Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Errant 'Okina

After reading that the famed Big Island artist, Herb Kawainui Kane, was "sickened" by the diacritical mark applied to the new Hawai'i stamp, I learned everything I ever wanted to know about the 'okina and more.

Kane created the surfing image for the new first class stamp, which debuts August 21 in honor of the 50th anniversary of Hawai'i's statehood.

Kane said his original rendition of the word Hawai'i was correct but the U.S. Postal Service changed it and erred in making an apostrophe out of what should have been an 'okina.

I confess I stared at this stamp for the longest time, trying to figure out what's what and what's not. When I couldn't see the error, I did a little research.

The 'okina, by the way, is an actual consonant in the Hawaiian language, representing a glottal stop. In Hawaiian the word means a break, and it's what happens when the sound of a vowel is broken off when the glottis, a flap in the larynx, closes off air flow. To illustrate using an English example, it's the sound (or lack of sound) that's made between the two ohs in "oh-oh." In Hawaiian, use of the 'okina is critical in conveying the correct pronunciation and meaning of words, although even in Hawai'i many people seem to consider its use optional.

But how it's represented is up for debate. After considerable research I found it described as an upside down comma, a 9-shaped apostrophe turned 60-90 degrees counter-clockwise, an upside down apostrophe, a little 6 with the circle colored in, a backwards apostrophe, a single open quote mark, and a French accent grave.

Bear in mind that Hawaiian was not a written language until the missionaries, who first arrived in 1820, began writing down words as they heard them. But in the first book written in Hawaiian, the Holy Bible, the missionaries left out both the 'okina and the kahakô, or macron, which indicates a lengthened vowel. So representing these sounds is a relatively new science. A Hawaiian grammar I own that was published in 1939 acknowledges the existence of a glottal stop, but in its lessons rarely applies either the 'okina or the kahakô to the written language.

Kane's complaint was that the mark on the Hawai'i stamp should have been a left-facing 'okina with a weighted bottom, rather than the right-facing apostrophe with a weighted top. It would all seem like much ado about nothing were it not for the fact that the Hawaiian language almost died out in the 20th century -- until it was revived by sticklers like Herb Kane.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Parlez-vous Pidgin?

When I was on Maui last month for the Wa'a Kiakahi sailing canoe race, another journalist riding on the escort boat turned to me after riding the waves for several miles, and said of the boat crew, "They're speaking a dialect I don't understand."

"That's Pidgin," said I, which contributed nothing to her understanding. "O-o-o-kay," she said, "but what language is it?"

"English!" I answered, while wondering what da kine journalist she was supposed to be.

"Have you noticed the frequency of the expression 'da kine'?" I asked. She nodded. Oh yeah. Like every other word. I told her it meant "uh," "er," "whatchamacallit," "whatever," or, well, whatever.

To be honest, I'm rather new at Pidgin myself, and most of what the escort boat crew said was Greek to me. Didn't understand them, but appreciated the good work they did watching out for the paddlers' safety and towing the stragglers, as pictured to the left.

So, with happy memories of riding on that boat with the cheerful crew (especially Gully Boy -- I still got yo numbah, you buggah!), I decided to talk about Pidgin for my Fun Fact at hula class this week.

Like everything else I've been learning about Hawaiian culture, it turned out to be pretty interesting. Pidgin, which is more properly called Hawaiian English Creole according to the linguists, had its beginnings in the late 1700s with the introduction of Chinese Pidgin, which English and American traders used when selling their cargos of furs in Canton. The sugar cane and pineapple plantations were established in the early 1800s and workers came from all over the world. The common language the workers devised had elements of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Tagalog, the language of the Philippines.

Pidgin gained strength as a language after the New England missionaries imposed their English-only rule in the 1870s. By the 1920s, Pidgin was the dominant language in the Hawaiian Islands.

It's still prevalent, a hodge-podge of languages with an English base. The grammatical constructions actually come from Portuguese, but there are words from all the contributing cultures.

There are Pidgin grammars and dictionaries available, such as "Pidgin To Da Max," and "Da Kine Dictionary." Novelists, poets and playwrights compose in Pidgin. I've read some of the Pidgin writings of Hilo poet and novelist Lois-Ann Yamanaka.

The New Testament has been tranlated into Pidgin. It's called "Da Jesus Book." Even Shakespeare got the treatment. His play, "Twelfth Night or What You Will," has a Pidgin equivalent that has been produced on Hawaiian stages: "Twelf Night o' Whateva."

There are those language snobs and educators who believe Pidgin speakers are handicapped. But I say, don't go pullin' another missionary thing and try banning Pidgin. Hawaiian nearly died out because of such meddling. Personally, I love to hear spoken Pidgin. Riding in the escort boat with the cheerful crew was a delight. Couldn't understand what the hell they were talking about, but maybe dat's mo bettah, yeah?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Holua Fun at Makahiki

July 2 was incredibly hot in Aloha, Oregon, and in hula class we were all pretty miserable. To make everyone feel a bit cooler, I chose "sledding" as the topic for my weekly Fun Fact. However, sledding in old Hawai'i had nothing to do with snow.

From what I gathered, the sport of hölua originated as a tribute to Pele, the fiery volcano goddess. Like hot lava rolling rapidly down a hillside, the sledders rode down steep hills. Their descent was slowed either by a level meadow at the bottom of the hill, or by a plunge off a cliff into the ocean. A lava flow (preferably no longer in use by the volcano) was the preferred route. Dirt and leaves were piled atop the lava rocks to make a smoother ride, and the runners of the sled were greased with kukui nut oil.

The sled itself was no more than about 6 to 8 inches wide, but long enough to hold a tall body, and then some. The sleds ranged in length from 7 to 18 feet long. A woven mat atop the two runners sometimes was used to provide some comfort. There were hand grips near the top. The trick was to grab a handle with one hand, start running like hell, throw the sled down on the ground and drop on top of it, hold on for dear life and prepare to reach speeds up to about 70 miles per hour.

Needless to say, some sledders didn't survive their sport. In ancient Hawai'i, it was a sport reserved for the ali'i (chiefs). But the last recorded sledding contest, in which the winner was the one who rode the furthest, was held in 1825. Like so many other aspects of Hawaiian culture, it was outlawed by New England missionaries.

In 1993 the sport was revived by a surfer and Hawaiian history buff named Tom Pohaku Stone. Stone makes and sells hölua, as well as surfboards, at the Hawaiian Boarding Company.

Sledding and other royal sports, including spear catching (kids, don't try this at home), were part of the season known as Makahiki. The ancient Hawaiians devoted eight months of the year to warfare, and the remaining four months to rest and recreation, enjoying the fall's harvest, playing games, working on crafts, etc. Makahiki officially begins at the first new moon after the stars of Pleaides appear in the eastern sky, usually in November.

When I was in Maui last month, at the hotel where I stayed, the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, the employees observe Makahiki each year. Well, not to the T, because in the old days, nobody worked for four months. The hotel employees do continue to work, but they take time to learn traditional crafts, such as making leis, poi pounders, fish nets, toys, etc.

Every department at the hotel decided on a particular craft to learn and each person made something. In the lobby of the hotel are glass cases holding many of the items that have been made over the years. Pictured above are fish hooks that were carved from soup bones by members of the culinary department. Eventually, the hotel ran out of room to display all the beautiful items in the lobby, so they converted one guest room into sort of a museum to hold all the handicrafts.

I liked this idea so much that for this week's Fun Fact I talked about Makahiki and how we could work some of its features (not spear catching) into our halau activities. I proposed that our halau observe Makahiki each year by making crafts that we can then sell at our annual hö'ike (hula show) and fundraiser. To that end, one of my wonderful hula sistahs, Kepola, ended our practice today by teaching us how to make candy leis. It was too fun, especially since sampling of the materials was allowed.