Hawaii’s Forgotten Native-Language Newspapers Are a Treasure Trove of Climate Data

There were once more than 100 native language newspapers in circulation in Hawaii that chronicled daily life on the islands. As early as 1834, the newspapers supplied native Hawaiians with news, current affairs, opinion, and, importantly, information about extreme weather events.

In 1871, an intense hurricane struck the islands of Hawaii and Maui, causing catastrophic damage. The newspapers reported on the destruction, traced the likely path of the storm, and documented the impact on Hawaiians.

“The streaming of the wind was similar to 5,000 steam whistles set off at one time,” reported the paper Ke Au Okoa. “The rain continued from morning til night. At 11 o’clock, the waters rushed swiftly and the lowlands were flooded, sweeping everything that was in their paths. The damages were great concerning the koa trees and the grapevines.”

In 1893, a group backed by U.S. troops illegally overthrew Hawaii’s monarchical government and, shortly after, passed a law mandating all schools teach their classes in English. The Hawaiian language fell into decline, and, as a result, the native-language newspapers faded first into obscurity, then completely ceased to exist. Records of the 1871 hurricane were consigned to dusty archives and its devastating impact on the islands all but forgotten by Hawaii’s residents.

But in the early ’90s, Puakea Nogelmeier, PhD, a professor of language at the University of Hawai‘i, discovered that the archipelago’s libraries and museums had hoarded its old newspapers. Realizing their historical and cultural value, he started the painstaking process of translating and digitizing each article.

Read more: Future Human

Hawaiian Language Revival Used as Model for Other Indigenous Languages

Advocates of endangered languages gathered at the University of Hawaii at Manoa this month for the fifth International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation. The conference included a field study of Hawaiian medium language schools — public schools where the curriculum is taught entirely in Hawaiian — in Hilo, Hawaii, to see what lessons can be applied to saving other languages. Advocates came from Okinawa, Japan; Singapore; Australia; New Zealand; Canada; and several states, according to the University of Hawaii.

“The Pūnana Leo preschools continue until today based on the simple rule: If you speak only in Hawaiian to the children, they will begin to speak it back to you,” Larry Kimura, associate professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, told NBC News.

“When the [state Department of Education] allowed its first two probationary ‘Hawaiian immersion’ sites, the department was very frank in stating that they had no qualified teachers and no Hawaiian curriculum to support the program,” he added. “The Pūnana Leo responded that we would take up that responsibility.”

Read more: NBC News

The race to save a dying language

In 2013, at a conference on endangered languages, a retired teacher named Linda Lambrecht announced the extraordinary discovery of a previously unknown language. Lambrecht – who is Chinese-Hawaiian, 71 years old, warm but no-nonsense – called it Hawaii Sign Language, or HSL. In front of a room full of linguists, she demonstrated that its core vocabulary – words such as “mother”, “pig” and “small” – was distinct from that of other sign languages.

The linguists were immediately convinced. William O’Grady, the chair of the linguistics department at the University of Hawaii, called it “the first time in 80 years that a new language has been discovered in the United States — and maybe the last time.” But the new language found 80 years ago was in remote Alaska, whereas HSL was hiding in plain sight in Honolulu, a metropolitan area of nearly a million people. It was the kind of discovery that made the world seem larger.

The last-minute arrival of recognition and support for HSL was a powerful, almost surreal vindication for Lambrecht, whose first language is HSL. For decades, it was stigmatised or ignored; now the language has acquired an agreed-upon name, an official “language code” from the International Organization for Standardization, the attention of linguists around the world, and a three-year grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

But just as linguists were substantiating its existence, HSL stood on the brink of extinction, remembered by just a handful of signers. Unless the language made a miraculous recovery, Lambrecht feared that her announcement might turn out to be HSL’s obituary.

Read more: The Guardian

Can texting teens save a threatened Hawaiian language?

To stay alive, languages must be used. It helps if they are hip, too, says Amy Kalili, a native Hawaiian.

Six decades ago, Hawaii’s native tongue was close to vanishing with only a few dozen youngsters left speaking it.

Scared of losing their lingo, islanders led a “cultural renaissance” in the 1970s and 1980s by teaching children the dying tongue, Kalili said. Nowadays, schools educate 3,000 students a year in Hawaiian. But to cement these gains it must keep up with the times.

“For languages to survive, kids have to speak it. Therefore it needs to be cool. They have to be jazzed about it,” Kalili, 44, told Al Jazeera.

“They have to see it on television and use it on their iPhones and computers. It’s important for their psyche that they speak a language of capacity.”

Read more: Al Jazeera

De-Stigmatizing Hawaii’s Creole Language

“You don’t know how happy this makes me,” I wrote a colleague after she casually sent me a link to a recent news story reporting that the U.S. Census Bureau now recognizes Hawaiian Pidgin English as a language. “Oh really?!” the colleague responded, surprised at my excitement.

After all, how could a seemingly silly decision to include the local, slang-sounding vernacular on a language survey listing more than 100 other options cause so much delight? It’s not like the five-year American Community Survey gleaned accurate data on how many people in Hawaii actually speak Pidgin at home. (Roughly 1,600 of the 327,000 bilingual survey respondents said they speak it, while other sources—albeit imperfect ones—have suggested that as many as half of the state’s population of 1.4 million does.) So why was I reverberating with a sense of, to borrow a Pidgin phrase, chee hu!?

The significance of the gesture is symbolic, and it extends far beyond those who are from Hawaii and/or those who speak Hawaiian Pidgin. It shows that the federal government acknowledges the legitimacy of a tongue widely stigmatized, even among locals who dabble in it, as a crass dialect reserved for the uneducated lower classes and informal settings. It reinforces a long, grassroots effort by linguists and cultural practitioners to institutionalize and celebrate the language—to encourage educators to integrate it into their teaching, potentially elevating the achievement of Pidgin-speaking students. And it indicates that, elsewhere in the country, the speakers of comparable linguistic systems—from African American Vernacular English, or ebonics, to Chicano English—may even see similar changes one day, too.

Read more: The Atlantic