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Polynesian Researches



In the course of our tour around Hawaii, we met with a few specimens of what may perhaps be termed the first efforts of an uncivilized people towards the construction of a language of symbols. Along the southern coast, both on the east and west sides, we frequently saw a number of straight lines, semicircles, or concentric rings, with some rude imitations of the human figure, cut or carved in the compact rocks of lava. They did not appear to have been cut with an iron instrument, but with a stone hatchet, or a stone less frangible than the rock on which they were portrayed. On inquiry, we found that they had been made by former travellers, from a motive similar to that which induces a person to carve his initials on a stone or tree, or a traveller to record his name in an album, to inform his successors that he has been there. When there were a number of concentric circles with a dot or mark in the centre, the dot signified a man, and the number of rings denoted the number in the party who had circumambulated the island. When there was a ring, and a number of marks, it denoted the same; the number of marks shewing of how many the party consisted; and the ring, that they had travelled completely round the island; but when there was only a semi-circle, it denoted that they had returned after reaching the place where it was made. In some of the islands we have seen the outline of a fish portrayed in the same manner, to denote that one of that species or size had been taken near the spot: sometimes the dimensions of an exceedingly large fruit, &c. are marked in the same way.

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With this slight exception, if such it can be called, the natives of the Sandwich and other islands had no signs for sounds or ideas, nor any pictorial representation of events. Theirs was entirely an oral language; and, whatever view we take of it, presents the most interesting phenomenon connected with the inhabitants of the Pacific. A grammatical analysis would exceed my present limits; a few brief remarks, however, will convey some idea of its peculiarities; and a copious grammar, prepared by my respected colleagues, the American Missionaries in those islands, and myself, may perhaps be published at no distant period.

The language of the Hawaiians is a dialect of what the Missionaries in the South Seas have called the Polynesian language, spoken in all the islands which lie to the east of the Friendly Islands, including New Zealand and Chatham Island. The extent to which it prevails, the degree of perfection it has attained, the slight analogy between it and any one known language, the insulated situation, and the uncivilized character, of the people by whom it is spoken, prove that, notwithstanding the rude state of their society, they have bestowed no small attention to its cultivation, and lead to the inference, that it has been for many ages a distinct language; while the obscurity that veils its origin, as well as that of the people by whom it is used, prevents our forming any satisfactory conclusion as to the source whence it was derived.

The numerals are similar to those of the Malays; and it has many words in common with that language, yet the construction of the words and the rules of syntax appear different. In the specimen of languages spoken in Sumatra, given by Mr. Marsden in his history of that island, some words appear in each, common in the South Seas; and it is difficult to determine in which they preponderate. In looking over the Malayan grammar and dictionary by the same gentleman, many words appear similar in sound and signification; but there are a number of radical words common to all the Polynesian languages, as kanaka, man, ao, light, pouri, darkness, po, night, ra or la, sun, marama, moon, maitai, good, ino, bad, ai, to eat, and moe to sleep, which, though very nearly the same in all the South Sea languages, appear to have no affinity with orang, trang, klam, malam, mataari, and shems, bulan, baik, baruk, makan, and tidor, words of the same meaning in Malayan: notwithstanding this, there is a page 461 striking resemblance in others, and a great part of the language was doubtless derived from the same source.

Since my return to England, I have had an opportunity of conversing with the Madagasse youth now in this country for the purposes of education, and from them, as well as a vocabulary which I have seen, I was surprised to learn, that in several points the aboriginal languages of Madagascar and the South Sea Islands are strikingly analogous, if not identical, though the islands are about 10,000 geographical miles distant from each other.

With the aboriginal languages of South America we have had no opportunity of comparing it; some of the words of that country, in their simplicity of construction and vowel terminations, as Peru, Quito, (pronounced kito,) Parana, Oronoko, &c. appear like Polynesian words.

In the Sandwich Islands, as well as the Tahitian language, there are a number of words that appear true Hebrew roots, and in the conjugation of the verbs there is a striking similarity; the causative active and the causative passive being formed by a prefix and suffix to the verb.

In many respects it is unique, and in some defective, but not in that degree which might be expected from the limited knowledge of the people. The simple construction of the words, the predominancy of vowels, and the uniform terminations, are its great peculiarities. The syllables are in general composed of two letters, and never more than three. There are no sibilants in the language, nor any double consonants. Every word and syllable terminates with a vowel; and the natives cannot pronounce two consonants without an intervening vowel; nor a word terminating with a consonant, without either dropping the final letter, or adding a vowel; hence they pronounce Britain, Beritani, boat, boti; while there are many words, and even sentences, without a consonant, as e i ai oe ia ïa ae e ao ïa, literally, ‘speak now to him by the side that he learn.’ The frequent use of the k renders their speech more masculine than that of the Tahitians, in which the t predominates.

The sound of their language is peculiarly soft and harmonious; great attention is also paid to euphony, on account of which the article is often varied; the same is the case in the Tahitian, in which the word tavovóvovó signifies the rolling of thunder.

Each of the dialects appears adapted for poetry, and none more so than the Hawaiian, in which the l frequently page 462 occurs. Whether the smoothness of their language induced the natives to cultivate metrical composition, or their fondness for the latter has occasioned the multiplicity of vowels, and soft flowing arrangement of the sentences, which distinguish their language, it is difficult to conjecture. In native poetry, rhyming terminations are neglected, and the chief art appears to consist in the compilation of short metrical sentences, agreeing in accent and cadence at the conclusion of each, or at the end of a certain number of sentences. Rude as their native poetry is, they are passionately fond of it. When they first began to learn to read and spell, it was impossible for them to repeat acolumn of spelling, or recite a lesson, without chanting or singing it. They had one tune for the monosyllables, another for the dissyllables, &c. and we have heard three or four members of a family sitting for an hour together in an evening, and reciting their school lessons in perfect concord. Most of the traditions of remarkable events in their history are preserved in songs committed to memory, by persons attached to the king or chiefs; or strolling musicians, who travel through the islands, and recite them on occasions of public festivity. The late king had one of these bards attached from infancy to his household, who, like some of the ancient bards, was blind, and who, when required, would recite a hura (song) on any particular event relating to the family of his sovereign. The office was hereditary; the songs are transmitted from father to son; and whatever defects might attach to their performances, considered as works of art, they were not wanting in effect; being highly figurative, and delivered in strains of plaintive sadness, or wild enthusiasm, they produced great excitement of feeling. Sometimes their interest was local, and respected some particular family, but the most popular were the national songs. When I first visited the Sandwich Islands, one on the defeat of Kekuaokalani, the rival of Rihoriho, who was slain in the battle of Tuamoo, was in the mouth of almost every native we met; another, nearly as popular, was a panegyric on the late king, composed on his accession to the government; and soon after his departure for England, several bards were employed in celebrating that event. In my voyage from Hawaii, three or four females, fellow-passengers, were thus employed during the greater part of the passage, which afforded me an opportunity of observing the process. They first agreed on two or three ideas, arranged them in a kind of metrical page 463 sentence, with great attention to the accent of the concluding word, and then repeated it in concert. If it sounded discordantly, they altered it; if not, they repeated it several times, and then proceeded to form a new sentence. The k in most of the islands is generally used in common intercourse, but it is never admitted into their poetical compositions, in which the t is universally and invariably employed.

The following Verses, extracted from a collection of Hymns in the native language, comprising 60 pages, are a translation of lines on the “Sandwich Mission,” by W. B. Tappan, on the embarkation of the Missionaries from New Haven, (America,) in 1822. The k is employed, though contrary to the practice of the natives. The original commences with—

“Wake, isles of the south, your redemption is near, No longer repose in the borders of gloom.”

I na moku i paa i ka pouri mau,
Uhia 'ka naau po wale rakou,
Ano nei e puka no maila ke ao,
Hoku Bet'lehema, ka Hoku ao mau.
Huïa ka rere a pau me ka kii,
E hooreïa ka taumaha a pau;
I k'alana maitai rakou e ora'i,
Tabu ka heiau na ke Akua mau.
E ake rakou i nana wave ae,
Ka wehea mai'ka araura maitai,
A o ka kukuna 'ka Mesia mau,
“A kali na moku kona kanawai.”

On the islands that sit in the regions of night,
The lands of despair, to oblivion a prey,
The morning will open with healing and light,
And the young star of Bethlehem will ripen to day.
The altar and idol, in dust overthrown,
The incense forbade that was hallow'd with blood;
page 464 The priest of Melchisedec there shall atone,
And the shrines of Hawaii be sacred to God.
The heathen will hasten to welcome the time,
The day-spring the prophet in vision foresaw,
When the beams of Messiah will 'lumine each clime,
And the isles of the ocean shall wait for his law.

Notwithstanding its defects, the Hawaiian has its excellences. Ideas are frequently conveyed with great force and precision; verbs not only express the action, but the manner of it, distinctly; hence, to send a message would be orero, to send a messenger, kono, to send a parcel, houna, to break a stick, haki, to break a string, moku, to break a cup, naha, to break a law, hoomaloka, &c. Considering it is a language that has received no additions from the intercourse of the natives with other countries, and is devoid of all technical terms of art and science, it is, as well as the other dialects, exceedingly copious. Some idea of this may be formed from the circumstance of there being in the Tahitian upwards of 1400 words commencing with the letter a.

The greatest imperfections we have discovered occur in the degrees of the adjectives, and the deficiency of the auxiliary verb to be, which is implied, but not expressed. The natives cannot say, I am, or it is; yet they can say a thing remains, as, ke waiho maira ka waa i raira, the canoe remains there; and their verbs are used in the participial form, by simply adding the termination ana, equivalent to ing in English. Hence, in asking a native, What he is doing? the question would be, “He aha-ana oe?” What-ing you ? The answer would be, He ai ana wau, Eating (am) I. The He denoting the present tense preceding the question, the answer corresponds; but if he wished to say, what he was eating, the noun would be placed between the verb and its participial termination, as He ai poe ana wau, literally, Eat poe-ing I. In every other respect, their language appears to possess all the parts of speech, and some in greater variety and perfection than any language we are acquainted with.

In reducing the language to a written form, the American Missionaries adopted the Roman character, as the English Missionaries had done before in the southern dialects. The English alphabet possesses a redundancy of consonants, and, though rather deficient in vowels, answers page 465 tolerably well to express all the native sounds. The Hawaiian alphabet consists of seventeen letters: five vowels, a, e, i, o, u, and twelve consonants, b, d, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, t, v, w, to which, f, g, s, and z, have been added, for the purpose of preserving the identity of foreign words. The consonants are sounded as in English, though we have been obliged to give them different names, for the natives could not say el or em, but invariably pronounced ela and ema; it being therefore necessary to retain the final vowel, that was thought sufficient, and the other was rejected. The vowels are sounded more after the manner of the continental languages than the English; A, as in ah, and sometimes as a in far, but never as a in fate; E, as a in gale, ape, and mate; I, as ee in green; e in me, or i in machine. The short sound of i in bit, seldom occurs, and the long sound of i in wine, is expressed by the diphthong ai; O, as o in no and mote; U, as u, in rude, or oo in moon. Several of the consonants are interchangeable, particularly the l and r, the b and p, t and k. There are no silent letters. I have known a native, acquainted with the power of the letters, spell a word, when it has been correctly pronounced, though he had never seen it written; for, in pronouncing a word, it is necessary to pronounce every letter of which it is composed.

Articles.—They have two articles, definite (he) and indefinite (ke or ka,) answering to the English the and a or an. The articles precede the nouns to which they belong.

Nouns.—The nouns undergo no inflection, or change of termination, the number, case, and gender, being denoted by distinct words or particles prefixed or added. Hence o, which is only the sign of the nominative, has been usually placed before Tahiti and Hawaii, making Otaheiti and Owyhee; though the o is no part of the word, any more than no the sign of the possessive, as no Hawaii, of Hawaii, and i the sign of the objective, as i Hawaii, to Hawaii.

Pronouns.—The scheme of pronouns is copious and precise, having not only a singular, dual, and plural number, but a double dual and plural; the first including the speaker and spoken to, as thou and I, and ye and I; the second, the speaker and party spoken of, as he and I, and they and I. Each of these combinations is clearly expressed by a distinct pronoun. The following specimen will convey some idea of their extent and peculiarity:—