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February: Hawaiian Language Month

February: Hawaiian Language Month

Every February, we celebrate Ōlelo Hawai‘i Month’, a time to celebrate the revival of a once nearly-extinct language. 

Ōlelo Hawai‘i Month started following an amendment of the Hawaii Revised Statutes, which stated that February is designated as “Mahina ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i”. Hawaiian is one of the only nearly-dead languages to make a comeback. 

The Hawaiian language, Ōlelo Hawai‘i, was nearly lost in the early-mid 1900s when the last of the fluent native speakers were passing away. After the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, teaching and learning through the Hawaiian language was banned. Some people of the elder generations recall being punished for speaking their native language in schools. 

As the years followed, fewer and fewer people were able to speak and understand the language. Without being able to recognize the language, people were unable to fully understand the culture. If the language was lost, true Hawaiian culture would be lost with it. By the 1980s there were less than 50 fluent native speakers left, leaving the language nearly extinct.

In the late 1970s-1980s, there was a surge of interest in the dying language. People became more interested and invested in their culture, more people were practicing Hawaiian culture. This sparked a demand for more education concerning Hawaiian culture and language.

During the 1978 Constitutional Convention, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs was created. The State Constitution was amended to include Article X, Section 4, which mandated the state’s promotion of the Hawaiian language and culture within schools. Additionally, XV, Section 4 officially recognized Hawaiian as a state language.  

These amendments caused a renaissance within Hawaiian culture. In a 2008 study, there were 24,000 native speakers — a stark contrast to the decades’ previous 50 speakers. As of 2016, more than 18,600 people were fluent speakers. The language has seen a major comeback over the past decades. 

Olelo Hawaii Month not only celebrates a language and culture, but it also celebrates the work the Hawaiians did that revived a dying culture into a flourishing community. It is a month to reflect upon the treatment of native islanders, how they overcame their hardships, and celebrate their triumphs.

You can visit The University of Hawaii Foundation to learn more about the work that is currently being done to revive Ōlelo Hawai‘i, here or here. You can also visit Kanaeokana to learn more about the Hawaiian language and culture. 

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February: Hawaiian Language Month