this as a correct specimen of what would occur respecting all the interchangeable letters. In another instance I asked a native to pronounce this word himself. Among the seven listeners there were four opinions as to the answer given. Three thought he pronounced the word lilo; two thought he said lido; and one thought he said rilo. All however were of opinion that the sound was rather a medium one and not the full sound of the English letters. The same differences of opinion exist respecting all the interchangeable letters except k and t. 22

To assist in this trying task of transcribing a strange language into a familiar alphabet the missionaries were assisted by the “timely, accidental, almost providential visit to the Sandwich Islands, in April of 1822, . . . of Reverend William Ellis.” 23

Ellis was well qualified for the task of assisting the American brethren in both their missionary and orthographic endeavours. Accompanied by Mrs. Ellis he was first sent to the Society Islands, in February of 1817, as a missionary of the London Missionary Society. He became intimately acquainted with the Tahitian language. This knowledge was facilitated as he composed and printed several Tahitian publications. “Every letter in every word passing repeatedly, not only under his eyes, but through his hands, resulted in his acquiring almost mechanically the orthography.” 24

The Tahitian language was so similar to that spoken by the Hawaiians that Ellis was not only able to help them formulate a suitable written language but was to receive credit as having been the first foreigner to preach a sermon in the Hawaiian tongue. This significant event was accomplished only a few weeks after his arrival in Honolulu. 25

The move toward a solution of the problem of consonants received impetus with the assistance of the competent William Ellis. With his help the missionaries came a step closer to developing a more consistent phonetic system to spell the sounds of the Hawaiian language.

A committee was appointed to correspond with the different members of the Mission respecting the need for uniformity in the orthography of the Hawaiian language. On June 20, 1825, the committee submitted the following report which again reiterates the difficulty encountered with the consonants.

. . . An Alphabet was adopted more than three years ago; which was intended to include all the letters necessary and no more.
It has been found however from careful attention, that b and d, though they are used by a few natives in a certain class of words, may always with - 360 strict propriety be supplied by others, which better represent the sound most frequently heard in the pronunciation of those words. K and t, l and r, v and w, are used interchangable [sic]. Some individuals use the k in the same word in which t is more uniformly employed by others. The same difference exists in reference to the other four letters.
In order to effect an uniformity either the k or the t, the l or the r, the v or the w must be excluded from the Hawaiian alphabet.
1. Shall b and d be retained in the Hawaiian alphabet, or shall they be regarded as foreign letters, and be used only in spelling foreign words?
2. Shall k be excluded or shall t, or shall both be retained?
3. Shall l be excluded or shall r, or shall both be retained?
4. Shall v be excluded or shall w, or shall both be retained?
. . . The inconvenience attending the present method of spelling is obvious, and is felt by every member of the Mission. Honoruru [sic] may be written four different ways, and is constantly written two ways. . . . Kealakekua may be written sixteen, and is uniformly written three or four, and every word in the language, in which letters occur that are used interchangably [sic], may by permutation, be written nearly as many different ways as the square of the whole number of interchangable [sic] letters in the word . . . 26

A number of helpful letters was received by the missionaries as the Committee on Orthography corresponded with them concerning the specific details of the consonants. As stated previously William Ellis had considerable influence on the final determination of the alphabet, and some of the letters, written at this time, emphasize the importance of his thinking.

Finally, by October, 1825, the missionaries published a second spelling book. The alphabet in this edition consisted of twelve basic letters: a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, n, p, w. The r, t, and v, as well as b and d were relegated to the supplementary list, along with g, s, and z. Fand y, which occurred in the first speller for use in spelling foreign words were dropped. Z was added since a considerable part of the Bible had now been translated and this letter was needed for Hebrew names. 27

However, this newly printed alphabet was not a definitive settlement and a committee consisting of Hiram Bingham, Charles S. Stewart and Levi Chamberlain further considered the use of the questionable consonants. These staunch New Englanders, who were accustomed to the democratic system and the Town Meeting procedure, finally determined that the fate of each letter in question should be settled by vote. Eleven missionaries were polled, two of whom declined, one being indifferent and one favoring the retention of all letters. The unanimous vote of the remaining nine dropped b, d, and v; t was lost on eight adverse votes, and r on six. All favoured the retention of k, o, and w, and all but two of l. The final report of the committee announced its conclusions in the following medicosurgical terms, which would indicate that the sometimes pompous brethren were not without humour.

- 361

Report of the Committee of Health on the State of the Hawaiian Alphabet

B and D are expelled by a luke warm emetic of a pretty unanimous vote. K is deemed of sufficient capacity to perform its own functions and that of its counterpart T. L, though two pills have been given to expell it is to remain to do its own office and that of its yoke fellow R. R though closely connected with the vitals is expelled by five or six votes or expellants, though nearly the same quantity of preservatives have been applied. T though claiming rights as a native member has suffered amputation by the knife and saw of the majority. V a contiguous member and claiming similar rights, has suffered the same fate, and a gentle [illegible] has been applied to dry the wounds of bath. The remaining members A, E, I, O, U, K, L, M, N, P and W are all likely to live and do well so long as the present college of physicians have the sole direction of its life and health. 28

The adoption of this report, signed by Hiram Bingham and Levi Chamberlain, definitely settled the Hawaiian alphabet as we now have it.

The development of this alphabet lends sufficient proof that the missionaries approached the problem with intelligence and insight. It was formed on the same basic principles as the alphabet of the New Zealand native language, developed by a Mr. Lee, one of the most distinguished of contemporary philologists. The vowel sounds are the same as those used by John Pickering, another noted contemporary philologist, who formed an alphabet for writing the Indian languages of the American continent. Thus, these three alphabets, Lee's, Pickering's and that of the Hawaiian missionaries, were formed independently of each other, except for the confirmation received from the New Zealand Grammar, and yet they agree substantially with one another. 29 Indeed, the Hawaiian alphabet has stood the test of time, perhaps the best test of all. Those few Hawaiians who today speak the native language pronounce it as it was originally transcribed during the early missionary years of 140 years ago.


The establishment of a nearly phonemic alphabet with its rejection of unnecessary variant sounds, accelerated and enhanced the literary development of the Hawaiian people. Laura Fish Judd comments upon the speed with which the natives become literate, “only two or three days were required to read, write, and spell Hawaiian as compared with the years American children are obliged to spend learning our non-phonetic English spelling.” 30

The simple construction of the Hawaiian words with the predominancy of vowels and uniform terminations are the language's peculiarities. Syllables are usually composed of two phonemes and never more than - 362 three. Sibilants and double consonants are entirely absent. Every word and syllable ends with a vowel. The Hawaiian language does not allow one to pronounce two consonants without a vowel in between, nor a word terminating with a consonant, without either dropping the final letter or adding a vowel. Thus they pronounce Britain, Beritani, and boat, boti. There are many words and even sentences without a consonant as, e i ai oe ia ia ae e ao ia, literally “speak now to him by the side that he learn.” 31

The simplicity of the alphabet made possible an early and wide dissemination of printed materials which began with the appearance of the first speller and reading book, the Pi-a-pa, on January 7, 1822. From this time forth Elisha Loomis' press was printing at a prolific rate. During the first eight years of mission printing, 28 works, averaging 33 pages each, were printed in 387,000 copies totaling 10,287,800 pages. These works included 16,000 copies of Elementary Lessons, a Catechism of eight pages, the Ellis-Bingham Hymn Book, a booklet entitled Thoughts of the Chiefs, and even handbills for those masters and officers who were ready to prohibit immoral women from visiting their ships. 32

The achievements of the mission press are astonishing when one considers the many handicaps faced by the printers. They could not get enough paper from home to supply the demand. An unsuccessful attempt was made to print on bark cloth. Printing was further handicapped by lack of suitable type to fit the peculiar needs of the restricted alphabet. There was a chronic shortage of k's and an appeal was made for 500 of them to supplement each font received. Nearly one-fifth of the words in the Hawaiian language begin with k, so the perplexities of the printers may easily be understood. 33 The printers ordered certain accents that were never received, the result being that the Hawaiian Bible appeared without any accents. It is said by some experts that this is the reason why the Hawaiian language uses no special accents. 34

In spite of these problems the missionaries were, by 1825, printing nearly 1,500,000 pages a year, 5,000,000 by 1830, 18,000,000 by 1837, and by 1840 the mission was maintaining three presses and had printed 100,000,000 pages in all which included 50 different works. 35

The great task of translating the Bible began in Honolulu in 1824 when Hiram Bingham started on the text of Matthew. Eight missionary scholars divided up the labour. They encountered many words for which no Hawaiian equivalent could be found. “Even the common terms, ‘faith’, ‘holiness’, ‘throne’, ‘dominion’, ‘angel’, ‘demoniac’, which so frequently occur in the New Testament, cannot be expressed with precision by any terms in the Hawaiian language. The natives call an angel either an akau, a god, or a kanaka lele, flying man.” 36

- 363

For a period of twenty years the scriptures were issued piecemeal and were eagerly devoured by the new reading public that the mission schools had created. In 1839, after a fifteen year period, the entire Bible was translated and printed. Not only were the Bible and other religious tracts published but also hymnals, sermons, legal documents, dictionaries, a translation of The Pilgrims Progress, and textbooks in geography, mathematics, astronomy, natural history and anatomy. The mission press was also instrumental in seeing that important historical works, which permanently recorded the cultural history, the genealogies, the chants and the legends of the Hawaiian people, were written and preserved.


The development of the alphabet and the inauguration of printing led to the firm establishment of mission schools. However, when the missionaries first opened the schools in Hawaii, the king ordered that “none should be taught to read but those of rank, those to whom he gave special permission, and the wives and children of white men.” 37 “If the palapala [letters] is good we wish to possess it first ourselves, if it is bad we do not intend our subjects to know the evil of it.” 38 King Liholiho himself took an avid interest for several months until his restless spirit and indolent habits proved stronger than his will to learn. The chiefs and their families remained the principal students until 1825 when commoners were allowed to attend.

Once the ban on commoners was lifted school enrolment soared from 2,000 in 1824 to 37,000 in 1826, 45,000 in 1829, and 52,000 by 1831. In 1831 there were 1,100 schools located throughout Hawaii with an enrolment of two-fifths of the entire population. It is interesting to note that the majority of these students were adults. 39

Obviously reading matter greatly augmented the work of the schools. The Hawaiians, with the thirst of a nation just learning to read, eagerly bartered for the pages that came from the press. The most popular publication was the Pi-a-pa. It included the alphabet, numerals, punctuation marks, lists of words, verses of scriptures and a few short poems. The widespread interest in learning to read the printed word was well summarized by one mission school instructor who proudly proclaimed that the proportion of those in Hawaii who could read and write was “greater than in any other country in the world, except Scotland and New England.” 40


The Hawaiian language which developed, grew, and began to flourish in such a short time, died in an almost equally brief period. Although the - 364 missionary schools conducted their classes in the native language other schools developed which used English. In 1833 the Oahu Charity School was opened in Honolulu as the first English school for the education of the children of foreigners who had married native women. In 1840, a school for children of royal rank was established in which English was the medium of instruction. In 1843 the Punohou School was founded for the education of the children of missionaries, who previous to that date had been sent to the United States. Shortly the doors of this school were opened to others and an interest in English developed so that by 1874 practically one-fourth of the pupils were studying that language. During Kalakaua's reign (1874-1891) the common schools conducted in Hawaiian all but disappeared. English was becoming the language of commerce and the Hawaiians were anxious to have their children learn it. Local government leaders, the royal family and people of rank who associated so closely with the foreigners, learned to speak English. Thus English became the language of communication in governmental affairs. 41

In 1892, C. M. Hyde, in an article written for the Hawaiian Annual, predicted the almost total death of the native language when he wrote, “The literature now in circulation in the Hawaiian language is meagre in the extreme . . . books of scientific or literary value would have but little sale . . . English must be the language of business and of courts of law, and of almost every school room.” 42

Today Hawaiian is lost to popular usage. As long ago as 1942, one authority indicated that not more than two per cent of young Hawaiians could read and write the language. 43 Today the young person who can read, speak, or write the language is all but non-existent.


The impact of reducing the Hawaiian language to written form is perhaps unequalled in any other nation. Within the span of a few short years the literacy of the people rose from practically nothing to a point that doubtlessly surpassed many contemporary countries. Of course the missionaries provided the igniting spark and to them much credit is due. For the changes they wrought were far more profound than mere church going and outward manifestations of faith.

R. H. Dana, an early traveller to the Islands, accurately summarized the effect of the development of the written language, the establishment of printing, and the efforts of the missionaries, on the Hawaiian people.

It is no small thing to say of the missionaries of the American Board, that in less than forty years they have taught this whole people to read and to write, to cipher and to sew. They have given them an alphabet, grammar, and dictionary; preserved their language from extinction; given it a literature, - 365 and translated into it the Bible and works of devotion, science, and entertainment, etc. They have established schools, reared up native teachers, and so pressed their work that now the proportion of inhabitants who can read and write is greater than in New England. And whereas they found these islanders a nation of half-naked savages, living in the surf and on the sand, eating raw fish, fighting among themselves, tyrannized over by feudal chiefs, and abandoned to sensuality; they now see them decently clothed, recognizing the law of marriage, knowing something of accounts, going to school and public worship with more regularity than the people do at home, and the more elevated of them taking part in conducting the affairs of the constitutional monarchy under which they live, holding seats on the judicial bench and in the legislative chambers, and filling posts in the local magistracies. 44

No one can underestimate the value of a nation's written language. This paper has attempted to make manifest the accomplishments achieved by the Hawaiians once the recorded language was established. As the above quotation indicated, it is difficult to separate the achievements caused by the establishment of writing from those caused by the efforts of the missionaries. It would appear that the language served as a means to an end as far as the missionaries were concerned. Once their goals were realized, i.e., the conversion of the Hawaiians to the saving principles of Christianity, the native language took on less importance.

Although some may have felt discouraged with the demise of the Hawaiian language, the Islanders doubtlessly benefited from the growing prominence of English as their primary language. Their development would have been hindered had they relied on their native tongue. For their language lacked the cultivation of English. Many new terms had to be manufactured and even invented. The more plentiful books, written in English, could not be used without the long and arduous task of translation. Furthermore the common language of the whole Pacific Basin was becoming English. Thus, the Hawaiian language alphabet served its purpose but its purpose was short lived.

  • American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions 1824-1825. The Missionary Herald, XIX and XX. Boston, Samuel T. Armstrong.
  • BAKER, Albert S., 1930. “Puna Petroglyphs”. Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1931. Honolulu, Thomas G. Thrum.
  • BALLOU, Howard M., and George R. CARTER, 1908. “The History of the Hawaiian Mission Press With a Bibliography of Earlier Publications.” Papers of the Hawaiian Historical Society. Honolulu, Paradise of the Pacific Print.
  • BECKWORTH, Martha W., 1942. “A Reply to the Review of Hawaiian Mythology.” Journal of American Folklore, 55:254-66.
- 366
  • BINGHAM, Hiram, 1849. A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands; or the Civil, Religious, and Political History of Those Islands. 3rd ed. revised. Hartford, Hezekiah Huntington.
  • CAMPBELL, Archibald, 1825. A Voyage Round the World From 1806 to 1812. . . . With an Account of the Present State of the Sandwich Islands and a Vocabulary of Their Language. 4th ed. Roxbury, Mass., Allen and Watts.
  • DAY, A. Grove, 1955. Hawaii and Its People. New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce.
  • DIBBLE, Sheldon, 1909. A History of the Sandwich Islands. Honolulu, Thomas G. Thrum.
  • DIRINGER, David, 1953. The Hand Produced Book. New York, The Philosophical Library.
  • ELLIS, William, 1917. A Narrative of a Tour Through Hawaii. Honolulu, Hawaiian Gazette.
  • HOPKINS, Manley, 1869. Hawaii: The Past, Present and Future of Its Island Kingdom. New York, D. Appleton and Co.
  • HYDE, C. M., 1892. “Increasing Use of English.” Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1892. Honolulu, Thomas G. Thrum.
  • JUDD, A. F., 1904. “Rock Carvings of Hawaii.” Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1904. Honolulu, Thomas G. Thrum.
  • Newberry Library, 1941. Edward E. Ayer Collection of Hawaiian Language. Chicago, Newberry Library.
  • PRICE, A. Grenfell, 1958. The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific as Told by Selections From His Own Journals, 1768-1779. New York, Heritage Press.
  • SMITH, William C., 1933. “Pidgin English in Hawaii.” American Speech 8: 15-19.
  • SPAULDING, Thomas Marshall, 1930. “The Adoption of the Hawaiian Alphabet.” Papers of the Hawaiian Historical Society. Honolulu, Printshop Co.
  • —— 1956. “The First Printing in Hawaii.” The Papers of the Bibliography Society of America, 50:313-27.
  • TATE, Merze, 1962. “The Sandwich Island Missionaries Create a Literature.” Church History, 31:182-202.
  • WISE, C. M. and Wesley HERVEY, 1952. “The Evolution of Hawaiian Orthography.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 38:311-25.
1   Diringer 1953:17.
2   Ellis 1917: 376.
3   Judd 1905:177.
4   Day 1955:3-4.
5   Wise and Hervey 1952:311.
6   Price 1958:216.
7   Campbell 1825:160.
8   Ibid: 176-195.
9   Ibid.128.
10   Tate 1962:182.
11   Ibid.
12   Ibid.
13   American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions 1824:XIX, 42.
14   Ballou and Carter 1908:10.
15   Bingham 1849:157.
16   Dibble 1909:156.
17   Ibid:157.
18   Bingham 1849.
19   Spaulding 1930:30.
20   Wise and Hervey 1952:314.
21   Bingham 1849:155.
22   Spaulding 1930:31-32.
23   Tate 1962:183.
24   Ibid:184.
25   American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions 1825:XX, 183.
26   Wise and Hervey 1952:315.
27   Spaulding 1956:323.
28   Spaulding 1930:33.
29   Spaulding 1956:327.
30   Tate 1962:186.
31   Ellis 1917:348.
32   Tate 1962:188.
33   Spaulding 1956:322.
34   Spaulding 1930:32.
35   Tate 1962:188.
36   Day 1955:99.
37   Strauss 1963:53.
38   Blackman 1906:165.
39   Strauss 1963:53.
40   Day 1955:102.
41   Smith 1933:17.
42   Hyde 1892:120.
43   Beckworth 1942:255.
44   Hopkins 1869:199-200.