December 11, 2004

Hawaiian spelling contest answers

The two Hawaiian spelling mistakes in Rich Monastersky's article on language revival in Hawaii were (1) *Mā'noa for Mānoa and (2) *'okino for ‘okina. And let the record show that Rich knows his stuff: on being told of the existence of the two errors he immediately identifed them himself; only the merest prompt from Language Log was needed for him to spot them. (It's not clear whether the webmaster at the Chronicle will fix the web page.) A few more detailed notes follow, for fans of this deceptively difficult language.

1. In the incorrect spelling for the place name that is often casually spelled Manoa by people using just the unembellished roman alphabet, namely *Mā'noa, the macron on the a is correct (it's a long vowel), but the apostrophe is not correct, and couldn't be. The apostrophe is a common substitute for the symbol , which represents a sound traditionally known in Hawaiian philology as the ‘okina and known to phoneticians as the glottal stop. Although the ‘okina is often left out by English speakers and others writing Hawaiian words, and was often omitted (with wholesale resultant ambiguity) by missionaries transcribing the language, the ‘okina is not a minor orthographic detail (like the apostrophe in English, which, though important in the standard written language, never represents any sound); it's a letter of the alphabet representing a full-fledged consonant. The consonants of the eastern dialects of the Hawaiian language (e.g. for O‘ahu) are: {p, k, , m, n, l, w, h}. The vowels are {a, e, i, o, u}).

Now, it is a crucial fact about the phonology of Hawaiian that there are no consonant clusters. None whatever. That means that every glottal stop must be followed by a vowel. Any occurrence of a sequence like ‘n in what purports to be a Hawaiian word must be a spelling mistake. (Not in every language, of course. In English, lots of people would pronounce witness with a glottal stop right before the [n]. It just can't happen in Hawaiian.) So, the name of the place on which the University of Hawaii built its main campus is Mānoa. It has two stress groups, [ma:] and [noa], and thus gets two stresses, on [ma:] and [no] (there is some controversy about which one of these is the secondary stress, so Keola Donaghy informs me). The final [a] is unstressed.

2. The spelling *'okino is a different matter: it's just a case of Rich (or someone) typing the wrong last letter. There could have been a word of Hawaiian spelled like this, but there just happens not to be. The word for a break or cessation that was used to name the glottal stop is spelled (and pronounced) ‘okina. It is stressed on the penultimate syllable, [ki].

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 11, 2004 04:56 PM