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Polynesian Researches


page 459



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:—

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Declension Of Hawaiian Pronouns exemplified

First Person Singular
Owau I Owau ke kumu I (am) the teacher
Wau I aku la wau I said
Au E hele au I (will) go
Na'u Na u e hanu I (will) work
O'u Na'u ïa e hana I will do it, or make it.
Aore o'u ike I (do) not know
Na'u Mine my or of me Na'u ka ïa Mine the fish
No'u No'u ka rore Mine the cloth
Ka'u No'u oukou i ike ai Of me ye know
Ko'u Ka'u palapala My paper
A'u Ko'u hale My house
O'u Ka pene a'u The pen of me
Ka kamaa o'u The shoes of me
Wau Me Nana wau i haua He me made or did make
Ia'u Me Mai pepehi mai ia'u (Do) not kill me
Ia'u To me I mia ia'u Speak to me
Ia'u By me Roaa iu a Obtained by me
E au By me Aoia e au Instructed by me
Me au With me Noho me au Dwell with me
Second Person Singular
O oe Thou or You O oe ke kahuna You (are) the preacher
Oe E pule oe Pray thou
Nau Nau no makou i hana Thou alone us (didst) make
Ou Aohe ou rohe? (Did) not you hear?
Kau He aha kau noho wale nei? Why (do) you remain idle?
Nau Thine Thy or of thee Nau ka ai Thine the food
Nou Nou ka kanaka Thine the man
Nou Nou rakou i hele ai Of thee they went
Kau Kau keiki Thy son
Kou Kou wahi Thy place
Au Ka orero au The speech of you
Ou Ke aroha ou The love of you

A peculiar break in the first person singular possessive, (which makes the pronouns resemble two syllables, while in the second person they are sounded as one long syllable,) is the only distinction between them.

Oe Thee Nana oe i hoora He thee savea
Ia oe You E hoouna wau ia oe I send you
Ia oe To you Orero aku ia oe Speak to you
Ia oe By you Roaa ia oe Obtained by you
E oe By you Palapalaia e oe Written by you
Me oe With you Hele pu me oe Go with you
Third Person Singular
Oia, or Oiala He She or It Oia ka Haku He (is) the Lord, or proprietor
Ia E cra ia Live (will) it
Kela I aroha kela Loved he
Nana Nana i orero He speak
Naia Naia i hai mai He declared
Na kela Na kela i makana He gavepage 467
Naia His, hers, or its, and of him, her, or it Naia ka taro His the taro
Noia Noia ka rore His the cloth
Noia Noia wau e eha'i Of him I was hurt
Kaia Kaia la palapala His book or letter
Koia Koia la kapa His native cloth
Na kela Na kela ka puaa His the hog
No kela No kela ka raau His the wood
Ka kela Ka kela ka wai His the water
Ko kela Ko kela ia waiwai His that property
Nana Nana ia buka His that book
Nona Nona ka aina His the land
Kana Kana kamarii His children
Kona Kona pono His duty
Ana Ka wahlne ana The wife of him
Ona Ka kanawai ona The law of him
Him, her, or it.
Ia It Na ke Akua ia i makana God it gave
Ia ia Him Aroha ia ia Love him
Ia ia To him Kahea aku ia ia Call to him
Ia ia By him Roaa ia ia Obtained by him
E ia By him Hoorahaia e ia Proclaimed by him
Ke la Him Nana kela i hoouna He him sent
I kela To him Hoavi i kela Give to him
I kela Him Malama i kela Keep him
E kela By him Kuaiia e kela Bought by him
Ona Him Haihai ma hope ona Follow after him
I ona To him Hele ana i ona Going to him


First Person
O kaua Thou and I O kaua ke hele You and I go
Kaua E noho kaua Sit you and I
Na kaua, or taua Na kaua ia e rave You and I it will take
O maua He, she, or it and I O maua ke ike He and I know
Maua I rohe maua She and I heard
Na maua Na maua e nana He and I will look

The possessive and objective cases of the first person dual, and second person, orua, ye two, and the third person, raua, they two, have their several forms of nominative, possessive, and objective cases constructed in a manner similar to those of the singular.

First Person Plural
O kakou We, including the party speaking, and the party addressed O kakou ke rohé We hear
Kakou E himeni kakou Let sing us
Na kakou Na kakou e malana Ye and I (will) take heedpage 468
O makou We, excluding the party addressed O makou wale no They and I only
Makou Ke horoi nei makou Washing (are) we
Na makou Na makou e ave aku We, i, e. our party, will take away

The other cases and persons of the plural are as numerous and precise as in the singular and dual. The adjective pronouns are possessive, demonstrative, interrogative, and relative.

Adjectives.—The adjective follows the noun to which it belongs. There are several degrees of comparison, though the form of the adjective undergoes no change: the degrees are expressed by distinct words. There is, properly speaking, no superlative; it is, however, expressed by prefixing the definite article, as ke kiekie, ke nui, the high, the great.

Verbs.—The verbs are active, passive, and neuter. The regular active verb, in the Hawaiian dialect, admits of four conjugations, as rohe, to hear, hoo-rohe, to cause to hear, rohe-iä, heard, and hoo-rohe-iä, to cause to be heard. Some of the verbs admit the second and fourth, but reject the third, as noho, to sit, hoo-noho, to cause to sit, and hoo-noho-ia, to cause to be seated. Others again allow the third and fourth, but not the second, as pepehi, to beat, pepehi-ia, beaten, and hoo-pepehi-ia, to cause to be beaten. The verbs usually precede the nouns and pronouns, as here au, go I, and e noho marie oe, sit still you, instead of, I go, and you sit still.

The adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections, are numerous; but a description of them, and their relative situation in the construction of their sentences, would take up too much room.

Their numerals resemble the Malayan more than any other part of their language.

A kahi one. arima five. avaru eight.
arua two. aono six. aiva nine.
atoru three.—ahaa four. ahitu seven. Umi ten.
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Eleven would be either umi-kumu-ma-kahi, ten the root and one, or umi-akahi-keu, ten one over; this would be continued by adding the units to the ten till twenty, which they call iva-karua, forty they call kanahaa, for seventy-six they would say forty twenty ten and six, and continue counting by forties till 400, which they call a rau, then they add till 4000, which they call mäno, 40,000 they call lehu, and 400,000 a kini; beyond this we do not know that they carry their calculations: the above words are sometimes doubled, as manomano kinikini; they are, however, only used thus to express a large but indefinite number. Their selection of the number four in calculations is singular; thus, 864,895 would be, according to their method of reckoning, two kini, or 400,000s, one lehu, 40,000, six mano, or 4000s, two rau, or 400s. two kanaha, or 40s, one umi, or ten and five. They calculate time by the moon; allow twelve to a year; have a distinct name for every moon, and every night of the moon, and reckon the parts of a month by the number of nights, as po akoru ainei, nights three ago, instead of three days ago. The following are some of the most common words in their language:

Akua God.
kanaka man.
wahine woman.
kama child.
ra, or la sun.
mahina moon.
hokú star.
lani heaven, or sky.
ao light.
pouri darkness.
makani wind.
vera hot.
anu cold.
hare house.
waa canoe.
mata face and eye.
rauoho hair.
ihu nose.
waha mouth.
naau stomach.
rima hands and arms
wawae legs and feet.
buaa hog.
ilio dog.
moa fowl.
manu bird
ia fish.
wai water.
ahi fire.
uru bread-fruit.
maia plantain.
ai food.
inu to drink.
here to walk.
noho to sit.
moe to sleep.
orero to speak.
ereere black.
keokeo white.
ura red.page 470
lenalena yellow.
eha pain.
rea pleasure.
maitai good.
ino bad.
pono correct.
heva wrong, guilt.
raau tree, wood.
rau leaf.
kai sea.
aina land.
uhane spirit.
kino body.
poo head.
polulu spear.
mouna mountain.
heiau a temple.
kapa native cloth.
rore foreign do.
ora to live.
make to die.
ai to eat.
ihe javelin.
bu a hill.
papale a hat.
hao iron.
pohaku stone.
repo dirt.
area hard.
nolunolu soft.
ma a sling.
rua a pit.
kamaa shoes.

The following specimen of native composition will convey some idea of their idiom. The translation is servile; and with this I shall close these remarks on their language. It is a letter written by the late king in answer to one I sent, acquainting him with my second arrival in the islands, on the 4th of Feb. 1823.

Mr. Ellis, eo.

Mr. Ellis, attend.

Aroha ino oe, me ko wahine, me na keiki Attachment great (to) you, and your wife, with children

a pau a orua. I ola oukou ia Jehova ia all of ye two. Preserved (have) you (been) by Jehovah

laua o Iesu Kraist. Eia kau wahi olero ia oe, Mr. Ellis, they two Jesus Christ. This (is) my word to you, Mr. Ellis,

apopo a kela la ku a ahiahi, a ku hoi mai, to-morrow or the day after when evening, then I return.

I ka tabu a leila ua ite kaua. A i makemake oe On the Sabbath then (shall) meet we. But if desire you

e here mai ianei maitai no hoi. Ike ware oe i na'rii to come here, well also. Seen indeed (have) you the page 471 e Tahiti. Aroha ware na'rii o Bolabola.

chiefs of Tahiti. Attachment only to the chiefs of Borabora.

I ola oe ia Jehova ia Jesu Kraist.

Saved (may) you (be) by Jehovah by Jesus Christ.


∗The term for the Society Islands.


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