In 1960, a young haole couple from Denver traveled to Maui. He had a job teaching music at Baldwin High School. They drove to the West Coast where they boarded a ship for the trip to the islands. Along the way, they studied Hawaiian. Surely that was the dominant language. They were surprised and relieved to find everyone spoke English.
Eight years later, a newsman landed on Oahu. From what he heard on the street, it seemed pidgin was the language to be learned. A local-born haole colleague set him straight. There are many kinds of pidgin, each incorporating words from Hawaii's many ethnic groups. In the most simple terms, pidgin is a mix of English and other languages, most of them using a corrupted Hawaiian syntax. Besides, locals expected haole to sound haole.
Much later on Maui, the newsman learned pidgin had to be absorbed, not learned. There were no textbooks if you ignore the surfer-influenced "Pidgin to the Max" and "More Pidgin to the Max." The magazine-styled books are sort of illustrated dictionaries with an emphasis on humor.
Speaking it was one thing. Understanding it, particularly when rendered with a thick accent, was another. The newsman finally settled on saying, "I'm sorry but I've got haole ears" when being nonplussed by what he heard.
In 1973, the newsman moved to Maui. The Hawaiian renaissance was just beginning to take hold. There was no need to learn the language but the newsman thought he could at least correctly pronounce the island's many Hawaiian place names.
It wasn't that hard. Vowels are pronounced as they are in Latin or any of the other Romance Languages such as Spanish or Italian. No diphthongs, each vowel was said separately, he'd been told. That isn't always true, but "the rule" served well for the most part.
There was one small problem. Some of the island's place names were commonly mispronounced. Hali'imaile (literally, "maile vines strewn") came out as high-lee-migh-lee. Pu'unene (goose hill) had become poo-nay-nay. Ma'alaea was said to be mah-ligh-ah. There is more than one definition of Ma'alaea, depending on pronunciation. Separating all the vowels makes it a place of wind. Saying mah-ah-ligh-yah, one of the exceptions to the diphthong rule, makes it the place where medicinal red ocher is found. The latter is preferred by Hawaiian speakers.
The two other inhabited islands in Maui County were pronounced lah-nigh and mo-lo-kigh. "Place Names of Hawaii," the accepted primary source for Hawaiian place names, says it should be Lana'i ("perhaps literally, day of conquest"). According to the book written by Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Ebert and Esther T. Mookini, it should be Moloka'i (moh-loh-kah-ee). There's no literal translation, although it might be a reference to a kind of sweet potato. There are some island kupuna there who say it should be mo-lo-kigh, which might be translate as twisted sea.
It all gets complicated, but there is no excuse for imposing English pronunciation on Hawaiian words. An irony is that Hawaiian is a generic adjective devised by the missionaries who turned olelo o Hawaii into a written language. Not so incidentally, some say Hawaii should be pronounced hah-vigh-ee.
Live here any length of time and you'll hear a tourist say he wants to go to lah-hay-nah. The old pronunciation of Lahaina is lah-high-nah with the emphasis on the first syllable ("literally, cruel sun").
One of the most egregious examples of mangling Hawaiian was in a Ho'okipa surf report on the radio. The guy said waves were good at hoo-kee-pah. No, no. It's ho-o-kee-pah, a word that means hospitality. His version doesn't mean anything.
Times change and even the most local of locals are shifting away from the old corruptions. You can thank Hawaiian immersion school classes and the resurgence of respect for the indigenous culture.
Still . . .
Listen to any radio or television based on Oahu and you'll hear examples of "commonly accepted" but wrong pronunciations. A good example is Wahiawa ("literally, place of noise"). Usually, you'll hear wah-hee-wah, not wah-hee-ah-vah.
There's no excuse for mispronouncing one place name, Honolulu ("literally, protected bay"). It's ho-no-loo-loo, not hah-nah-loo-loo. Saying it the wrong way is really lolo ("feeble-minded").
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.