Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam: Keola Donaghy on the Hawaiian language

    Hawaiian is on the long list of languages I've been trying to learn, going back to my first visit to the islands in 1996.  Many years ago I started work on a spell checker for the language, using data gathered by my web crawler which finds all web pages written in Hawaiian (and many other languages), and generates lists of words from those pages to be edited.  In scanning web-crawled word lists, it's not unusual to encounter the occasional word in English, but I was pretty surprised, while editing Hawaiian word lists in 2004, to come across the word "bodhrán", an Irish word for a kind of drum used in traditional Irish music.  Investigating further, the word appeared in a blog by someone named Keola Donaghy, a Hawaiian speaker who had travelled to Glen Colm Cille in Ireland to learn the Irish language for a summer in 2002.   I wrote to Keola and he immediately began helping with the spell checker project, and has provided much-needed language expertise on several other projects over the years, for example by testing Hawaiian support for the accentuate.us Firefox add-on, and more recently by translating the Hawaiian Indigenous Tweets page.  For indigenous languages with small speaker populations, there tends to be just one "go-to" person who is involved in just about every technology project; Keola is that person for Hawaiian.  He's never said "no" any time I've asked for help over the last seven years.

Keola Donaghy
Keola is now Assistant Professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.  He is also a composer and musician, and an active member of the music scene in Hawai‘i.   He tweets in English and Hawaiian as @keoladonaghy.

The title of this post, "Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam" is a famous Irish saying that Keola uses in his email signature (and which could be the motto for the whole Indigenous Tweets project); it means "Country without a language, country without a soul"!

KPS: Could you tell us a bit about the current state of the language?  How many speakers are there, and how many children are learning the language?

KD: Estimates vary, depending on what degree of fluency is being considered. I believe that no more that 10,000 are conversant, that is, could function in Hawaiian all day if necessary. The number is probably lower. While the numbers have increased during the past 20 years, I believe it has reached a plateau and significant effort will need to be extended to again begin growing. The language is officially recognized by our State in its constitution, however, in everyday life it is still not afforded the same level of support as some immigrant languages. Hawaiian is taught in immersion schools K-12, and Ka Haka ‘Ula o Ke‘elikōlani at UH-Hilo uses Hawaiian exclusively in all undergraduate and many graduate level courses. Many high schools in the state teach Hawaiian as an elective, but it is not a required subject in any of them. There are approximately 2,000 students in K-12 Hawaiian medium education. Most native speakers are either elderly or residents of the island of Ni‘ihau. The total of all of these number around 500-600. Nearly all language instruction in the state outside of the Ni‘ihau community is done by non-native speakers, such as myself.

KPS: What opportunities are there to use Hawaiian online, in terms of hardware and software support, translated software, web sites, etc.?

KD: Hawaiian is supported by Mac OS X. There is a Hawaiian keyboard, localized date and time strings as well as Hawaiian sorting in the system. We've translated many programs into Hawaiian, including an integrated communication system (email, discussion forums, chat rooms, file transfers) called Leokī, which is based on the FirstClass system. We've translated the entire interface and all communication system is done in Hawaiian. The system has been used for nearly 18 years. We have online dictionaries, spell checkers, and a vast digital repository of Hawaiian language on Ulukau.

Since Hawaiian is based on the Latin alphabet with some diacritics, it is well supported in Unicode. Hawaiian works on a variety of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and many open source programs like Moodle, WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and others require only minor tweaks to their CSS files to be able handle the language.

We would like to have official support for Hawaiian in Windows like we do in Macintosh and iOS, and hope that it will happen someday.  In the interim, we offer a Hawaiian keyboard that people can download and install for free. The iPhone, iPod, and iPad all have native support for Hawaiian. We now have a free Hawaiian keyboard for the Android operating system that users can download and install.

KPS: The Google search interface has been available in Hawaiian for some time now.  Many other language groups are interested in taking this step as well - can you tell us how you started on this, and what was entailed in completing the translation?

KD: I had tried for years to reach someone in the Google In Your Language [GIYL] program about localizing the search interface. I thought it would be very significant symbolically for us, and perhaps get our foot in the door with doing further work with Google. Finally in late 2008 I heard that Google had done a Māori language version. Since I know most of the Māori folks involved in technology issues for the language, I made some inquiries, and found out my friend Te Taka Keegan was responsible. Not only that, but he was about to do a 6 month post-doc at Google to help with localization issue. I contacted him, he put me in touch with the right person at Google. Once they set up a Hawaiian link for GIYL, it was quite painless to do the translation–it was entirely web based, showed the English text, provided a block for submitting the Hawaiian, and provided the context of the word or sentence to be translated. It took me about 6 months of on-and-off work – mostly in my spare time – to do. Maintenance is likewise a breeze – when new strings need translation or older ones have changed, they appear in the translation console, and are submitted. The changes do not get committed to the Google search page immediately; I have to notify the coordinator and they do a rebuild of the interface. I am a bit behind in doing updates, but hope to get caught up again this summer.

Keola in Glen Colm Cille, Co. Donegal, Ireland
KPS: What issues are there in terms of getting Hawaiian speakers to use the language online?  Have problems with keyboards and fonts been an issue?  What about computing terminology?
KD: I don't think lack of support for the diacritics have hampered the use of the language. I know many people who are using Hawaiian on Facebook without the diacritics, and receive many emails that don't either. Most are happy to be able to do so, and have when they've learned about he availability of tools. I can't tell you how many people I've spoken to how, despite our best efforts to make it known, were unaware that Mac OS has had a Hawaiian keyboard as a default since 2002. 

I don't believe people not knowing the terminology for technology has been an impediment. There hasn't been a whole lot of discourse about the technology, we want to use it in the same way that everyone else does, so it has many uses in many contexts. The technology itself is only a small part of it.

KPS: How is terminology developed?  Is there a "language board" the decides on terms and disseminates them to the community? 

KD: There is a lexicon committee that is coordinated by our College of Hawaiian Language. I have participated in this and have contributed many words. There are a variety of methods used: transliteration, translation, borrowing from other languages. All are considered. When a need for a new word comes up, we address it. Because of a backlog of words, we occasionally create words, start using them, and they are picked up. An example is ho‘olele hualono for "podcast".  Ho‘olele is an already established word for "broadcast".  Hua is "seed" or "pod", and lono is to "hear" as opposed to "listen" (subtle difference).  I created a Hawaiian language podcast, coined the word with input from a committee member but no official approval. It's been widely accepted. 

KPS: Any other special challenges Hawaiian speakers face in terms of developing technology for the language?  

KD: Vendors have been very supportive, and I'm sure the fact that our work has gotten a lot of publicity doesn't hurt. Dialects and spelling system differences are non-issues. The most annoying tech issue is that few fonts have the ‘okina (glottal) in the Unicode location that we prefer. I've talked to both Microsoft and Apple about it, but realize that since fonts are developed by outside foundries, it will take a while.

KPS: Are young people using the language online?  Do you think social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are helping encourage language use by younger speakers?

KD: Absolutely. I have a number of friends and classmates of my daughter (20) on Facebook. All were Hawaiian immersion students. I've notice that while they occasionally use English between themselves, they always use Hawaiian with me. I think sometimes they also use it as a way to exclude non-Hawaiian speakers from knowing what they are talking about. They dynamics of their use and choices are interesting, and I'd love to research and study it sometime. 

KPS: What is your vision for your language in ten years, both in general terms and in terms of software/online use?

KD: Basically my vision is that Hawaiian use with technology be as easy as any other language. If people want to use a service or system, it's available to them in Hawaiian. But our pool of resources is very limited, so we must prioritize carefully and make sure we get the most bang for the buck/effort. Having a Hawaiian keyboard and our characters as core system-level supported elements is the first step. We're getting there with both desktop and mobile systems, but still have much more to go.

I would very much like to see localization systems mature to the point where we can have a single repository of translated strings that all of our projects could draw from, rather than starting from scratch with so many new things. I would love to see Hawaiian voice synthesis and voice recognition happen, but personally don't have the technical skills to do it myself.

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