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.
The planning for the formal written Hawaiian language in the early part of the nineteenth century was started by the Protestant missionaries who arrived in Hawaii, starting in 1820. A committee of some of these missionaries (Hiram Bingham, C. S. Stewart and Levi Chamberlain) worked on the development of the Hawaiian alphabet.
Initially, the missionaries worked out a Hawaiian alphabet of 17-English letters. “On the 7th of January, 1822, a year and eight months from the time of our receiving the governmental permission to enter the field and teach the people …”
“… 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.”
“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 Keʻeaumoku …”
“… 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.”
“Liholiho, Kalanimōku, Boki and other chiefs, and numbers of the people, called to see the new engine, the printing-press, to them a great curiosity. Several were easily induced to undertake to learn the art of printing, and in time succeeded. Most of the printing done at the islands has been done by native hands.”
“When the king first examined the press, a sheet of white paper being laid on, he pulled the lever round, and was surprised to see the paper instantly covered with words in his own language. He had some shrewdness, and, for a Hawaiian, an uncommon share of confidence in his own attainments and abilities.” (Bingham)
Toketa, who had learned to read Hawaiian after an hour’s instruction, wrote a letter for Kuakini to Hiram Bingham, requesting copies of pages of the spelling book being assembled. (Barrere)
(Toketa, a Tahitian, arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1818; he was a member of the household of the chief (Governor) John Adams Kuakini (brother to Kaʻahumanu,) at that time a prominent figure in the court of Kamehameha I in Kailua, Kona.)
(A convert to Christianity (he likely received missionary instruction in his homeland – first Europeans arrived in Tahiti in 1767; in 1797 the London Missionary Society sent 29 missionaries to Tahiti,) he became a teacher to Hawaiian chiefs, made a visit to Honolulu with Kuakini in January-February of 1822.) (Barrere)
“I immediately answered in the Hawaiian, under date of Feb. 8th, 1822, one month from the first printing for the nation.”
“Epistolary correspondence (writing of letters or literary works in the form of letters,) thus commenced in that language, suddenly opened to the chiefs and people a new source of pleasure and advantage, of which hundreds soon availed themselves.” (Bingham)
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.
Collaboration between native Hawaiians and the American Protestant missionaries resulted in, among other things:
• The introduction of Christianity;
• The development of a written Hawaiian language and establishment of schools that resulted in widespread literacy;
• The promulgation of the concept of constitutional government;
• The combination of Hawaiian with Western medicine, and
• The evolution of a new and distinctive musical tradition.