How to Anglicise a Country: The Strange Story of Hawaii

Sam Quillen
6 min readMar 20, 2024
In the space of one lifetime, Honolulu went from a sleepy royal town where few had ever seen a foreigner, to a bustling international port ruled by Americans and populated mainly by East Asians, few of whom spoke a word of the archipelago’s native tongue. (Photo credit: Hotels.com).

In 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant hosted the first ever state visit to the United States by a foreign head of state. King David Kalakaua was a chubby, jovial man (he also legalised hula dancing) who spoke fluent English, but this set him apart from the majority of his subjects. At the time, relatively few Hawaiians outside the bustling new port of Honolulu spoke anything but Hawaiian. Two generations later, few would speak anything but English.

Hawaiian is a member of the peripatetic Austronesian language family, whose seafaring speakers have colonised islands as far-flung as Indonesia, the Philippines, New Zealand, most of the Pacific, and even Madagascar. It grew up in isolation since the first Hawaiians somehow ended up on the remote islands sometime in the Middle Ages. Like its cousins, it is a relatively simple, pleasant tongue, consisting of only five vowel sounds and eight consonants.

The outside world arrived in 1778. Captain James Cook, hot off his discovery of Australia, washed up in the balmy archipelago, christened it the Sandwich Islands, and shortly thereafter was killed in a scuffle with a local chief who tried to steal his boat. A few years later, Kamehameha of Hawai’i (now known as the Big Island) completed his conquest of the other islands, and for the next hundred years, Hawaiian enjoyed the status of one of the world’s national languages.

When British explorers first arrived in Hawaii, Kamehameha was so impressed by them that he added the Union Jack to the flag of his own kingdom. It remains on Hawaii’s state flag today. (Photo credit: ABC).

Undeterred by Cook’s fate, American missionaries were drawn in by Hawaii’s charming tropical beaches and brutal pagan customs. In 1820, they published a Hawaiian Bible, thereby developing a written language that was so easy to learn that, within a decade, the majority of people were literate. By 1842, the king made literacy a requirement for marriage.

Most people liked the missionaries and were keen to learn their religion and language, seeing them as a way out of a society where human sacrifice was institutional and accidentally looking a nobleman in the eye could incur summary execution. As early as 1853, when Hawaii was still an internationally-recognised nation-state, some began to fret that its language might one day be replaced. The strong education system, which made Hawaii one of the more literate nations on earth at the time, eventually proved to be its language’s undoing.

The history of the downfall of the Hawaiian monarchy and subsequent annexation by the United States is a complicated one, and this blog is focused on language. But suffice to say that the American missionaries were followed by pineapple planters, who came in such numbers that they eventually elected members of parliament, who abolished the monarchy and declared Hawaii a republic. Its first president was Sanford Dole, the son of missionaries from Maine and cousin of the founder of the Dole fruit company, who was chosen in large part because he was born and raised in the islands and could address their native people fluently in their own tongue.

The first cabinet of the Republic of Hawaii, with President Dole and his magnificent beard first from the right.

However, the 1896 constitution of the republic made clear that there was only one official language. After President Dole successfully got his country annexed by the United States, the territorial government, schools, media, and job market became almost exclusively Anglophone. What followed was the old tale familiar from Wales to rural China, with the local tongue supplanted and parents choosing to give their children a better future by prodding them to speak only the dominant tongue.

In Hawaii’s case, the small population, strong education system, and massive immigration from America and Asia precipitated an unusually dramatic collapse. By the late 20th Century, in a state where whites have always been a minority, less than 0.1% of the population spoke Hawaiian.

The Big Island’s official name still is simply Hawai’i (and it is part of Hawaii County). It was the home of Kamehameha, who after his conquests named his entire kingdom after his home island. In Hawaiian, the word essentially means “homeland,” and is cognate with words in other Malayo-Polynesian languages which refer to legendary places of origin, or the underworld. (Photo credit: wendyperrin.com).

A good number of people still speak Hawaiian Creole, a mixture of English and Hawaiian developed by labourers at a time when the latter was still preeminent in the countryside. I recently visited the Big Island, a rugged, rural place less frequented by tourists than Maui or Oahu. Sometimes you can still overhear people (a shocking share of whom told me they have never left the island) speaking something that is less than fully English, though they will readily switch over.

More significantly, standard American English on the islands, spoken by people of all backgrounds, is peppered with Hawaiian words. “Mahalo” (thank you) and “aloha” (hello and goodbye) are colloquially used at least as commonly as their English equivalents. The situation reminds me of Ireland, where “what’s the craic” (pronounced “crack,” a Gaelic term for a good time) is a popular informal greeting among people who usually speak no Irish Gaelic at all.

Some borrowings are more niche. Kapu originally referred to a complicated system of cultural taboos (a word we borrowed from kapu’s cognates in other Polynesian languages), which included everything from an automatic death penalty for touching the chieftain’s fingernails, to having to tear your house down if a travelling nobleman ever slept in it. Today, it is sometimes used in place of “no trespassing” signs. Interestingly, its cognate in Maori, tapu, has evolved in New Zealand English to refer to things as sacred.

On the small island of Ni’ihau, Hawaiian still is the language of daily life. The island has been closed to outsiders since 1864, when Scotch-Kiwi sugar baron Aubrey Robinson purchased it from Kamehameha V and handed it down to his heirs as a private fief. Today, Ni’ihau’s few dozen inhabitants are the subjects of considerable curiosity among linguists (provided the current generation of Robinsons let them come ashore), especially in the current cultural climate.

Since the late 20th Century, the government has invested heavily in reviving Hawaiian. Children can study it in school, and announcements in government buildings and the airport will come in both English and Hawaiian. This is, however, all symbolic. Things are different where actual comprehension is important. In the private sector, and on buses, everything is bilingual — in English and Japanese. As with everywhere else on earth, retailers increasingly add Chinese.

Languages of independent states do not go extinct. Everyone in Denmark speaks English, but no one expects Danish to disappear (though the government did once try to bribe young people to switch their iPhone settings to their own mother tongue). Had Hawaii remained independent (or become a British colony), Hawaiian would probably still be alive and well.

A shadow government for the Kingdom of Hawai’i has its own website, and even Quixotic meetings of parliament. One notices that all of it is in the language of the supposed foreign occupiers.

But the country did not, and the language is not. Lamenting the loss of any language is a reflex of language enthusiasts. But, as I have written in the context of languages from Navajo to Gaelic, it is not necessarily a bad thing to erode invidious cultural divisions, nor to give children of marginalised communities full access to the opportunities of modern society. In an America in which children of all backgrounds routinely score poorly in proper English, one wonders if Hawaiian classroom hours might be better allocated elsewhere.

On the long flight from JFK to Honolulu, I entertained myself with the Hawaiian language Duolingo. I have expressed my thoughts elsewhere on the wisdom of bulking up offerings in Hawaiian or Klingon rather than major languages like Urdu or Igbo. But in any case, it was an interesting intellectual exercise, and I felt I owed it to the place to learn something about its heritage.

Dusk at the volcanic beach of Punalu’u. (Photo credit: my friend Jonathan last week.)

Of course, I never had any occasion to use what I learned. When I was asked to bid everyone’s favourite polyglot green owl “aloha,” I was not sure whether I was saying hello, or goodbye.

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Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets