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Educators Bring New Life to an Endangered Polynesian Language

Hawaii is far from Washington: A 12-hour plane to Honolulu across 6 time zones. One is greeted at the airport with the Hawaiian word aloha and a special flower garland called a lei.

It took a lot longer for the islands' original settlers to get here. Those Polynesian mariners sailed their double-hulled canoes from the South Pacific to these ancient volcanic islands hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived.

Hawaiian was strictly an oral language when Captain James Cook landed here in 1778. Subsequent waves of missionaries brought the printing press and wrote down the language.

Native monarchs ruled Hawaii until it was annexed by the United States in 1898. Afterward, English was named the official language for school and government.

Today scarcely 1% of Hawaiians - or approximately 1,000 -- speak Hawaiian as their first language. But a cultural renaissance, which began in the 1970s, has promoted change. Public schools, community colleges and the university now teach Hawaiian.

Leilani Basham is the coordinator of the Hawaiian language program at the University of Hawaii, where nearly 1,400 students are taking Hawaiian language courses. Ms. Basham -- for whom Hawaiian is a second language -- points out that Hawaiian has a really tiny alphabet -- just 12-letters: 5 vowels, 7 consonants and a backwards apostrophe called an okina that works as a consonant.

And, words appear to be very long. In reality, Ms. Basham says, words are not that long, but they are frequently combined to make a long word. "For instance," she says, "the street name Kapiolani is long. But it is really comprised of 3 words -- ka -- meaning 'the,' and a pio is an arching symbol (like) the arch of a rainbow. And lani means heaven, and it is also a reference to royalty. Kapiolani is the name of one of our queens. So what appears to be one long word is really a combination of 3 words to create a name.

English as spoken in Hawaii has adopted many native words. The most common is aloha. "Actually the word aloha is a description of affection, love, (and) respect for another person," says Ms. Basham. "When I first see someone for the day, and I say aloha, I am saying I have love, respect and affection for you. It's not the equivalent of the English word hello."

Another popular Hawaiian word is mahalo, which means thank you. "But it is actually an expression of admiration for someone," Ms. Basham says. It also is used to say 'you're welcome,' in response to 'thank you.' Ms. Basham says that confuses some of her students. "When you tell people the correct response to mahalo is mahalo , it is not what people want to hear. They want to know how you really say 'you're welcome,' she says. But she notes students who have studied other languages understand there aren't always direct translations for everyday expressions. .

Another very common Hawaiian word is pau, It means finished. Ms. Basham gives these examples: "Are you pau? Are you finished eating? Are we pau with this interview? Are you pau with your homework? Are you pau with your telephone call conversation?

Leilani Basham says Hawaiian courses are gaining enrollment. And with only 1,000 native speakers -- most of them elderly -- she hopes that those studying of Hawaiian now will keep the language alive.

"My real hope would be to live in my native homeland, Hawaii, and go to different places -- any place really -- and have people there who speak Hawaiian," she says. "When I first started taking Hawaiian (lessons), people used to ask me -- in Hawaii -- what language I was speaking, which is an indication that people don't hear Hawaiian spoken, and don't recognize it, and it's not a normal part of their day. I haven't been asked that question in quite a bit of time. And that is a big step. Just that alone is better than it was 10 or 15 years ago. "

Leilani Basham says the Hawaiian language is an essential part of the native culture. "It is essential for our life and the life of our people," she says. "We recognize that (for) this generation -- my generation and younger generations -- that language and knowledge of language is a core factor. It is not just about living in the past. It is about creating these things and bringing them into our present and our future. That body of knowledge is still there, and we need to reclaim it and revive it and make it live again."