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.”
“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)
Learning the Language by Syllables
Noah Webster (1758-1843) was the man of words in early 19th-century America. He compiled a dictionary which became the standard for American English; he also compiled The American Spelling Book, which was the basic textbook for young readers in early 19th-century America.
In the beginning part of his American Spelling Book, several signed a ‘Recommendation,’ stating, “Having examined the first part of the new Grammatical Institute of the English Language, published by Mr. Noah Webster we are of opinion, that it is far preferable, in the plan and execution, to Dilworth’s or any other Spelling Book, which has been introduced into [o]ur schools.”
The Speller’s Preface notes the priority in learning, “The syllables of words are divided as they are pronounced, and for this obvious reason, that children learn the language by the ear. Rules are of no consequence but to printers and adults. In Spelling Books they embarrass children, and double the labour of the teacher.”
“The whole design of dividing words into syllables at all, is to lead the pupil to the true pronunciation: and the easiest method to effect this purpose will forever be the best.” (Webster’s 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.
And so it was with the American Protestant Missionaries teaching the Hawaiians to read and write their own language.
Just as American schoolchildren spelled aloud by naming the letters that formed the first syllable, and then pronouncing the result: “b, a – ba,” so did Hawaiian learners. (However, back then, Webster used ‘y’ as a vowel; the missionaries did not.)
Pī ʻā pā
In the initial instruction, the missionaries taught by first teaching syllables – adding consonants to vowels, just as Noah Webster noted in his speller.
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. (Schütz 2017a:12)
Webster’s way of teaching was practiced in Hawai‘i, as described by Andrews, “The teacher takes a Piapa (i.e., speller, primer,) sits down in front of a row or several rows of scholars, from ten to a hundred perhaps in number, all sitting on the ground, furnished perhaps with Piapas, perhaps not.”
“The teacher begins: 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, just in the order the letters stand in the book; and all this just as well without a book as with one. The abbs and spelling lesson are taught in the same way.” (Schütz 1994:163)
The Hawaiian version also used the names of the letters and the resultant syllable: bē ā – bā; by 1824, this had become the Hawaiian word for ‘alphabet’. However, after b had been eliminated from the alphabet, p took its place in this new name.
One result of applying this methodology to Hawaiian is that it produced a new word: Pi a pa. From that time on, the word for ‘alphabet’ has been pī‘āpā, first appearing with this spelling (minus the kahakō and ‘okina) in a book title in 1828.
The purpose of all these first exercises was to teach the mechanics of pronouncing words, one by one – syllable by syllable.
Schütz 1994. Albert Schütz – The voices of Eden: A history of Hawaiian language studies. 1994 Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Schütz 2017a. Albert Schütz – Reading between the lines: A closer look at the first Hawaiian primer (1822). In Palapala-He puke pai no ka ‘olelo me ka mo ‘olelo Hawai’i (A journal for Hawaiian language and literature)