The Hawaiian language, also known as ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, is an Austronesian language that originated in the Hawaiian Islands. It was once commonly spoken throughout the archipelago but faced near extinction in the 20th century due to cultural suppression under American colonization.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: there are about 24,000 fluent Hawaiian speakers today, with perhaps 2,000 native speakers remaining.
In this comprehensive article, we will dive into the history of the Hawaiian language, examine how many speakers there are today, and look at current revitalization efforts to preserve and expand the use of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi.
The Origins and History of the Hawaiian Language
The Hawaiian language, also known as ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, is the indigenous language of the Hawaiian Islands. It is part of the Austronesian language family, which includes languages spoken in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. The origins of the Hawaiian language can be traced back to the Polynesians who settled in the Hawaiian Islands around 1,500 years ago.
The Development of a Uniquely Hawaiian Language
Over time, the Hawaiian language developed into a distinct language with its own grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. The language was primarily oral until the arrival of European missionaries in the early 19th century. The missionaries developed a written form of the language using the Latin alphabet, which allowed for the preservation and spread of Hawaiian literature, including the translation of the Bible.
One unique feature of the Hawaiian language is its vowel-rich phonology. It has a relatively small consonant inventory, with only eight consonants, but a larger vowel inventory, including five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and their long counterparts. This vowel-rich system gives the language a melodic and rhythmic quality that is unique to Hawaiian.
Widespread Use in the Kingdom of Hawaii
During the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Hawaiian language was the primary language spoken by the native population. It was used in all aspects of life, including government, education, religion, and everyday communication. Hawaiian was the language of the Hawaiian monarchy, and it played a crucial role in the cultural identity of the Hawaiian people.
At its peak, Hawaiian was spoken by a significant portion of the population, estimated to be around 80,000 people in the mid-19th century. However, with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and the subsequent American annexation of Hawaii, the use of the Hawaiian language began to decline.
Suppression Under American Rule
Under American rule, the Hawaiian language faced suppression and marginalization. English became the dominant language in education, government, and business, and the use of Hawaiian was actively discouraged. Native Hawaiians were discouraged or forbidden from speaking their native language, and Hawaiian culture and traditions were often stigmatized.
As a result of these policies, the number of native Hawaiian speakers declined rapidly. By the 1980s, the language was on the brink of extinction, with only a few elderly speakers remaining. However, in recent decades, there has been a revitalization movement to preserve and revive the Hawaiian language.
Today, efforts are being made to teach Hawaiian in schools, create Hawaiian-language immersion programs, and promote the use of Hawaiian in everyday life. As a result, the number of Hawaiian speakers has been increasing, and there is a renewed sense of pride and appreciation for the language and culture among the Hawaiian people.
For more information on the Hawaiian language and its history, you can visit the ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi website, which provides resources and learning materials for those interested in learning the language.
Estimating the Number of Hawaiian Speakers Today
Despite its historical significance and cultural importance, the Hawaiian language has experienced a significant decline in speakers over the years. Today, the number of people who speak Hawaiian fluently is relatively small, with estimates suggesting that there are just a few thousand speakers left.
The Decline to Just a Few Thousand Speakers
The decline in the number of Hawaiian speakers can be attributed to several factors. One of the primary reasons is the suppression of the Hawaiian language during the colonization period when the use of Hawaiian was discouraged and even banned in some instances. This led to a decline in the transmission of the language from one generation to the next.
Furthermore, the introduction of Western education and the influence of English as the dominant language in Hawaii also contributed to the decline. Many Native Hawaiians were encouraged to adopt English as their primary language, resulting in a loss of fluency in Hawaiian.
It is important to note that efforts have been made in recent years to revitalize the Hawaiian language and encourage its preservation. Various initiatives, including language immersion programs in schools and the establishment of Hawaiian language organizations, have been instrumental in revitalizing the language and promoting its use within the community.
Current Speaker Population
While the exact number of Hawaiian speakers today is difficult to determine, estimates suggest that there are between 2,000 and 5,000 fluent speakers. These numbers may seem small in comparison to the overall population of Hawaii, but they signify a significant achievement in language revitalization efforts.
It is worth noting that the number of Hawaiian speakers may vary depending on the criteria used to define fluency. Some estimates include individuals who have a basic understanding of the language, while others focus on those who are fully proficient.
Generational differences play a significant role in the number of Hawaiian speakers today. The older generations, who grew up during a time when the language was more prevalent, tend to have a higher fluency rate. However, as time has passed, younger generations have had less exposure to the language, resulting in a decline in fluency among the youth.
Efforts are being made to bridge this generational gap and encourage the transmission of the Hawaiian language to younger generations. Through educational programs and cultural initiatives, there is hope that the number of Hawaiian speakers will continue to grow and ensure the preservation of this vital part of Hawaiian culture.
For more information on the Hawaiian language and its revitalization efforts, you can visit the official website of the ʻŌlelo Online, a comprehensive resource for learning Hawaiian.
Ongoing Revitalization Efforts
The Hawaiian language is an integral part of the rich cultural heritage of Hawaii. However, like many indigenous languages, it faced the threat of extinction due to colonization and the dominance of English. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to revitalize the Hawaiian language, ensuring its survival for future generations. Here are some of the ongoing revitalization efforts:
Hawaiian Language Immersion Schools
Hawaiian language immersion schools have played a crucial role in the revitalization of the language. These schools provide a full immersion experience, where students learn all subjects in Hawaiian. By creating an environment where Hawaiian is the primary language of instruction, students not only learn the language but also develop a deep connection with their culture. These immersion schools have been successful in producing fluent Hawaiian speakers, helping to preserve the language.
University Classes and Adult Education Programs
Universities and adult education programs have also played a significant role in the revitalization efforts. Many institutions offer Hawaiian language classes, ranging from beginner to advanced levels. These classes provide opportunities for both Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians to learn the language. Additionally, there are online courses and resources available, making it accessible to a wider audience. The interest in learning Hawaiian has been growing, indicating a positive trend towards language revitalization.
Incorporating Hawaiian Words and Phrases Into Daily Life
Another effective way to support the revitalization of the Hawaiian language is by incorporating Hawaiian words and phrases into daily life. This can be as simple as using Hawaiian greetings, like saying “aloha” instead of “hello,” or using Hawaiian place names when referring to locations. Many businesses, organizations, and even the state government have made efforts to include Hawaiian language in their operations, such as using Hawaiian names for products or services. By normalizing the use of Hawaiian language in everyday conversations, it becomes a living and evolving part of Hawaiian culture.
These ongoing revitalization efforts have been crucial in preserving the Hawaiian language and ensuring its continued use. It is an exciting time for the Hawaiian community as more and more people are embracing their native language and culture. If you’re interested in learning more about the Hawaiian language or getting involved in the revitalization efforts, check out the resources provided by the Aha Pūnana Leo or the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge.
While the Hawaiian language faced immense oppression and was almost wiped out completely, dedicated efforts to revitalize ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi over the past few decades have led to an estimated 24,000 speakers today. Through immersion schools, university programs, and incorporating the language into everyday contexts, many hope to preserve Hawaiian and restore it as a living language, bridging older and newer generations of speakers.
The precise details may vary, but most sources agree there are between 24,000-25,000 total Hawaiian speakers today, with about 2,000 of those being native speakers. While still endangered, the Hawaiian language continues its remarkable resurgence and reclaiming its rightful place in Hawaiian society.