Language Builds Identity and Perpetuates Culture
This is the first in a series of weekly articles celebrating ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi in February, ka mahina ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, Hawaiian language month.
It’s February again, and here in Hawaiʻi, that means it’s Hawaiian Language Month. We begin this month’s series with an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in the Hawaiian language newspaper Ka Puuhonua o na Hawaii (The Hawaiian Refuge) on January 26, 1917.
The author opens by addressing the important connection of a people with their mother tongue:
I ʻike ʻia nō ke kanaka no kekahi lāhui ma kāna ʻōlelo. Inā e nalowale ana ka ʻōlelo makuahine o kekahi lāhui, e nalohia aku ana nō ia lāhui.
I kēia lā, ua nalohia aku ko kākou kūʻokoʻa, a i ka pau ʻana o kā kākou ʻōlelo makuahine, ʻo ka pau ʻana nō ia o ka lāhui Hawaiʻi.
A person’s ethnic/national identity is evident through the language he or she uses. If the mother tongue of a people were to disappear, so too would those people disappear.
Currently, as we have already lost our independence, the loss of our mother tongue would certainly mean the end of the Hawaiian race.
[Diacritics added and translation of text by author.]
The message is clear and simple: language is a crucial part of identity. When a language becomes endangered, the culture of the people that speak it also becomes endangered.
Many of us today consider the knowledge of two or more languages to be advantageous, yet some may question the real, tangible benefit of a person’s knowledge and ability to communicate in their mother tongue. One viewpoint contends that fluency in your ʻōlelo makuahine (mother tongue) grants one access to information encoded in language—a critical tool for understanding the past and for building identity.
Well-known linguist, philosopher, and political activist Noam Chomsky says, "Language embodies the world view of a culture and is unique to the culture that created it. It reflects values and concepts that are deemed to be the most important by a culture. A language describes the culture it comes from." Through language, culture provides the perspective through which we interact with the global community.
Culture informs our identity by linking us to a group as well as defining us as individuals. Culture shapes morality and sets up the playing field demarcating right and wrong. Culture gives us an approach, a way to do our work, to socialize with our peers, to love our families.
The value of ʻohana (family) and the perpetuation of Hawaiian traditions figure into our daily lives. Speaking and communicating in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi honors our kūpuna (ancestors) and is key in perpetuating our culture. It’s a simple act that affirms values and perpetuates our rich heritage at the same time.
For all who live and work in Hawaiʻi, especially those working in Hawaiian-serving institutions, knowledge of Hawaiian culture and language can provide insight into ways in which to better serve beneficiaries. For our ʻohana here at Kamehameha Schools, increased levels of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi use, and growing comfort in using the language helps create contexts and environments for Hawaiian language and culture to thrive.
Beginning in this month of February, Hawaiian language month, each and every one of us is encouraged to use more ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi in our workplace. Hoʻokahua will be hosting several ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi activities this month, no laila, e hele mai, e launa mai; come and join us in play, laughter, and learning. Help us celebrate and revitalize ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. E ola mau ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi!
Speaking and communicating in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi honors our kūpuna (ancestors) and is key in perpetuating our culture. It's a simple act that affirms values and perpetuates our rich heritage at the same time.