The Kingdom of Hawai’i was born in 1795 when five independent islands joined under a single government. That government was overthrown by independently acting U.S. citizens in 1893, who successfully petitioned the U.S. government to annex the archipelago five years later. Since then, English names — for both people as well as places — have aggressively overwhelmed Hawaiian ones.
Beginning in the 1960s, the Hawaiian sovereignty movement has helped push back against these cultural and political forces. Congress formally apologized for the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1993. And in 2000, the Hawaiian National Park Language Correction Act changed the official names of several national parks in Hawai’i to reflect the Hawaiian language spelling.
“Hawaii Volcanoes National Park” became “Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park” and “Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park” became “Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.”
Hawaiian was strictly an oral language before European contact. (Hula is one form of oral storytelling.) The arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, and their desire to publish and share a Hawaiian bible, resulted in the language’s first written codification in 1826. By 1839, King Kamehameha III had already taken advantage of the new innovation to establish a written, Hawaiian-language constitution.
But the combined factors of depopulation due to newly introduced diseases, immigration by non-native speakers, and the brute force of colonization (making English language-only instruction the rule in 1885, and even punishing Hawaiian language use in schools by 1900) resulted in an overwhelming linguistic loss.
In 1900, 37,000 Hawaiians spoke the language from birth. By 2000, only 1,000 native speakers remained.
Scholar, musician, and dancer Mary Kawena Pukui and linguist Samuel Hoyt Elbert wrote in their 1986 edition of the Hawaiian-English Dictionary, “Hawaiian has more words with multiple meanings than almost any other language.”
Travelers attempting to speak the Hawaiian language should be careful that the chosen name does not have a naughty or vulgar meaning. A Honolulu street (and formerly the name of a hotel) is Hale Leʻa “joyous house,” for example. But leʻa also means orgasm.
Many, but not all, Hawaiian girl names and Hawaiian boy names are gendered. Some, like Moana (the name of the recent Pixar movie), are gender neutral. Other gender neutral given names include Kamalani, which means “heavenly child,” Nalani, which means “the heavens” or “the chiefs,” and Leilani, which means “royal child” or “heavenly flowers.”
Many beautiful Hawaiian names are versions of English names. According to Care.com, common examples include Keoni (John), Kiana (Diana), and Kimo (for James).