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William Wilson
William H. “Pila” Wilson

A paper by a University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo linguist who specializes in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) challenges conventional understandings about the origins of Hawaiian and other East Polynesian languages.

William H. “Pila” Wilson, a Hawaiian studies professor at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language recently published his research in Oceanic Linguistics in June. The UH Press publication is the only one of its kind devoted exclusively to the study of Indigenous languages of the Oceanic area and parts of Southeast Asia.

“The paper provides data that Hawaiian (language) is not most closely related to Marquesan, but is related more closely to a group of languages that includes Tahitian and New Zealand Māori,” said Wilson. “Within that relationship Hawaiian is still distinct. I propose based on the data that Hawaiʻi was first settled from the Northern Line Islands. My paper provides further evidence that East Polynesia was settled not from Sāmoa but from the Central Northern Outliers.”

Wilson’s ongoing research previously revealed that East Polynesia was settled by people from small Polynesian outlier islands, meaning islands outside the main region of Polynesian influence. His latest article confirms that people from those outliers sailed directly east into the Phoenix and Line Islands and that Hawaiʻi was then settled from the Northern Line Islands. The Line Islands, also known as the Teraina Islands or Equatorial Islands, are a chain of coral islands and atolls located nearly 2,000 kilometers south of Hawaiʻi at the equator.

“For some 50 years Polynesianists believed that East Polynesia was settled from the Sāmoa area with Hawaiʻi then settled from the Marquesas,” Wilson explained. “However, no one could connect the archaeological or linguistic record from Sāmoa directly with that of East Polynesian.”

Read more about Wilson’s prior research.

Challenging conventional beliefs

Map of islands in Polynesia
Location of Phoenix Islands and Northern Line Islands in relation to Hawaiʻi, (image courtesy Wikitravel)

Wilson’s work published this summer shows the step-by-step development of East Polynesian languages from ancestral languages spoken in the outliers.

“Linguists began to accept my proposal but questions remained as to exactly where in East Polynesia did those initial outlier-derived people first settle,” Wilson said. “Now in the journal Oceanic Linguistics, I provide linguistic evidence answering that question.”

Wilson also identifies the specific area within that homeland from which the Hawaiian language originated. He has determined that the original settlers of East Polynesia sailed nearly 2,000 miles directly east from the Central Northern Outliers to colonize a formerly uninhabited swath of the Central Pacific stretching some 2,300 miles west to east and some 1,200 miles north to south. This area includes the Phoenix Islands, Line Islands and Marquesas Islands. Wilson said there is evidence that colonists of this area continued to keep in contact with each other. However, the huge distances involved resulted in linguistic differentiation.

Wilson does not dismiss a Marquesan connection to Hawaiian language. He provides evidence that although the Marquesas were not the immediate source of the first Hawaiians, the navigational skills of the early East Polynesians resulted in continued contact and the borrowing of some words between different East Polynesian languages.

“Hawaiian borrowed some words from Marquesan, but those words are marked as such by reflecting a Marquesan sound system rather than the sound system characteristic of Hawaiian,” Wilson said. “That core sound system of Hawaiian provides the evidence of its ancestors living in the low coral Line Islands and before that in the Central Northern Outliers far to the west.”

For more go to UH Hilo Stories.

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