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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Hawaiian spellings catch on, but slowly

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

The use of diacritical marks in Hawaiian words is increasing, but slowly — because of technical barriers and because of some resistance to change.

But the effort is justified by the threatened extinction of Hawaiian, one of the state's two official languages, said Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, director of the University of Hawai'i's Center for Hawaiian Studies.

Many street signs throughout the Islands use the glottal stop marker, known as 'okina or 'u'ina, and the marker for an extended vowel, called the kahako. But most of the state's printed text and the Web sites for the state and counties continue to avoid the markers or to use them spottily.

"It's the official language of Hawai'i and we're misspelling the Hawaiian language everywhere. The 'okina is a letter in the Hawaiian alphabet," said Sen. Kalani English, D-6th (E. Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i).

English attempted unsuccessfully this year to persuade the Legislature to adopt proper diacritical marks in all official state communications. He said the issue will come up again in the 2004 Legislature.

One of the main objections against the change was that it would be difficult and expensive to convert computer systems to use the markings, English said. His response is it's not that big a deal. All Apple Macintosh computers come out of the box with the software to produce Hawaiian diacritical marks, he said.

On June 27, the Kaua'i County Council passed a resolution calling on all of the county's agencies, along with the visitor industry and residents, to begin using the marks in place names. The county administration says it is trying to comply.

"We fully support that resolution, but it's huge. Making the change will be huge," said Cyndi Ozaki, public information officer for Mayor Bryan Baptiste. "The county seal has to be changed. Letterheads have to be changed. Everything has to be changed."

Other counties, like the Big Island, have long had a policy of using the marks, but a visit to the county Web site shows it's an inconsistent process. The Hawai'i County seal, for instance, spells the county's and state's name as "Hawaii," rather than "Hawai'i."

English said that when he and Sol Kaho'ohalahala were on the Maui County Council together, they sought a similar change but were blocked by government's concerns about difficulties in using the 'okina and kahako.

A hopeful sign is that many businesses are adopting use of the marks even before government does, he said.

One problem with the change is that many elderly Native Hawaiians learned their language as children by reading from the Hawaiian Bible — a Bible written without diacritical marks. And many of those old-timers continue to prefer that usage, said Malia Craver, a native speaker of Hawaiian who works with the Queen Lili'uokalani Children's Center.

"In the Hawaiian community, you have two groups. One is all for the new changes, and the other is not for the changes. To me, it's not wrong — but a lot of people my age, they probably don't think the way I do," she said.

Craver, 76, said that she feels that making the language accessible to young students is more important.

"For me, I know what the words are. But I guess, today — with the students, they have a hard time. I want to make it easier for my grandchildren," she said.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Haunani Apoliona concurs.

"The use of the diacriticals is about helping those who are learning and also don't have a continuum of contact with native speakers," Apoliona said.

"A stress or a break can make it a different word," she said.

The native speakers on the island of Ni'ihau write Hawaiian without diacritical marks. Many of them learned to write with the Hawaiian Bible as their textbook, and since their conversations in Hawaiian generally are with other Ni'ihau Hawaiian speakers, there is little difficulty in making themselves understood.

But Ni'ihau children attending Hawaiian language school on Kaua'i learn to write both ways, so they can also be understood by non-Ni'ihau speakers of Hawaiian.

Kame'eleihiwa said there are so few native speakers left that any assistance they give can be invaluable.

"There are not that many people learning to speak Hawaiian from the Bible anymore. Most are second-language learners. And it's a language on the brink of extinction.

"Only about 3,000 people are speaking Hawaiian ... out of 1.2 or 1.3 million people in the state. Our language is still in grave danger of disappearing," she said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.