Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hawaii versus Hawai'i

For the last few years Catholicgauze has noticed an increasing use of the spelling of the fiftieth-state as "Hawai'i" instead of the standard "Hawaii." After a while of putting it off I decided to look into it.

Unlike other geographic confusions like England versus Great Britain versus the United Kingdom, Netherlands (Holland) versus the Netherlands, or nation versus state versus nation-state, this is a battle over the same place using a different spelling.

The choice of Hawaii or Hawai'i seemed to make no sense. The official seal of the state has "Hawaii" and "Hawaii" is also found all over the state's official website. Other state websites like the governor's use "Hawai'i" while the tourism department uses both.

Looking into why there is an apostrophe revealed something that does not surprises me: ethnic geopolitics. Both the English language and the missionary-inspired Latin alphabet for the Hawaiian language have the islands as "Hawaii." All documents dealing with the kingdom, republic, and territory have the spelling as "Hawaii." The same holds true for early documents of the state until the 1990s. However, in the 1980s 'Okina, apostrophes in words to stress sounds, was introduced into Hawaiian. Now, "Hawai'i" is preferred by ethnic Hawaiian nationalists who wish to stress the native aspects of the island. In a puritanical way they have adopted an invention to separate themselves not only from "outsiders" but also traditional Hawaiian culture. A cultural wave has supported the spelling of "Hawai'i" to emphasize the native, exotic quality of the state. The backers of "Hawai'i" have strong sway right now and are pushing hard for Hawaiians to be considered a native race like American Indians; giving them the power to establish race-based sovereign governments.

Now, to decide what is what. The US Board on Geographic Names, the government body in charge of deciding what a place's official name is, has declared the following.
  • The state is: Hawaii (made official by congress during entry into statehood, USBGN cannot change this)
  • The main island chain is: the Hawai'ian Islands (changed in 2001 from "Hawaiian Islands")
  • The big island is: The Island of Hawai'i (was Hawaii from 1914 until 1999)
  • The leeward islands are: Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (made official in 1987)


Anonymous said...

If you want to go REAL traditionalist, they were the Sandwich Islands before they were the Hawai'ian or Hawaiian Islands. Past usage is a weak argument in this context. Beijing would be Peking, Somalia would be Puntland, and what would we call the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Since the name originates in a transliteration changes that potentially improve the accuracy seem sensible to me. Of course there is also a matter of ethnic correctness involved, but after all, it's their islands we stole, and their name. An apostrophe seems a small price to pay.

doviende said...

Ya, it sounds like a tempest in a teapot. The ' sign is an actual letter. It describes a phoneme (called a "glottal stop" in linguistics terms). It's a real part of the language, and it can make a different word if you don't say it. It happens in many other languages too.

It seems that a lot of americans pronounce "hawaii" as "hawai-yee", but the correct transliteration as "hawai'i" has a visual indicator for the part where the airflow is stopped by constricting part of your throat.

Anonymous said...

You should officially spell it Hawai'i

Anonymous said...

I completely second your statement.

Steve Thompson said...

You should go away.