UH Hilo linguist challenges conventional beliefs about Hawaiian origins

Professor William “Pila” Wilson proposes that Hawaiʻi was first settled from the Northern Line Islands. His recently published paper provides evidence that East Polynesia was settled not from Sāmoa as is conventionally believed, but rather from the Central Northern Outliers.

Pila Wilson with map in background
William H. “Pila” Wilson. Map and photo courtesy Prof. Wilson.

By Susan Enright.

A paper by a University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo linguist who specializes in Hawaiian language gives evidence that revises conventional understandings about the origins of Hawaiian and other East Polynesian languages.

The paper, by William H. “Pila” Wilson, a professor of Hawaiian studies at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, was published in Oceanic Linguistics (UH Press) in June. The journal is the only of its kind devoted exclusively to the study of the 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,” says 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.”

Map of Oceania with Line Islands and Hawaii noted
Map showing location of Phoenix Islands and Northern Line Islands in relation to Hawaiʻi. Wikitravel.

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, “East Polynesian Subgrouping and Homeland Implications Within the Northern Outlier–East Polynesian Hypothesis,” 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,” says Wilson. “However, no one could connect the archaeological or linguistic record from Sāmoa directly with that of East Polynesian.

“That problem became more acute as archaeological dating began to indicate that all of East Polynesia, including Hawaiʻi, was settled much more recently than previously believed. How had East Polynesians become so different from Polynesians of the Sāmoa area in such a short time? And was the Marquesas really the source of the first Hawaiians?”

In 1985, Wilson published evidence that East Polynesian languages were most closely related to languages spoken on small Central Northern Polynesian outlier atolls: Takuu, Nukumanu, Nukeria, and Luangiua. But that answer long remained ignored by other Polynesianists.

Wilson put this research on hold for several years to focus on helping his college develop a full Hawaiian language medium education system, retuning to publishing on Polynesian historical linguistics in 2012.

Challenging conventional beliefs on the origin of Hawaiian language

The work by Wilson 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.

“Low coral island dwellers living in the Phoenix (Islands) and Line Islands first differentiated from those living in the high Marquesas Islands,” Wilson explains. “Among the widely-spaced low coral Line Islands, those living in the Northern Line Islands then differentiated somewhat from those in the Southern Lines.” Wilson’s evidence shows that it was from the Northern Line Islands that Hawaiʻi was first settled.

Map of Outlier Islands
A map of the Northern Outliers (NO) and Northern East Polynesia (EPn) in relation to Hawaiʻi. Map provided by William Wilson.

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.”

Wilson says linguists are coming around to his proposal and now archaeologists are joining them. In an email, he provides a link to a talk by a prominent archaeologist in Australia that references Wilson’s research and a preliminary reference from 2020, in a paper on hibiscus, to the research just published. Wilson notes the article on hibiscus does not provide the evidence for the internal East Polynesian subgrouping, which why the recent Oceanic Linguistics article is important.

Listen to Prof. Matthew Spriggs, presenter of the “Golson Lecture” of the Australian National University (51:25 through 55:11):

William “Pila” Wilson

William H. Wilson
William H. Wilson

Prof. Wilson came to UH Hilo from Honolulu in 1978 to write up the first bachelor of arts program in the United States to be taught through the medium of an indigenous language. He has served as the principal writer of the extensive programs of what is now the most developed program in an indigenous language in the United States. The college has a full P-20 program in Hawaiian from an infant-toddler program at the college’s Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Laboratory School to a doctor of philosophy in Hawaiian and indigenous language and culture revitalization. Both programs are the first of their kind in the world.

Wilson and Kauanoe Kamanā, a founding member of ʻAha Punana Leo immersion school and the first of Native Hawaiian ancestry to receive the doctor of philosophy in Hawaiian and indigenous language and culture revitalization from UH Hilo in 2010, were the first of a number of couples in Hawaiʻi who revived Hawaiian as the first language of their home and children.

Wilson received his master of arts in linguistics and doctor of philosophy in linguistics from UH Mānoa. He was awarded the UH Regents Medal for Excellence in Teaching in 1999.

-See also media release


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.