When King Kamehameha V sold the island of Niʻihau to the Sinclair family – the ancestors of the Robinsons – for $10,000 in gold, he added a caveat saying, “the day may come when Hawaiians are not as strong in Hawai’i as they are now. When that day comes, please do what you can to help them.”
Since then, Niʻihau has been a kīpuka where the Hawaiian language remains the mother tongue and daily language of about 130 people who continue to live on the island, as well as other Niʻihau families who now live off-island due for work or school. ʻŌlelo Kanaka Niʻihau is specific to the island but historically it was spoken throughout Kauaʻi and on parts of Oʻahu.
ʻŌlelo Kanaka Niʻihau is notable for its interchangeable use of l/r and t/k. It is also notable for subtle vocabulary and grammar differences. For example, the word “kūkui” in standard Hawaiian is “tuitui” on Niʻihau. Notably, many Niʻihau speakers do not use the ʻōkina and kahakō, although those in academia generally do use diacriticals to make it easier for their students who are learning Hawaiian.
Dr. Kuuipolani Kanahele Wong and Kumu Kahea Faria of UH Mānoa, both of whom are from Niʻihau, are two of the leading advocates working to perpetuate ʻŌlelo Kanaka Niʻihau.
Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu was not born on Niʻihau but says she was “guided, groomed, and raised” by the Niʻihau community. Wong-Kalu recently narrated the animated film, Kapaemahu, using ʻŌlelo Kanaka Niʻihau to allow listeners to hear the beauty of the language; it was the first time it was used as the medium for a film.
Wong-Kalu, who speaks Tongan, Samoan, and Tahitian, as well as Hawaiian, says that the Hawaiian spoken on Niʻihau is closer to other Polynesian languages in sound, feeling, and perspective. “It’s not easy to articulate. Niʻihau Hawaiian feels more mentally akin to our cousins. It’s an emotional mindset and the way in which we engage with one another. We should take every opportunity to learn perspectives and concepts from any mānaleo (native speaker) if they allow us to do so.”
Wong-Kalu shared that her experiences with the Niʻihau community allowed her to learn some of the body language, gestures, intonations, and other nuances of the spoken language that students studying Hawaiian in college may not have the opportunity to learn. She also noted that there is also an elevated version of the language similar to “chiefly” Samoan and Tongan.
Another difference is the flow of conversation. In standard Hawaiian, it is common to end conversations, particularly on the telephone, with “mālama pono” or “a hui hou.” But on Niʻihau, “a hui hou” is rarely used. Instead, a conversation will end with “mahalo iā ʻoe, aloha” or simply “aloha.”
ʻŌlelo Kanaka Niʻihau is a treasure that reminds us of who we are – not simply as Kānaka Maoli – but as members of the larger Pacific. The differences in Polynesian languages are slight; we share the same way of looking at the world. We are ʻohana.