“We are happy to announce to you that, on the first Monday of January (1822), we commenced printing, and, with great satisfaction, have put the first eight pages of the Owhyhee spelling book into the hands of our pupils”. (Joint letter of the missionaries, February 1, 1822)
Native Hawaiians immediately perceived the importance of “palapala” – document, to write or send a message. “Makai” – “good” – exclaimed Chief Ke‘eaumoku, to thus begin the torrent of print communications that we have today. (HHS)
“On January 7, 1822, on the mission press set up in the (Levi) Chamberlains’ thatched house we commenced printing the language in order to give them letters, libraries, and the living oracles in their own tongue, that the nation might read and understand the wonderful works of God. … Most of the printing done at the islands has been done by native hands.” (Bingham)
The first printing was pages of the pī ‘ā pā; the name of the first little primer or spelling book printed in the Hawaiian language. It included the alphabet, numerals, punctuation marks, lists of words, verses of scriptures and a few short poems.
In the initial instruction, the missionaries taught by first teaching syllables – adding consonants to vowels, just as Noah Webster noted in his speller.
“As far back as one can trace the history of reading methodology, children were taught to spell words out, in syllables, in order to pronounce them.” Webster wrote.
“The teacher begins with vowels: says A. The scholars all repeat in concert after him, A. The teacher then says E. They repeat all together, as before E, and so on, repeating over and over, after the teacher, until all the alphabet is fixed in the memory”. (Andrews; Schultz)
The classroom exercise of spelling aloud also focused on syllables: Pupils first pronounced each letter of the syllable, and then put the sounds together and pronounced the syllable.
This practice of spelling aloud gave the Hawaiian alphabet its name. Just as American schoolchildren taught with Webster’s speller began their recitation by naming the letters that formed the first syllable, and then pronouncing the result: “B, A – BA,” so did Hawaiian learners.
The early missionary teacher said to his pupil, b, a – ba; the Hawaiian would repeat, pronouncing “b” like “p” and said “pī ʻā pā; hence the word that is now known as the Hawaiian alphabet and the name of the book. (Schultz)
Then, on July 14, 1826, the missionaries established 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) in their “Report of the committee of health on the state of the Hawaiian language.” The report was signed by Bingham and Chamberlain. The alphabet continues in use today.
“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.”
“It was found that every word and every syllable in the language ends with a vowel; the final vowel of a word or syllable, however, is often made so nearly to coalesce or combine with the sound of the succeeding vowel, as to form a dipthongal sound, apparently uniting two distinct words.”
“There are, on the other hand, abrupt separations or short and sudden breaks between two vowels m the same word. The language, moreover, is crowded with a class of particles unknown In the languages with which we had any acquaintance.”
“There were also frequent reduplications of the same vowel sound, so rapid, that by most foreigners the two were taken for one.”
“In the oft recurring names of the principal island, the largest village, and of the king of the leeward islands, ” Owhyhee,” ” Hanaroorah,” and” Tamoree,” scarcely the sound of a single syllable was correctly expressed, either in writing or speaking, by voyagers or foreign residents.”
“Had we, therefore, followed the orthography of voyagers, or in adopting an alphabet made a single vowel stand for as many sounds as in English, and several different vowels for the same sound, and given the consonants the ambiguity of our c, s, t, ch, gh, &c., …”
“… it would have been extremely difficult, if not impracticable to induce the nation to become readers, in the course of a whole generation, even if we had been furnished with ample funds to sustain in boarding-schools, all who would devote their time and labor to study.” (Bingham)
“The power of the vowels may be thus represented: – a, as a in the English words art, father; e, as a in pale, or ey in they; i, as ee or in machine; o, as o in no; u, as oo in too. They are called so as to express their power by their names – Ah, A, Ee, O, Oo.”
“The consonants are in like manner called by such simple names as to suggest their power, thus, following the sound of the vowels as above – He, Ke, La, Mu, Xu, Pi, We.” (Bingham)
“There were some difficulties to be encountered in distinguishing several consonant sounds, and to determine which of two characters in the Roman or English alphabet to adopt for certain sounds that appeared somewhat variable in the mouths of the natives.”
“The following appeared sometimes to be interchangeable: b and p, k and t, I and r, v and w, and even the sound of d, it was thought by some, was used in some cases where others used k, l, r or t. For purely native words, however, k, I, p and w were preferred.”
“The opening to them of this source of light never known to their ancestors remote or near, occurred while many thousands of the friends of the heathen were on the monthly concert, unitedly praying that the Gospel might have free course and he glorified.”
“It was like laying a corner stone of an important edifice for the nation.”
“A considerable number was present, and among those particularly interested was Ke‘eaumoku, who, after a little instruction from Mr. Loomis, applied the strength of his athletic arm to the lever of a Ramage press, pleased thus to assist in working off a few impressions of the first lessons. These lessons were caught at with eagerness by those who had learned to read by manuscript.”
“Kamāmalu applied herself also with renewed vigor to learn, both in English and in her own language, and exerted an influence, on the whole, favorable to the cause of instruction, and soon had a school-house built for the benefit of her people.”
“Liholiho requested a hundred copies of the spelling-book in his language to be furnished for his friends and attendants who were unsupplied, while he would not have the instruction of the people, in general, come in the way of their cutting sandalwood to pay his debts.” (Bingham)