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Journal of World History 8.1 (1997) 176-179

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The Voices of Eden: A History of Hawaiian Language Studies. By Albert J. Schütz. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994. Pp. xx + 512. $28 (paper).

The Voices of Eden is an example of one of the things linguists can and should do, but don't do nearly often enough. Albert J. Schütz has written a clear, well-informed, enormously interesting book about a language and many people's perceptions of it over a period of two centuries. It is a must for everyone involved in education and government in Hawai'i, for anyone interested in Hawaiian history, and beyond that, for world historians and the general reader. Appeal to such a broad audience may seem unlikely, but Schütz succeeds admirably.

The topic could hardly be more compelling. European ships carrying cosmopolitan teams of explorers committed to Enlightenment science bump into the Hawaiian islands, and having found their way there, return repeatedly. Building on their knowledge of the language of Tahiti and of other distant islands in the Pacific, some of the officers compose wordlists. Initial hostilities give way to mutual exploitation, as subsequent ships use the islands for provisioning and a Hawaiian ruler acquires firearms and military strategists. Fleeing the escalating violence, a Hawaiian boy makes his way to New Haven, Connecticut, and is found weeping on the Yale campus. He survives for years, learns English, converts to Christianity, and prepares a grammar of his native language. Inspired by him and filled with zeal for the salvation of those he left behind, the First Company of Congregational missionaries to the Sandwich Islands board a ship and sail for Hawai'i, holding language classes on the deck.

Into the welter of multinational free trade taking shape in the islands come the New Englanders, armed in righteousness and classical education; knowing Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; bearing Noah Webster's [End Page 176] American Spelling Book and a crated printing press. They teach, they learn, they debate, and they print books and newspapers in Hawaiian for Hawaiians. Most significantly for them and for their Native Hawaiian constituency, they translate the Bible into Hawaiian, compile dictionaries, and ultimately produce grammars of the language.

As linguistic science progresses in the nineteenth century, understanding of the language on its own terms improves, but the destruction of what the author calls the "three-legged stool" of language, culture, and nation proceeds apace (p. 339). Then, just as it seems the language is moribund, spoken only by middle-aged and old people, a grass-roots Hawaiian language renaissance begins.

Who could resist the cast, the setting, the course of events?

But Schütz doesn't simply tell a gripping adventure story. Starting with those early wordlists and moving on through the works of all who have recorded something about the Hawaiian language, he shows what intellectual baggage each investigator brought to the task; why each perceived the Hawaiian language as he or she did through the filter of native language, cultural preconceptions, and academic training (or the lack of it); and how something can be extracted from every collection of data, no matter how unpromising it may appear. The reader learns of the struggles outsiders had with hearing the sound pattern of Hawaiian and hence in compiling comprehensible dictionaries and grammars, of how distinctions of pronunciation and meaning eluded them, of how misperceptions became part of the canon.

The establishment of orthographic conventions, it turns out, was not just a matter of revisions and committee meetings, but was significantly shaped by a shipment of the wrong-size type from Boston followed by failure to replace it with what the missionaries had requested. What was printed on their press was controlled by the missionaries, but what the missionaries themselves wrote for publication was controlled in turn by a hierarchy thousands of miles distant (p. 172). Literacy and its uses as the missionaries understood them were subverted by the Hawaiians. After a period in which they reveled in the Hawaiians' mania for reading...


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