Humuhumunukunukuapua'a? Not at National Spelling Bee
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor
By Christie Wilson
Five vowels and seven consonants are used in the English version of Hawaiian words, so how hard can it be to correctly spell them?
Not hard at all if you know a few simple rules and the words are given an authentic Hawaiian pronunciation. But if you are a contestant in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the rules don't always help.
"The words that have come into English, we've kind of botched the original Hawaiian pronunciation, so oftentimes a speller from Hawai'i wouldn't recognize it," said Carol Andrews, word list manager for the prestigious competition for middle schoolers, now in its 79th year.
Familiarity is key, said Andrews, whose son, Ned, was the 1994 national spelling bee champion. For example, someone who had never seen the word "mu'umu'u" pronounced "moo-moo" in the spelling bee would have a heck of time spelling it. "But once you've seen it, it's easy," she said.
And how about humuhumunukunukuapua'a?
The word-list panel at one point did consider it briefly, before bursting into laughter. "A speller could get lost in that word. We wouldn't do that to a speller," she said.
The competition has been using Hawaiian words since its inception words such as 'ukulele, makai and menehune.
Andrews and two other word masters compile individual lists year-round as they come across words in reading material and other sources, then discuss which ones to select for the bee. There isn't a deliberate effort to include foreign-language words commonly used in English, she said, and Hawaiian entries don't come up that often maybe once or twice a year, if at all.
For her weekly "Carolyn's Corner" column on the spelling bee Web site, Andrews consulted Albert J. Schutz of the University of Hawai'i-Manoa for advice on spelling Hawaiian words borrowed into English. Schutz, an emeritus professor of linguistics who studies Pacific languages, has written books on the subject.
In addition to being a pronunciation guide for vowels and consonants in Hawaiian words, he offered a few rules:
Without proper pronunciation, Schutz notes that certain vowels and vowel pairs are indistinguishable from each other for example "oi" and "oe" as in "poi" (taro paste) and ali'ipoe (a type of canna plant).
In those cases, Schutz said spellers have to memorize the letter sequences.
Also in the English pronunciation of Hawaiian words, "h" is often dropped before an unaccented vowel. For example, "Kamehameha" is often pronounced "Kameamea." And the 'okina (glottal stop) and kahako (macron), which affect the meaning and pronunciation of Hawaiian words, usually are not part of the official English spelling.
Schutz is optimistic a day will come when authentic Hawaiian is in widespread use beyond Island shores.
He noted that 20 or 30 years ago, most local speakers used the English pronunciation and spelling for Hawaiian words. Since then, many residents and the media adapted to more accurate language usage thanks to a revival of Hawaiian culture.
Sooner or later, he said, the dictionary editors also will have to adapt.
The Advertiser's 21st annual Hawai'i State Spelling Bee will be broadcast at 5 p.m. tomorrow on KFVE. The champion wins a trip to the 79th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, May 31 to June 1 in Washington, D.C.
Reach Christie Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.