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About Hawaiian Language

Hawaiian language (Hawaiian: ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi) is a Polynesian language that takes its name from Hawaiʻi, the largest island in the tropical North Pacific archipelago where it developed. Hawaiian, along with English, is an official language of the state of Hawaii. King Kamehameha III established the first Hawaiian-language constitution in 1839 and 1840.

For various reasons, the number of native speakers of Hawaiian gradually decreased during the period from the 1830s to the 1950s. Hawaiian was essentially displaced by English on six of the seven inhabited islands. As of 2000, native speakers of Hawaiian amount to under 0.1% of the statewide population. Linguists are worried about the fate of this and other endangered languages.

Nevertheless, from about 1949 to the present, there has been a gradual increase in attention to, and promotion of, the language. Public Hawaiian-language immersion pre-schools called Pūnana Leo were started in 1984; other immersion schools followed soon after. The first students to start in immersion pre-school have now graduated from college and many are fluent Hawaiian speakers.

A creole language spoken in Hawaiʻi is technically called "Hawaii Creole English", abbreviated "HCE". It developed from pidgin English and is often called simply "Pidgin". It should not be mistaken for the Hawaiian language nor for a dialect of English.

There are only twelve letters in the Hawaiian alphabet, plus the ʻokina which is considered a consonant.


The Hawaiian language takes its name from the largest island, Hawaii (Hawaiʻi in the Hawaiian language), in the tropical North Pacific archipelago where it developed, originally from a Polynesian language of the South Pacific, most likely Marquesan or Tahitian. The island name was first written in english, in 1778 by British explorer James Cook and his crew members. They wrote it as "Owhyhee" or "Owhyee". Explorers Mortimer (1791) and Otto von Kotzebue (1821) used that spelling.

The initial "O" in the name is a reflection of the fact that unique identity is predicated in Hawaiian by using a copula form, o, immediately before a proper noun. Thus, in Hawaiian, the name of the island is expressed by saying O Hawaiʻi, which means "[This] is Hawaiʻi." Note that the Cook expedition also wrote "Otaheite" rather than "Tahiti."

The spelling "why" in the name reflects the [hw] pronunciation of wh in 18th century English (still in active use in parts of the Anglosphere). Why was pronounced [hwai]. The spelling "hee" or "ee" in the name represents the sounds [hi], [i], or [i].

Putting the parts together, O-why-hee reflects [o-hwai-i], a reasonable approximation of the native pronunciation, [o hɐwɐiʔi]

American missionaries bound for Hawaiʻi used the phrases "Owhihe Language" and "Owhyhee language", in Boston prior to their departure in October 1819 and during their five-month voyage to Hawai'i. They still used such phrases as late as February 1822. However, by July 1823, they had begun using the phrase "Hawaiian Language."

In Hawaiian, ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi means "Hawaiian language", as adjectives follow nouns.

Family and origin

Hawaiian is a Polynesian member of the Austronesian language family. It is closely related to other Polynesian languages (e.g., Marquesan, Tahitian, Maori, Rapa Nui (the language of Easter Island), Samoan), and distantly related to Fijian and more distantly to Malay, Indonesian, Malagasy, and the indigenous languages of the Philippines (e.g., Pangasinan, Tagalog, Ilokano, Visayan) and Taiwan (e.g., Paiwan, Rukai, Thao, Babuza, Saaroa, Yami).

The Marquesans colonized the archipelago in roughly 300 AD, followed by another wave of Tahitian immigrants around 1000 AD. Their languages, over time, became the Hawaiian language.

Continuing back in time, and back up the Austronesian family tree, the language was various stages of Proto-Polynesian. Going much further back in history, the language is that of the Philippine Islands. The linguistic evidence, with the methodologies of lexicostatistics and comparative reconstruction applied, takes the language back to Proto Austronesian, spoken in Taiwan (see next section). In recognizing the "Austric dispersal", Li (2001:271–272) states that Reid "firmly established" a genetic relationship between the Austronesian family and the Austroasiatic family, and that linguist Robert Blust proposed that the Austronesian people migrated from continental Asia to Taiwan around 4000 BC.

Banning" of Hawaiian

The law cited as banning the Hawaiian language is identified as Act 57, sec. 30 of the 1896 Laws of the Republic of Hawaiʻi:

  • The English Language shall be the medium and basis of instruction in all public and private schools, provided that where it is desired that another language shall be taught in addition to the English language, such instruction may be authorized by the Department, either by its rules, the curriculum of the school, or by direct order in any particular instance. Any schools that shall not conform to the provisions of this section shall not be recognized by the Department. [signed] June 8, 1896 Sanford B. Dole, President of the Republic of Hawaiʻi

This law established English as the main medium of instruction for the government-recognized schools, but it did not ban or make illegal the Hawaiian language in other contexts. The law specifically provided for teaching languages "in addition to the English language". However, Hawaiian was not taught in any school, including Kamehameha Schools, and many children who spoke Hawaiian at school, including on the playground, were beaten with rulers or sticks by their teachers.

Hawaiian-language newspapers were published for over a hundred years, right through the period of the supposed ban. Pukui & Elbert (1986:572) list fourteen Hawaiian newspapers. According to them, the newspapers entitled Ka Lama Hawaii and Ke Kumu Hawaii began publishing in 1834, and the one called Ka Hoku o Hawaii ceased publication in 1948. The longest run was that of Ka Nupepa Kuokoa: about 66 years, from 1861 to 1927.

1949 to present

In 1949, the legislature of the Territory of Hawaiʻi commissioned Mary Pukui and Samuel Elbert to write a new dictionary of Hawaiian, either revising the Andrews-Parker work, or starting from scratch. Pukui and Elbert took a middle course, using what they could from the Andrews dictionary, but making certain improvements and additions that were more significant than a minor revision. The dictionary they produced, in 1957, introduced an era of gradual increase in attention to the language (and culture).

Efforts to promote the language have increased in recent decades. Hawaiian-language "immersion" schools are now open to children whose families want to introduce Hawaiian language for future generations. The local NPR station features a short segment titled "Hawaiian word of the day" and a Hawaiian language news broadcast. Honolulu television station KGMB includes a Hawaiian language segment during their morning local news program Sunrise on KGMB9. Additionally, the Sunday editions of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, one of Honolulu's two major newspapers, feature a brief article called Kauakukalahale written entirely in Hawaiian by teachers, students, and community members.

Today, on six of the seven permanently inhabited islands, Hawaiian is largely displaced by English, and the number of native speakers of Hawaiian is under 0.1% of the state-wide population. Native speakers of Hawaiian who live on the island named Niʻihau have remained fairly isolated and have continued to use Hawaiian almost exclusively.


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