Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

First Contact: Hawaiians and the Written Word

October 28th, 2009 · 9 Comments

Hawaiian Language
With your kind permission, we’d like to try something a little different with today’s installment of our occasional First Contact series: an account of a civilization’s initial experience with written language, rather than its introduction to an alien people.

We initially planned on posting something about the development of the Hawaiian alphabet—we’ve long been fascinated by exactly how missionaries of the 1820s arrived at their elegant (and occasionally controversial) twelve-character system. But we got sidetracked upon discovering the following passage from The Voices of Eden, in which missionary and historian Sheldon Dibble recounts the earliest Hawaiian reactions to ink-on-paper:

The people were amazed at the art of expressing thoughts on paper. They started back from it with dread, as though it were a sort of enchantment or sorcery. A certain captain said to Kamehameha, “I can put Kamehameha on a slate,” and proceeded to write the word Kamehameha. The chief scornfully replied, “That is not me—not Kamehameha.” The capitain then said: “By marks on this slate I can tell my mate, who is at a distance, to send me his handkerchief, ” and proceeded to write the order. Kamehameha gave the slate to a servant, who carried it to the mate and brought the handkerchief. He looked at the writing and at the handkerchief—they did not look alike. He felt of the two—they did not feel alike. And what connection there could be between the one and the other he could not imagine. With this ignorance, it is not strange that the people formed very wild conception of the power of letters. They even imagined that letters could speak. Every article of clothing that had a name upon it was for a time was safe; no one would steal it—for there were letters there, and they did not know but they might tell the owner where it was.

Dibble goes on to state that the Hawaiians also briefly assumed that written-down wises would inevitably come true if handed to a foreigner. Which strikes us as disturbingly similar to the theory behind the The Secret‘s vision board.


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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    Fascinating link- thanks. Reading the quickly Googled excerpt by Schutz, you see how the skills of an oral culture tried to take over the practice of reading– Hawaiians would read slowly enough to memorize the whole text being read (which for the missionaries was a boon– not just a catechism but whole book of Matthew could be spat back out). The idea of the text being accessible, just there to read again, without the aid of memory was hard to get used to, apparently.

  • Jordan

    Given the historical relationship between people and the written word, this doesn’t seem surprising at all. Written symbols, both pictographic, symbolic and alphabetic have almost always a period of mystical association. It takes time for our brains to become used to higher levels of abstraction. Heck, that’s half the difficulty in teaching math. Names especially have often been thought to hold power. You still see it in, for instance, people who believe that the variations of Yahweh’s name can exert mystical and physical influence. We’re just so used to literacy that we take it for granted. The relationship between words and ideas will always be weird and fraught.

  • Gramsci

    I would also add Plato’s Phaedrus as a negative mythological reaction to the written word, vz. the page is inferior for never speaking back to the reader.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Glad y’all liked the post. I’ve actually been thinking about this one all day.

    Love the point re: how much we take literacy for granted. And, beyond that, how much we allow mere words–completely inanimate, two-dimensional objects (for lack of a better description)–to assume such importance because of the concepts they convey.

    Now I want to read more about the impact of linguistics (and, in turn, literacy or lack therof) on cultural development. Been meaning to tackle this one for eons–supposed to be great:


  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Also, Gramsci–more 19th-century Hawaiian posts forthcoming. And thanks for pointing me toward the latter section of the Schütz book. I was similarly intrigued by his point re: the secret genius of the Hawaiian alphabet–namely, that it was so easy to learn because it trimmed out the fat. Makes me wonder what English would be like without Qs and Xs.

  • jackal

    This is really interesting. In the vein of first-contacts, the case of the various native groups in the Andaman Islands (in the Bay of Bengal) have always fascinated me. Particularly, the Sentinelese: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentinelese

    To some extent, real, interactive first contact hasn’t happened with them yet! They’re believed to be quite socially isolated (~ last 50,000 years) and stone age technologically speaking. The limited contact that’s existed with them has been largely indirect (often consisting of arrows being shot at helicopters bearing anthropologists). I found the wiki quote from an Indian anthropologist particularly amusing:

    “Quite a few discarded their weapons and gestured to us to throw the fish. The women came out of the shade to watch our antics…A few men came and picked up the fish. They appeared to be gratified, but there did not seem to be much softening to their hostile attitude…They all began shouting some incomprehensible words. We shouted back and gestured to indicate that we wanted to be friends. The tension did not ease. At this moment, a strange thing happened – a woman paired off with a warrior and sat on the sand in a passionate embrace. This act was being repeated by other women, each claiming a warrior for herself, a sort of community mating, as it were. Thus did the militant group diminish. This continued for quite some time and when the tempo of this frenzied dance of desire abated, the couples retired into the shade of the jungle. However, some warriors were still on guard. We got close to the shore and threw some more fish which were immediately retrieved by a few youngsters. It was well past noon and we headed back to the ship…”

    They’re certainly an endangered population now, and I can’t imagine any future contact with contemporary societies would go over well (given past efforts with other Andamanese groups); but man, it’d be interesting to see how they perceive written language and technology!

    Also, this whole thing reminds me of a Taiwanese-Canadian friend’s mom who doesn’t speak/understand English but aced her citizenship test by memorizing what the characters looked like for questions and answers..

  • Gramsci

    jackal, there are actually world-class Taiwanese Scrabble players who don’t know a word of English. They just memorize all the possible letter combinations from the dictionary. I think Stefan Fatsis writes about this in his Scrabble book.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @jackal: Many thanks for the tip re: the Sentinelese. Totally unknown to me–a great oversight on my part.

    Is their island threatened by climate change, perhaps, a la The Maldives? If so, rising sea levels could eventually force their relocation to safer ground. And if that should occur, it would indeed be fascinating to follow what happens next.

    The big question I’d have (albeit one I certainly won’t live to see answered): several generations down the line, how would the Sentinelese regard the loss of their homeland? I’m assuming that a move into the contemporary world would have some benefits, notably an extension of life span and a reduction in infant mortality. But would their lore forever idealize life on the island “Eden”?

  • jackal

    @Gramsci: awesome. a testament to the abilities a rote-memorization-heavy education system can yield..

    @Brendan: They seemed to have escaped the Indian Ocean tsunami relatively unharmed (and they’re rather close to Aceh) so one presumes they have higher ground to survive on. They also seem to have killed fishermen who were in the waters off the island (illegally) so they seem capable of defending themselves too. I suspect they’ll be around for a while yet..

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pintupi_Nine — The Pintupi Nine would be an interesting test-case of your big question. While not on an island they certainly avoided a lot of the terrible history of European-Indigenous Australian interactions. They didn’t see a white man till 1984, and articles cited in the Wiki article suggest they’re doing ok with modern conveniences. I wonder how their children will perceive it all — I think a key in their perception of the past will be the relative lack of oppression/abuse/violence in their encounter with modernity (compared to a lot of Amazon tribes, or the Onge/Jarawa in the Andaman, from what I’ve read..).