115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Aloha in the Desert: Ideologies of Ka Olelo Hawaii a meheuheu (Hawaiian Language and Culture)

Violet Witt, University of New Mexico

This paper provides mana’o o nā kānaka maole a me ka ʻōlelo hawaiʻi a mēheuheu, as it shows how a cultural practice that uses language aides in the construction of identity, in understanding of language ideologies, and in supporting the maintenance and perpetuation of the language and the culture.


My study involved sociolinguistic interviewing and the collection of ethnographic data to inform a discussion of two interlaced topics: the relationships between language and culture and the role of language ideologies in language maintenance. These topics are discussed through an exploration of Hawai`ian language in the cultural context of Hula. Hula is defined as a dance with referential movements and gestures that was developed in the Hawai`ian Islands by the original settlers (Stillman 1998:1). The goal of this study is to build on previous studies of Hawai`ian language ideologies (e.g., Wong 1999, Hall 2005, Malone & Shoda-Sutherland 2005, Halualani 2007, and Snyder-Frey 2013), by focusing on the use of and attitudes towards the language in this key sociocultural context.

The concepts most often highlighted in the literature on Hawai`ian language revitalization and maintenance are expressed in Hawai`ian as kuleana, 'the need to understand authority, responsibility, or authenticity', malama i ka ‘aina, 'to take care of the land', ohana, 'family' and kupuna, 'remembering the ancestors'. I explain the alignment of these with Errington’s (Errington 2000:115) focus on how we, as linguists, analyze language, in particular, our “‘naturalization’ of social differences through construals of language as embodying identity and community.” I widen the approach to language and identity by considering the situated and emergent characteristics of identity, examining how individuals link their language to their personal identity, their community’s identity, and their identity within the community.

Study consultants participated in in-depth and semi-structured interviews. Their responses reveal language ideologies that help to understand the maintenance of Hawai`ian language and culture both inside and outside of Hawai`i. The Kumu (instructor) of the Halau instructs both adults and children in the art of Hula, creating an intergenerational bridge, and, along with hula, she offers classes focusing on culture. This approach links the language of the hula mele (song) and the culture of the hula gestures through language instruction, information about cultural foods and celebrations, and knowledge of the Hawai`ian natural world.

This example of perpetuating the Hawai`ian Language alongside other aspects of Hawai`ian culture is reinforced by “the Polynesian model of performative identity” (Snyder-Frey 2013:232). Many of the participants stress the importance of performing one’s identity and their understanding of hula performance as a means of embodying their individual connection to the natural world and their ‘Hawai`ianness.' I discuss this as Individual Ownership of language and culture, as opposed to the notion of Universal Ownership (Hill 2002:120), in which a language and culture is believed to belong to all people. Individual Ownership requires each person to understand their authority, right, and responsibility to maintain a given language, their Kuleana.

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