Sabbatical Irony

Sabbatical Irony July 29, 2009

I was never very good at languages . . . which can be something of a handicap when you spend your graduate school days in a foreign country studying a text written originally in several different ancient languages.  I’m not overly proud that I only (barely) managed a C in biblical Greek and never learned to converse very well in Swiss German or Czech.  I just have always thought that my gifts lay elsewhere, as my mother would say. 

(And, anyway, that’s what interlinear texts and babblefish are for!)

It is somewhat ironic, then, that I am spending my sabbatical with people who love languages, who are conversant in several, and who think it’s the height of fun to translate something.  I’m not quite sold . . . even after watching the Hawaiian Bible Project up close I probably will not rush home to take a refresher Greek course.  But I am learning some of the ways in which language can have a powerful impact on culture and social structure, and I’m definitely developing a strong appreciation and admiration for the work of the Hawaiian Bible Project.  Here’s an article I wrote about the current project phase, readying the text using the new orthography:


With only 13 letters making up its alphabet, many Hawaiian words are very similar in spelling and pronunciation.  A native speaker would certainly know, for example, that kou means yours and ko’u means mine—the words are pronounced differently because of the glottal stop, or ‘okina, separating the vowels.  But the Hawaiian language was never a written language until the first missionaries settled in the islands and began a translation of the biblical text.  And . . . for reasons unknown to modern translators of the text, the missionaries who translated the first Hawaiian Bible did not include diacritical markings in their written translation.  As the Bible was the first text in written Hawaiian and set the standard for the written language, until recently diacritical markings were not commonly part of texts in printed Hawaiian.

The Hawaiian Bible Project’s work to insert diacritical markings in the biblical text comes in response to the current needs of those reading and studying the Hawaiian text. 

With the increasing influence of the West on Hawaiian society and culture in the first half of the twentieth century, use of spoken and written Hawaiian began to decrease exponentially.  The language was not taught in schools, and educators and parents embraced the idea that teaching children to speak and write English instead of Hawaiian would be the best way for them to succeed in Hawaii’s increasingly modern and western society.  The end result of this trend was a whole generation of Hawaiian children who grew up without learning to speak or read Hawaiian.  Regular users of the language became more and more rare, so much so that the American Bible Society ceased printing the Hawaiian Bible after its last edition in 1994 because there simply was not enough demand for the printed text in Hawaiian.

But beginning in the 1970s a Hawaiian renaissance emerged.  Hawaiian youth whose parents did not speak Hawaiian felt a yearning to know their culture and their language.  This movement became a critical reversal of a trend that could have rendered spoken and written Hawaiian language lost.  Today, the teaching and learning of Hawaiian language is becoming more prominent, with immersion learning options available for every age.  However, the learning and teaching of the language has changed quite a bit from the days of the first missionaries.  Hawaiian is now being taught in a society where it is not commonly spoken, to learners who generally do not speak it as their first language.  Because of this, since the 1970s the insertion of diacritical markings in written Hawaiian has become more and more common; these guidelines help readers differentiate the meanings of words and guide them in correct pronunciation. 

The first readers of the Hawaiian Bible were native speakers who knew the subtle differentiations in the meaning and pronunciation of the words; they did not need the diacritical markings to read or understand the text.  Because of this new age of Hawaiian speakers and students, however, the Hawaiian Bible project is currently preparing for the publication of a printed version of the Bible using a new orthography which includes diacritical markings.  In Hawaiian, these markings are the ‘okina, or glottal stop, and the kahakō, or macron.  The ‘okina is counted as a letter in the Hawaiian alphabet; it’s used to separate vowels.  The kahakō, a dash over a vowel, indicates the sound of that letter is drawn out.

The respelling of the text using the new orthography is painstaking work, but its completion opens the text of the Hawaiian Bible to a whole new world of learners and linguists, and helps preserve and perpetuate the gifts and language of the people of Hawaii.

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