Beloved Nehiwa Language!


Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Have you heard of ʻōlelo nehiwa? It is a secret language between people who desire to hide their conversations. It is closely related to ʻōlelo wehiwa and ʻōlelo kake.

Many decades ago, I worked with two female elders from Kaupō, Maui, by the names of Agnes Ai and Marguerite Rust, a younger and older sister of the Mahalo and Marciel families. The two asked me, “Do you know about ʻōlelo nehiwa?” I said, “I have never heard about the nehiwa language!” They then laughed and began speaking in that kind of language.

After, they explained to me the rules of nehiwa, namely, the shuffling of the last syllable from the tail to the head – in other words, reversing the order of all the syllables. These examples were shared by Kaupō’s elders: nehiwa for wa-hi-ne (woman); laʻulaʻu for ʻulaʻula (red); ʻokeʻoke for keʻokeʻo (white). Sometimes, a syllable is dropped like, “Ohe uʻo kemakema iā eʻo,” for “ʻAʻohe oʻu makemake iā ʻoe” (I have no liking for you). The /ʻA/ was dropped.

I am reminiscing about the secret language of Joseph Makaʻai from Kaʻūpūlehu, the uncle of Kauanoe Kimura. He was a usual guest on Ka Leo Hawaiʻi (radio show). He took much joy in speaking his secret language. These are not his words but from the dictionary by Pukuʻi: “U hulu unu ūkua ūhua” for “E hele ana ʻoukou i hea?” (Where are you all going?).

Yet another secret language we are being refamiliarized with is ʻōlelo kake (shuffle language). Are you familiar, perhaps, with the hula named “Alaga la haga ia no Hege?” That is an example of ʻōlelo kake.

Here is another example from the statement that Kauikeaouli chanted to Kalama where he shuffles in vowels into the song such as “Nohouō o luhuna, nohouō o lahalō, nohouō nā meʻa apauo loua,” for “Noʻu o luna, noʻu ʻo lalo, noʻu nā mea a pau loa” (Mine is above, mine is below, mine is everything).

We Hawaiians are a fun-loving people. Let’s revive this kind of secret and funny language during Hawaiian Language Month – for fun only. Aloha to us all.