Words matter … and how you say and write words matter.
There is one word, the name of one of the main Hawaiian Islands, that continues to have different pronunciations – some say Moh-loh-kī others say Moh-loh-kah-ee.
In an effort to be correct, I looked at various sources to see what they had to say. A helpful source is actually some of the early writers to the islands.
When Captain Cook first visited the Hawaiian Islands (1778,) Hawaiian was a spoken language but not a written language. Historical accounts were passed down orally, through chants and songs.
After western contact and attempts to write about Hawaiʻi, early writers tried to spell words based on the sound of the words they heard. People heard words differently, so it was not uncommon for words to be spelled differently, depending on the writer.
Here is the way some of the early writers spelled some of the main Hawaiian Islands:
Morotoi, or Morokoi (Molokai)
Here are some writings from some other early writers:
Eveleth’s 1831 book “History of the Sandwich Islands” spells it Mo-lo-kai (and adds a pronunciation helper - Mo-lo-kye.
Williams’ 1859 “Application of the Roman Alphabet” spells it Mo-lo-kai (and includes the same pronunciation helper, Mo-lo-kye)
Worchester’s 1860 “Primary Dictionary of the Hawaiian language notes Mō-lo-kaī’.
Webster’s 1870 “Improved pronouncing dictionary of the English language” notes the Islands as Mo-lo-kai’.
Colum, in his 1937 “Legends of Hawaiʻi” book, spelled the Island as Mo–lo-kai.
Finally, an explanation on the pronunciation/spelling of the island name (Molokai (Moh-loh-kī) versus Molokaʻi (Moh-loh-kah-ee)) is noted in the early portion of “Tales of Molokai The Voice of Harriet Ne” by Harriet Ahiona Ayau Ne with Gloria L. Cronin.
Harriet Ne’s grandson, Edward Halealoha Ayau, noted:
“The reason that the name Molokai (as used in the book) is left without the glottal stop is because my tūtū wahine (grandmother) says that when she was growing up in Pelekunu it was never pronounced Molokaʻi (Moh-loh-kah-ee), but rather Molokai (Moh-loh-kī).”
“Then in about the 1930s, the name changed to Molokaʻi, in part she believes because musicians began pronouncing the name that way. Mary Kawena Pukuʻi, three weeks before her death, called my tūtū and told her that the correct name is Molokai, which means ‘the gathering of the ocean waters.’”
“On the rugged north coast of the island, the ocean slams hard into the pali. On the south and east shores, the ocean glides gently to shore due to location of reefs at least a quarter of a mile offshore. Hence the name, Molokai, ‘Gathering of the Ocean Waters.’”
In a follow-up exchange with Halealoha, he resolved the matter saying that the “best answer is both pronunciations are correct and the most correct depends on which family you are speaking to. So for our ʻohana, it would be Molokai. For others, Molokaʻi.”
The image shows an 1897 map of the Island of Molokai.
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