William “Pila” Wilson, Professor of Hawaiian Language

Prof. Wilson researches ancient language pathways to and from Hawaiʻi. He is recognized internationally for his work in Hawaiian language revitalization, notably for providing pathways for other Indigenous groups to learn from the highly successful Hawaiian language revitalization work occurring in Hilo.

William Wilson pictured.
William “Pila” Wilson

Posted Oct. 17, 2012; updated May 22, 2018.

William H. “Pila” Wilson is a professor of Hawaiian language, Hawaiian studies, and linguistics at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses.

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.

Historical linguistic research

Wilson is recognized internationally for his work in Hawaiian language revitalization, notably for providing pathways for other indigenous groups to learn from the highly successful Hawaiian language revitalization work occurring in Hilo. That intensive work in the Hawaiian language has given him a unique knowledge base from which to do linguistic research into what the Hawaiian language can teach us about the ancient history of Hawaiʻi.

“I do historical linguistic research as a way to take a break from the intensive work of the college in language revitalization,” says Wilson. “When I’m not working with a student on a thesis or dissertation, teaching undergraduates, or developing some new program proposal or language-oriented law, I’m pondering old questions relating to Polynesian voyaging.”

One question Wilson ponders and investigates is this: From where did the first people to reach Hawaiʻi sail their canoes?

“This is a question that has intrigued Westerners from the time of the early European explorers of the Pacific,” he says. “Hawaiian tradition does not see this as a major question, as it holds that the Hawaiian people grew up with the land itself. The common question in Hawaiian tradition has related to the location of the lands visited by Hawaiian ancestors in voyaging canoes. Where were these lands?”

Wilson, who holds a doctor of philosophy in linguistics, says language provides strong evidence for the places visited by the distinctive Hawaiian people once they became a distinctive population of these islands. It also provides strong evidence of source of the first settlers of Hawaiʻi who formed bonds with the land to become the first Hawaiians.

“Anthropologists and linguists have long known that Hawaiians are East Polynesians, closely related to the peoples of Tahiti, Easter Island, New Zealand, Rarotonga and the Marquesas,” he says. “The question has been what particular part of Western Polynesia served as the source of the East Polynesians. The assumption has been that the original settlers of East Polynesian came from Sāmoa. Yet there is no clear archeological evidence for this.”

Using linguistic evidence, Wilson shows that the assumption about Sāmoa is wrong. He provides a surprising answer regarding the source of the East Polynesians, an answer that shows what great navigators these ancestors were. The East Polynesians came from the tiny populations of Polynesians living on the small atolls off the east coast of the Solomon Islands even farther from East Polynesian than Sāmoa.

“All languages are constantly changing, and shared changes can be used to show that languages have a shared history,” says Wilson. “The Northern Outliers, especially the tiny atolls of Takuu, Nukuria, Nukumanu, and Luangiua are the home of languages that share many similarities with East Polynesian languages.”

A map of the Northern Outliers and Northern East Polynesia
The Northern Outliers and Northern East Polynesia

In an article published in Oceanic Linguistics in December 2012, Wilson identifies a number of distinctive changes in words that are shared uniquely by these atoll languages and East Polynesian languages. Some of these words are familiar to English speakers in Hawaiʻi today, for example, the change from earlier kiu (bird with a curved beak) to kiwi (Maori kiwi, Hawaiian ʻiʻiwi); the change from earlier watuke (type of sea urchin) to fatuke (Marquesan hatuke, Hawaiian hākuʻekuʻe and hāʻukeʻuke); and the change from earlier taʻe (feces) to tūtaʻe (Hawaiian kūkae).

Wilson also shows that East Polynesians including Hawaiians voyaged back to these atolls after the separate East Polynesian languages had developed.

“Those return voyages are marked by distinctive East Polynesian and distinctive Hawaiian words being sporadically found mixed with older words in the Northern Outlier atoll languages,” he says.

For example, Hawaiian wahine from earlier fafine represents a change distinctive of a subset of East Polynesian languages. This word is found in the language of Nukuria, while the languages on the surrounding atolls retain the earlier fafine term.

Similarly, the Hawaiian term tahuna (a dialectal pronunciation for kahuna) is found in the Nukuoro language along with an earlier term, tufunga, that is widespread in the atoll languages. Wilson says this shows again that these atoll languages had contact with Hawaiian.

In earlier research, Wilson shows that the languages of the Tuamotu atolls between Tahiti and the Marquesas have a connection to Hawaiian. As with the distant atolls in the Solomon Islands, there are terms that are in Hawaiian from the Tuamotu language and terms from Hawaiian in the Tuamotu language.

“However, the influence between Hawaiian and Tuamotuan occurred many years after the initial settlement of East Polynesia from the Northern Outliers,” Wilson says. “Many geologists believe that the Tuamotu Islands were still under water when East Polynesian was first settled. Archeological confirmation of a connection between Hawaiʻi and the Tuamotus occurred with the discovery of an adze made from stone from Hawaiʻi.”

Wilson continues his research on the relationship between East Polynesian languages at the same time that he and colleagues at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani assist other Polynesian peoples with contemporary language revitalization.

In addition to that work, Wilson does linguistic research into what the Hawaiian language can teach about the ancient history of Hawaiʻi. Two of his recent publications are of major relevance to determining the closest relatives of the Hawaiian language.

Education and accolades

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.

Related story

UH Hilo linguist challenges conventional beliefs about Hawaiian origins

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