How do you pronounce Atooi … and Kauai?
The legend of Hawai‘i Loa notes his many fishing excursions which would go on for months, sometimes the whole year. On one voyage he found the Islands; he first saw Kauai, but he kept on sailing and found O‘ahu and then the islands of the Maui group.
Then, seeing the mountains of Hawai‘i, he kept on until he reached that island. There he lived and gave the Island his name. The other islands from Maui to Kauai were named for his children and for some who sailed with him: Maui was the eldest, O‘ahu younger and Kauai the youngest. (Kepelino)
Pukui suggests that many important names are so ancient that no translation at all is possible. These include the names of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands (except for Lanaʻi (conquest day.))
Per Pukui, it is impossible to explain the meaning of Kauai, which some have explained as originally Kau-ʻai (food season.) But use of glottal stops seems not to have occurred in the history of the Hawaiian language. Instead, the glottal stop, replacing ‘k’ is one of the most stable of the Hawaiian consonants. (Pukui)
Because Hawaiian was a spoken language, when writing first came with the first Westerners, spelling of words was based on how the writer heard the words. Writers hear words differently, so spelling of the same word was not always the same – each writer wrote what he heard from his perspective.
“To one unacquainted with the language it would be impossible to distinguish the words in a spoken sentence, for in the mouth of a native, a sentence appeared like an ancient Hebrew or Greek manuscript – all one word …. There are … abrupt separations or short and sudden breaks between two vowels in the same word.”
“Those who attempted to write the names of places and persons in the islands, had materially failed, even in the most plain and common. No foreigner or native, at the islands, could illustrate or explain the peculiarities and intricacies of the language … we found the dialect in use by foreigners often materially misled us … it required time to detect and unlearn errors.” (Bingham)
Dr Pila Wilson notes, “(There) is a sort of ‘oral literature’ that traditionally occurs among Hawaiian speakers speaking Hawaiian with other Hawaiian speakers. In this oral literature, a person uses a place name to make a point or connect to some story. In that type of pronunciation, the person changes the conversational pronunciation of the place name to sound like a combination of differently pronounced words similar to the component sounds of the name.”
“Different people produce different oral literature pronunciations and different interpretations of oral literature pronunciations. The same person can also come up with different pronunciations and interpretations depending on the point that they are trying to make using the place name. Two people can engage in playful banter creating different forms of this sort of ‘oral literature.’” (Wilson)
However, “there is no way that the pronunciation of certain rare words and proper names in old documents can be guessed accurately. The pronunciation of a number of these terms has become lost forever because of the deficiencies of the old twelve-letter alphabet.” (Wilson)
“The letter’ ‘k’ has some variety in its pronunciation. The people of the Island of Hawaii formerly had a sound now represented by the letter k which sound was a guttural, or rather perhaps, the sound was formed at the root of the tongue. The people of Kauai, on the other hand, had a sound of the same signification, but pronounced it near the tip of the tongue resembles the sound of ‘t.’” (Andrews, 1854)
Given that, can we decipher from some early writing how Kauai was pronounced (based on what the writers heard and wrote (in their context and perspective?))
Cook’s Journal, the first writing of the Hawaiian words, generally notes the Island of Kauai as ‘Atooi;’ however, the journal notes the islands “are called by the natives (in reference to Kauai;) Atooi, Atowi, or Towi, and sometimes Kowi.”
This leads us to the long (and ongoing) discussion of how to pronounce (and write) the name of the northern-most Island of the main Hawaiian Islands.
If ‘Atooi’ is the correct expression of the name of the Island, how do you pronounce ‘Atooi?’
It might be helpful to answer that if we look to how Cook spelled the other Island names: Oreehoua (Lehua,) Tahoora (Kaʻula,) Oneeheow (Niʻihau,) Atooi (Kauai,) Woahoo (Oʻahu,) Morotoi or Morokoi (Molokai,) Mowee (Maui) and Owhyhee (Hawaiʻi.)
Given how Cook spelled other Island names, it appears the Island name of ‘Atooi’ (Kauai) sounded like ‘ahh too eye.’ (Jacintho)
However, some suggest the island name ended with the ‘ee’ sound. Wilson notes, “In normal conversation in Hawaiian, I have never heard any first language speaker of Hawaiian pronounce the word other than what would be represented in contemporary Hawaiian writing as ‘Kauaʻi’. That is, there was always an ʻokina before the last ‘i’ and no where else. “
However, it seems logical that if Cook heard the Kauai Island name ending with the ‘ee’ sound, he would likely have used the double ‘e’ in spelling its name, just as he did with Oneeheow (Niʻihau,) Mowee (Maui) and Owhyhee (Hawaiʻi.)
Vancouver used a similar, though different spelling to Kauai – Attowai. He notes, “I was induced to give up the idea of obtaining a supply (of water) by their means (from folks on Oʻahu,) and to proceed immediately to Attowai; where I was assured we should have that necessary article completely within our own reach and power.” (Vancouver, 1792)
Likewise, Hiram Bingham notes the Island name in his explanation of his understanding of the Hawaiian language and notes the “Old” way to spell the name as “Attooi;” his suggested “Corrected in English” for the name as “Cowʻ-eyeʻ” and the “New” spelling as “Kauʻ aiʻ”.
“Atooi in Cook’s Voyages, Atowai in Vancouver’s, and Atoui in one of his contemporaries, is also a compound of two words”. (Ellis, 1831) Proper names, although often composed of more than one word, are treated as single units.
‘O, and sometimes ʻA, beginning a word are markers to note proper name subjects (persons, places or certain special things.) They are vocatives (addressing the person or place you are talking about or to) – i.e. Atooi means ‘this is (or, ‘it is’) Tooi’ – so it is a proper word and the Island name is ‘Tooi.’ (Johnson)
Here are some other early writings that note the various spelling of the Island of Kauai. You will note the similarity of the ‘eye’ sound of the final syllable in the Island’s name.
SS Hill, in writing ‘Travels in the Sandwich and Society Islands’ in 1856 notes another spelling (but a similar sound) of the Island name – ‘Kawai.’ “The most remarkable of the islands, and those which we shall visit, are Waohoo or Oahu, Owyhee or Hawaii, and Mowhee or Maui. The next in importance is Kawai.”
Others note Atooi, but also associate ‘Kawai’ as the name for the Island (these primarily come from associated writing during the Cook voyages.)
“The entire group consists of eight inhabited islands … the large island of Hawaii (formerly written ‘Owhyhee’) … The other chief islands are Woahu, or Oʻahu, on which is situated the town of Honolulu …; Maui, where is the town and port of Lahaina; Kawai (or Atooi), the most northerly; Molokai; Lanai; Nihau; and Kahoolawe.” (Angas, Polynesia, A Popular Description, 1866)
Low in ‘Captain Cook’s Three Voyages Round the World,’ 1880; references in ‘The Third and Last Voyage of Captain Cook,’ 1886; and Denton in “The Far West Coast,’ 1924 used a similar “Kawai or Atooi.”
Another spelling for the Island is found on some older maps (1850s.) Samuel Augustus Mitchell and Sarah S Cornell noted on several maps the Island name as ‘Kauhai.’
What seems to also be consistent is the lack of a glottal stop in the last syllable in most of these writings – this is represented by an ʻokina (what Bingham referred to as a “short and sudden break between two vowels”.) Many suggest the Island’s name should not have an ʻokina. (Jacintho)
Later, lifelong resident and writer of the Island’s history, Frederick B Wichman (including ‘Ancient Place-names and Their Stories’) describes how he heard the Island’s name growing up there.
“As a child I frequently heard the name pronounced to rhyme with ‘cow eye’ and sometimes pronounced in three soft syllables ‘kau a i,’ but never with the explosive glotteral heard today that makes Kauai rhyme with Hawaiʻi.” (Wichman)
I suspect the Kauai – Kauaʻi discussion will continue.