UH Hilo’s Wilson shares new evidence of Hawaiian origins

Date: Monday, August 23, 2021
Contact: Alyson Kakugawa-Leong, (808) 932-7669

For Immediate Release

A University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language faculty member’s publication in Oceanic Linguistics provides evidence for a major revision of understandings of the origins of Hawaiian and other East Polynesian languages.

Professor William H. Wilson had previously shown that East Polynesia was settled by people from small Polynesian Outliers. 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.

“For some 50 years Polynesianists believed that East Polynesia was settled from the Sāmoa area with Hawaiʻi then settled from the Marquesas,” Wilson noted. “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 (EPn) languages were most closely related to languages spoken on small Central Northern Polynesian (CNO) Outlier atolls: Takuu, Nukumanu, Nukeria, and Luangiua. But that answer long remained ignored by other Polynesianists. Wilson put the issue aside and instead focused on the work of his College in developing a full Hawaiian language medium education system from preschool through doctorate.

In 2012, with the Hawaiian language medium system in place, Wilson returned to publishing on Polynesian historical linguistics. His 2012 publication and several following it showed the step-by-step development of East Polynesian languages from ancestoral 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 Hawaiian originated.

Wilson has determined that the original settlers of East Polynesia (EPn) sailed nearly 2,000 miles directly east from the Central Northern Outliers (CNO) 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, Line 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 and Line Islands first differentiated from those living in the high Marquesas Islands,” Wilson explained. “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.

Wilson does not dismiss a Marquesan connection to Hawaiian. 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’s article is available at: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/797960.

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