by Geoffrey Churchman

New Zealand forms one corner of what is called the Polynesian ‘triangle’, covering a sizeable part of the Pacific Ocean. The other two corners of the ‘triangle’ are Hawaii and Easter Island (Rapa Nui) which has only about 5,000 residents. New Zealand is the most populous country in the triangle with about 5.1 million people, although those with some Polynesian ancestry are only about a 5th of the population.

Next is Hawaii with about 1.4 million people, of which in the 2010 U.S. Census, 527,000 identified as Native Hawaiian. But knowledge there of the Hawaiian language — an official language along with English at the state level — is quite low. In 2001, native speakers of Hawaiian amounted to less than 0.1% of the statewide population. The 2010 census gave a figure of 24,000 total who are fluent in the language. Adjusted for the population difference, that’s a higher percentage than the figure for fluent speakers of Maori in NZ.

When Eva and I last visited Hawaii in 2018 we took an interest in how many Hawaiian words we could make sense of. Maui is obvious, but we naturally wondered about the place name of Waikane, which looks close to Waikanae. However, this means ‘Water of Man’ (Wai + Kane). The first word is the same, but in Hawaiian you often see a K where there is a T in Maori. So Kane = Tane.

Next was our street, Awanui Drive. This word is the same in Hawaiian, meaning ‘big river’ and we were naturally delighted when saw an Awanui Street. This street is in a place called Waipahu: wai + pahū, meaning “burst or explode”; combined, Waipahu means “water forced up (as out of a spring)” as it does in Maori.

In Hawaiian you often see an L where there is an R in Maori, so leo (voice) = reo and aloha = aroha, la = ra = day. Less obvious is lani = rangi = sky and mauna = maunga = mountain. Less obvious still is kahukai = takutai = beach and hale = whare = house.

Overall, however, while some words are the same such as wahine (woman), one (sand), ahi (fire), the two languages are not mutually intelligible. The same applies elsewhere in Polynesia, although we haven’t given the several other languages any real study.