WHEN THE FIRST WESTERNERS ARRIVED IN THE LATE 18th CENTURY THE HAWAIIANS HAD A RICH LEGACY OF ORAL LITERARY TRADITION.
The arrival of American Protestant missionaries in 1820 marked a new phase in the development of the Hawaiian language. In order to achieve conversion of Hawaiians to Christianity, the missionaries developed a successful alphabet for Hawaiian. By 1826, they had taught Hawaiians to read and write the language, published various educational materials in Hawaiian, and eventually finished translating the Bible. Missionaries influenced King Kamehameha III to establish the first Hawaiian-language constitutions in 1839 and 1840.
During the 1800s, Hawai‘i became one of the most literate nations in the world with over 90% of the population able to read and write.
“The people were amazed at the art of expressing thoughts on paper. They started back from it with dread, as though it were a sort of enchantment or sorcery.” ~ Sheldon Dibble, Missionary and Historian from The Voices
King Kamehameha III proudly declared,“He aupuni palapala ko‘u” —“I have a kingdom of education”.
In February 1834, the initial edition of Ka Lama Hawaii was the first newspaper to be printed west of the Rocky Mountains. It was printed at Hale Pa`i, on the campus of Lahainaluna School on Maui. Eventually, there were over 100 Hawaiian language newspapers in print.
But the Hawaiian-medium school system established by the Kingdom of Hawai`i in the early 1820s, was abolished in 1896, and 2 years later use of Hawaiian in Territorial schools was forbidden. Children were summarily punished for speaking Hawaiian in school. However, Hawaiian language newspapers were published for over a hundred years, right through the period of the supposed ban.
In 1957, Mary Pukui and Samuel Elbert wrote a new Hawaiian dictionary that introduced an era of increased attention to the language. “Immersion” schools are now open to children whose families want to introduce Hawaiian language for future generations.
Today there are over 27,000 speakers of Hawaiian.