Operation Envoy: The Revitalization of the Hawaiian Language and Culture

An elementary student reads a book in class at the Nawahiokalani’opu’u Hawaiian Immersion School in Keaau, Hawaii, in 2016. | Honolulu Civil Beat

The sound of the Hawaiian language, “ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi” in Hawaiian, has filled the colorful beaches and verdant valleys of the Hawaiian islands for millennia. But this language was in danger of disappearing since it was entwined with the archipelago’s history. Western civilizations and written languages were imposed on the Hawaiian islands, and historical, social, and political currents surged over the islands, creating the conditions that allowed ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi to collapse slowly. In this article, we delve into how the Hawaiian language became endangered and explore the remarkable journey that resulted in its rebirth.

Western missionaries and explorers arrived in the late eighteenth century, bringing new diseases, Western scripts, and languages. The influx of foreign cultures and the English language harmed the original language. Due to Hawaii’s ban on native language use in schools, the educational system emerged as a powerful force behind this linguistic shift. Concurrently, the English alphabet replaced the Hawaiian alphabet called “ka pīʻāpā Hawaiʻi.” The Hawaiian language saw a steady fall in use as the 19th century continued. An important turning point came with the US commercial interests’ sponsored overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. The United States’ subsequent annexation hastened the language’s deterioration and severely alienated the indigenous culture. English has taken the lead in public life, education, and government. Throughout the early 20th century, the Hawaiian language and culture were suppressed. Hawaiian children faced consequences for using their mother tongue in class, and customs were aggressively discouraged. When English took over as the language of official correspondence, legal documents, and record-keeping, the written form of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi experienced difficulties.

Realizing the importance of maintaining their cultural identity, Hawaiians set out on a determined mission to revitalize their language. Community leaders, educators, and activists started revolutionary programs to teach and promote ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi in the late 20th century. The launch in 1984 of Punana Leo, a pioneering preschool immersion program in the Hawaiian language, marked a turning point in the rebirth of this language. This signaled the beginning of a grassroots campaign to combat the language’s historical repression by reintroducing it to newer generations. When ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi was designated as one of the official languages of the State of Hawaii in 1978, it gave the ongoing attempts to revitalize the Hawaiian language a significant boost. In addition to providing the language official status, this recognition made legislative support and financing for language revival initiatives possible. The dedication to the preservation and propagation of the language was further cemented in 1997 with the founding of the Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii.

Technological developments were essential to the restoration attempts. Language suppression has historically placed barriers to language study and practice, but the internet, smartphone apps, and social media platforms have made language learning and practice more accessible. Virtual communities, language apps, and online resources opened new ways for people to interact with ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. The late 20th-century cultural revival and the renewed interest in traditional Hawaiian activities acted as a spur to the language’s revitalization. Chanting, hula, and conventional navigation techniques evolved into lively venues for embracing and celebrating ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i and cultural manifestations. In addition to reintroducing the language into public settings, this cultural renaissance gave Hawaiians a strong sense of self-worth and identity.

The revival of the Hawaiian language is evidence of the people of Hawaii’s tenacity and unyielding will in the face of historical discrimination. ʻŌlelo Hawai’i has risen from the verge of extinction to become a vibrant symbol of cultural pride and an essential component of Hawaii’s identity in the twenty-first century through a well-coordinated combination of grassroots initiatives, legal recognition, educational endeavors, technological advancements, and a profound reconnection with cultural roots. Future generations will speak, learn, and appreciate the beauty of the Hawaiian language thanks to the continuous dedication to language revitalization, which guarantees that the echoes of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi will continue to resound through the valleys and coastlines.

Operation Envoy is a project that aims to help spread awareness and give to people losing their native languages and cultures. Keep an eye out for upcoming VOF articles, and to stay up to date on our project, follow our Instagram account @operationenvoy.

Works Cited

“About the Hawaiian Language.” Olelo.hawaii.edu, olelo.hawaii.edu/en/olelo.

Hall, Stephanie. “How Hawaiians Saved Their Language | Folklife Today.” Loc.gov, 24 May 2017, blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2017/05/how-hawaiians-saved-their-language/.

Harris, Johnny. “How the US Stole Hawaii.” YouTube, 13 July 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=XK2MBnw6RlY.

“The Surprising Revival of the Hawaiian Language.” The Economist, 21 Feb. 2019, www.economist.com/united-states/2019/02/21/the-surprising-revival-of-the-hawaiian-language.