These women are trying to save the Olelo Niihau dialect from extinction

These women are trying to save the Olelo Niihau dialect from extinction

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The island of Niihau is the only place in the world where Hawaiian is the primary language. The dialect on the island dates back to how Native Hawaiians spoke before missionaries arrived.

Today, there are only about 500 native speakers left. And some worry the Niihau dialect could be lost with time.

That’s why Dr. Kuuipolani Kanahele Wong and Kahea Faria ― who were raised on Niihau ― are helping drive a movement to preserve and perpetuate “Olelo Kanaka Niihau.”

Dr. Kuuipolani Kanahele Wong is part of a movement to save the Niihau dialect. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Dr. Kuuipolani Kanahele Wong is part of a movement to save the Niihau dialect. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Kahea Faria, of the College of Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, says the Niihau dialect will disappear without work to save it. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Kahea Faria, of the College of Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, says the Niihau dialect will disappear without work to save it. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

Wong, the director of the Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language, told Hawaii News Now:

“Ma ane’i nei ua olelo ia aneane mate ta olelo aka ma Niihau aole no pela ta mea ma Niihau mau no ta olelo mai ta wa, mai o to matou poe tupuna, to lakou poe tupuna, a to matou mau matua a laila hiti mai ia matou.”

(Translation: “Unlike our other Hawaiian islands, the language almost became extinct. But Niihau has continued the language from the time of our kupuna, their kupuna, our parents, now and to our generation.”)

One thing that makes the Niihau dialect unique is the use of the letter “t.”

The original Hawaiian language used the letter until missionaries documenting the language replaced "t" with “k.”

The other islands adapted to that, but not Niihau.

Faria, of the College of Education at the University of Hawaii, demonstrates:

The phrase “What are you doing today?” in Olelo Hawaii is:

He aha kau hana o keia la?

But in Olelo Niihau, it’s:

He aha tau hana o teia la?

“The Niihau language exists as a community," said Dr. Jonathan Osorio, dean of the Hawaiinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge. "It’s not just what we teach in school. It’s actually a language that nurtures the speaker from the time they’re born.”

He added: “They know things, they learn, they dream, they live in the language”

Wong and Faria are working with multiple organizations to implement programs and language initiatives across the state. They teach for UH-Manoa, and are also spearheading a movement called “Ka leo o na kupa."

It’s a partnership with the Malie Foundation and County of Kauai to secure funding for school curriculum, workshops and educational tools.

“Mahalo pu i teia ohana Lopikana no to lakou malama ana i teia olelo ma ta aina. He mahalo no hoi ketahi ia OHA no to latou tatoo ana i ta puta ana o tela mau tumu,” Faria said.

(Translation: “Mahalo to the Robinson family for their work in perpetuating the Hawaiian language on Niihau. Mahalo to OHA for supporting the teacher training program.")

She added: “He hana pu ma waena o ta kula hoonaauo, kula Kawaihuelani, ma ta kula nui a me ta hana pu ana me na kanaka i hanai, hanau ia ma ta olelo kanaka.”

(Translation: “Collaborative work between the College of Education and Kawaihuelani at UH-Manoa, and partnering with a native speaking community.”)

With each student and each lesson, it’s another step toward ensuring that Olelo Kanaka Niihau will live on forever.

“Manaolana wau o ta manaolana no teia mua aku oia hoi ta hoomau ia o ta olelo Niihau i loko o ta ohana Niihau a me ta poe e hoihoi ana e a’o mai i ta olelo Niihau. He mea tela e hiti ai i ta olelo te hoomau ia no na hanauna e hiti mai ana,” Wong said.

(Translation: “Perpetuating the Niihau language within the families and those interested in learning, so that the language continues into future generations.”)

Niihau is owned by the Robinson Family, which bought the island from King Kamehameha IV in the 1860s.

This profile is part of month-long series of stories ― called Mana Wahine ― about extraordinary women in Hawaii. Catch all of our profiles on Sunrise throughout the month of March!

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