Hawaiian descriptivist dreams

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posted by Sandeep

Hawaii is generally pronounced by non-Hawaiian Americans as /həˈwaɪ.iː/ (huh-WHY-ee). Many Hawaiians and more adventurous mainlanders pronounce it  /həˈwaɪʔiː/ (huh-WHY ‘ ee), adding a glottal stop (the same sound as the hyphen in uh-oh) between the last two syllables. Pretty straightforward, right?

A friend of mine had the following Facebook status up this weekend:

Somebody please tell the ESPN play-by-play guy at the CU-Hawaii game that Hawaii is not pronounced “Hava-ee.” It’s not a German word.

To be fair, I would be pretty annoyed if someone kept unnecessarily Deutsching a common term, too. But maybe the ESPN guy knew something my friend and I didn’t. So I did a little research.

So apparently the ESPN guy was kind of right. Huh? According to Wikipedia, in the Hawaiian language, the state is actually sometimes pronounced with a /v/ sound, /haˈvaɪʔiː/.

Okay, to be fair, plenty of languages conflate the two sounds /w/ and /v/ (like most Indian languages, which only have one character for both sounds), so maybe something like that is going on here.

The first grammar of the Hawaiian language was written by a German missionary, Adelbert von Chamisso. The letter “w” in German represents the sound /v/. Hence, Hawaii would have been pronounced Havaii in German even though it was spelled with a “w.” And if German chose “w” to write the name of the language (“Hawaiische sprache”), maybe they were indeed faithfully documenting the native sound.

But others disagree that the native pronounciation is /v/. The first English transliteration of “Hawaii” was apparently “Owhyhee” or “Owhyee.” (Remarkably, the latter is a spelling that is actually still preserved in a county in southwestern Idaho, named after three Hawaiians.) That suggests that the native pronunciation was /w/, not /v/, since English has both sounds “w” /w/ and “v” /v/ and chose to use “w.”

But we can’t always take the British pronunciation at face value. They did, after all, mangle India’s “Mumbai” to “Bombay” and “Thiruvananthapuram” to “Trivandrum” (okay, I dont blame them for the second one).

Transliterating between languages, especially when one of them isn’t a natively written language, is an inherently unstable activity. Awkward changes are bound to occur.

Why must you tease us with your Vs and Ws, Germany? Why?!

My suspicion is that the rogue /v/ pronunciation arose because some languages, like German, pronounce “w” as /v/. And because “Havaii” might sound more “exotic” than “Hawaii,” some people might have automatically assumed that the /v/ pronunciation was the indigenous one.

Even if “Havaii” is the correct, indigenous pronunciation, we might as well discard it altogether because “Hawaii” is the predominant pronunciation out there in English.

After all, the pronunciation of American place names has changed a lot over time anyway. Think about “New Mexico” — pronounced /ˈmɛksɨkoʊ/ “mek-si-ko” not the Spanish /mexiko/ “me-hi-ko.” Or Louisiana — /luːˌiːziˈænə/ “loo-easy-anna” not the French /lwizjan/ “lweezyan.” Or pretty much any place name derived from Native American languages. English is remarkably devastating in its alteration of other languages.

And when a placename has been so totally assimilated into the language and culture, such as in the case of an American state, the popular pronunciation is the real pronunciation. This belief that popular usage and pronunciation is more important to teach and learn (in other words, bottom-up linguistics) than prescriptive usage (top-down linguistics) is called descriptivism.

It’s unclear whether the ESPN guy was pronouncing “Hawaii” faithfully or not. In terms of descriptivist English pronunciation, he was wrong.

Either way, I’m guessing Hawaii’s fans don’t care which way the ESPN dude pronounces it as long as they win.

I think I need to do some more on-location research.