“An interminable language … it is one of the oldest living languages of the earth, as some conjecture, and may well be classed among the best …”
“…the thought to displace it, or to doom it to oblivion by substituting the English language, ought not for a moment to be indulged. … Long live the grand old, sonorous, poetical Hawaiian language.” (Missionary Lorenzo Lyons; The Friend, September 2, 1878)
Almost universally, folks claim that the Hawaiian language was banned and outlawed in Hawaiʻi – that is simply not true. History, and the facts, do not support that. There never was any law that banned the Hawaiian language or that made speaking Hawaiian illegal.
That does not mean, however, that the use of the language did not diminish, nor that Hawaiian language speakers did not decline. But it is not correct to say the Hawaiian language was ever universally banned or outlawed.
There are many reports of families not letting children speak Hawaiian – those were personal family decisions, a choice each of them made – that was not the result of a broad ban on the language.
Missionaries are often blamed for discouraging use of the Hawaiian language (some even suggest they were the ones that banned its use.) That, too, is simply not correct. (Actually, the missionary efforts to establish a consistent alphabet helped save the Hawaiian language, not eliminate it.)
At the time of Contact, when Captain Cook first visited the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaiian was a spoken language but not a written language. Historical accounts were passed down orally, through chants and songs.
After western contact and attempts to write about Hawaii, early writers tried to spell words based on the sound of the words they heard. People heard words differently, so it was not uncommon for words to be spelled differently, depending on the writer.
On July 14, 1826, the American Protestant missionaries finalized a 12-letter alphabet for the written Hawaiian language, using five vowels (a, e, i, o and u) and seven consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p and w.) That alphabet continues today.
Planning for the written Hawaiian language and development by the missionaries was modeled after the spoken language, attempting to represent the spoken Hawaiian sounds with English letters.
Interestingly, these same early missionaries taught their lessons in Hawaiian to the Hawaiians, rather than English. The missionaries learned the Hawaiian language, and then taught the Hawaiians in their language. In part, the mission did not want to create a separate caste and portion of the community as English-speaking Hawaiians.
This instruction marked the beginning of Hawaiʻi’s phenomenal rise to literacy. The chiefs became proponents for education and edicts were enacted by the King and the council of chiefs to stimulate the people to read and write.
By 1831, in just eleven years from the first arrival of the missionaries, Hawaiians had built 1,103 schoolhouses. This covered every district throughout the eight major islands and serviced an estimated 53,000 students. (Laimana)
The proliferation of schoolhouses was augmented by the printing of 140,000 copies of the pī¬ʻāpā (elementary Hawaiian spelling book) by 1829 and the staffing of the schools with 1,000-plus Hawaiian teachers. (Laimana)
In 1834, the first Hawaiian newspaper was established; Ka Lama Hawai‘i was printed at Lahainaluna School. For over 100-years thereafter, Hawaiian language newspapers flourished in Hawai‘i and served as vehicles for the recording of a huge amount of traditional Hawaiian literature, history and culture.
By 1853, nearly three-fourths of the native Hawaiian population over the age of 16-years were literate in their own language. The short time span within which native Hawaiians achieved literacy is remarkable in light of the overall low literacy rates of the United States at that time. (Lucas)
A school destined to have considerable influence upon the future of education in Hawaiʻi was the Chiefs’ Children’s School (Royal School,) established by King Kamehameha III in 1839. This institution was set up to provide suitable educational advantages for the children of royalty.
The main goal of this school was to groom the next generation of the highest ranking Chiefs’ children and secure their positions for Hawaiʻi’s Kingdom. The King asked missionaries Amos Starr Cooke and Juliette Montague Cooke to teach the 16-royal children and run the school.
In a letter requesting Cookes to teach and Gerrit P Judd to care for the children, King Kamehameha III wrote, “Greetings to you all, Teachers … We ask Mr Cooke to be teacher for our royal children. He is the teacher of our royal children and Dr Judd is the one to take care of the royal children….”
Chiefs’ Childrens’ School (Royal School) was the first English language-based school; English was the medium of instruction for the Aliʻi. The first class included five later rulers of Hawaiʻi, namely, Kamehameha IV, Kamehameha V, Lunalilo, Kalākaua and Lili‘uokalani.
In the same group were also two girls who became prominent in the later days of the monarchy: Queen Emma, philanthropic wife of King Kamehameha IV, and Princess Bernice Pauahi, deeply interested in the education of Hawaiian youth. (Wist)
The King also saw the importance of education for all. “Statute for the Regulation of Schools” was adopted on October 15, 1840. Its preamble stated, “The basis on which the Kingdom rests is wisdom and knowledge.”
“Peace and prosperity cannot prevail in the land, unless the people are taught in letters and in that which constitutes prosperity. If the children are not taught, ignorance must be perpetual, and children of the chiefs cannot prosper, nor any other children”.
Hawaiian literacy was enhanced by the compulsory school law of 1840. By that year, 15,000-students were enrolled in three kinds of schools: (a) boarding schools for adolescents of promise; (b) mission stations which both taught students and prepared Hawaiians to teach; and (c) common schools, staffed by native Hawaiians. The vast majority of the students were of the last type. (Huebner)
Beginning in 1846, the Hawaiian legislature declared that all laws enacted were to be published in both Hawaiian and English. The government used separate Hawaiian and English language newspapers in order to disseminate information on new laws.
The Statute Laws of 1846 noted that they would “take effect one calendar month after its promulgation in the Hawaiian and English languages, and become thereafter the established law of the nation.” (Statute Laws of His Majesty Kamehameha III, 1846)
The use of both the Hawaiian and English versions of the kingdom’s laws ultimately led to disputes over which version applied to the facts of a particular case. In early reported decisions, the Hawai’i Supreme Court reaffirmed the supremacy of Hawai’i’s indigenous language as the governing law of the Islands. (Lucas)
However, by 1850, English had become the language of business, diplomacy, and, to a considerable extent, of government itself. As has been mentioned, English was the medium of instruction at the Royal School.
All Hawaiian rulers from Kamehameha IV to Liliʻuokalani, accordingly, were able to use English as freely as they did their native language. It was obviously to the advantage of the commercial interests that English become universal in the Islands. Some industrial leaders desired that it be made basic in all public schools.
Native youths, and to some extent their parents, saw the economic advantages in a knowledge of English. The monarchs favored the change. The Hawaiian legislature of 1854 authorized the establishment of a few classes in English for Hawaiians. (Wist)
The use of English in instruction raised concern by some: “The theory of substituting the English language for the Hawaiian, in order to educate our people, is as dangerous to Hawaiian nationality, as it is useless in promoting the general education of the people. …”
“If we wish to preserve the Kingdom of Hawaii for Hawaiians, and to educate our people, we must insist that the Hawaiian language shall be the language of all our National Schools, and the English shall be taught whenever practicable, but only, as an important branch of Hawaiian education.” (Mataio Kekūanāoʻa; Report of the President of the Board of Education, 1864; Kuykendall)
In 1854, there were 412-Hawaiian language instruction common schools with a total population of 11,782-pupils, who received instruction in Hawaiian by Hawaiian teachers. But, as time passed, there was growing demand for English language instruction.
By 1874, the number of common schools declined to 196, with only 5,522-students enrolled (71% of the overall student population.) By 1878, 61% of the students were still enrolled in Hawaiian language schools; by 1882, that figure had dropped to 33%.
By 1888, less than 16% of all students were found in such schools, with the number of common schools falling to 64. Only seven years later, in the year of the overthrow of the Hawaiian constitutional monarchy, the enrollment in Hawaiian language schools had dropped to less than 3% of all students in public schools in Hawaiʻi. (Huebner)
Often cited as the ‘ban’ of the use of Hawaiian language was Act 57, Section 30 of the Laws of the Republic of Hawaiʻi in 1896. Act 57 was called, “An Act to Create an Executive Department to be known as the Department of Public Instruction to Define Its Duties and Powers and to Repeal the Following Laws.”
Review of the law shows that it only called for English to be the language of instruction in schools, and, the law noted other languages may be taught.
Given the decline in attendance in Hawaiian language schools as just noted, that does not seem unreasonable. (But note that the 1896 law did not ban Hawaiian or make speaking it illegal; it said English was the language for instruction.)
“The English Language shall be the medium and basis of instruction in all public and private schools … Any schools that shall not conform to the provisions of this section shall not be recognized by the Department.” (Act 57, Laws of the Republic of Hawaiʻi; June 8, 1896, Sanford B. Dole, President of the Republic of Hawaiʻi)
The law allowed schools to include instruction of Hawaiian (or any other language,) if they chose to. The law continued … “that where it is desired that another language shall be taught in addition to the English language, such instruction may be authorized by the Department”.
Recall, too, that at the time there were foreign language schools and instruction. Starting in 1887, Japanese missions were the bases for the establishment of schools for the children of these immigrants. Similar schools were established by the Chinese and later the Koreans. (Huebner)
Outside the schools it is clear the Hawaiian language was not banned or outlawed and its use had broad exposure. As noted by Bishop Museum, “Dozens of newspapers were published in Hawaiian between 1834 and 1949 and were read by an avid and highly literate public.”
In 1919, the territorial legislature passed a law (Act 191) stating, “that the Hawaiian language shall be taught in addition to the English in all normal and high schools of the Territory; and that, where it is desired that another language shall be taught in addition to the English language, such instruction may be authorized by the department by direct order in any particular instance: Provided further, That instruction in such courses shall be elective.”
Through the 1978 Constitutional Convention, an amendment to the Hawaiʻi Constitution notes, “English and Hawaiian shall be the official languages of Hawaiʻi, except that Hawaiian shall be required for public acts and transactions only as provided by law.”
The history is clear; the Hawaiian language was neither banned nor made illegal to speak. (However, as noted, many families, as a personal family decision, reportedly did not let their children speak Hawaiian.)
The image shows the Hawaiian alphabet, used in developing the written Hawaiian language by the American Protestant missionaries, arguably the essential component in keeping the Hawaiian language alive.