Week three of UH Manoa’s Hawaiian Language, Legends, and Lore class, and flashbacks of my 7th grade Hawaiian History class are beginning to come into sight. Today’s lesson sets up the stage for the rise of Kamehameha, the battle of Nuʻuanu and the beloved king’s family tree. If I close my eyes, I can go back in time and see Mr. Nguyen, standing in a sweat-stained polo shirt at the front of the class. Stevenson Intermediate, circa 1993, hot sun pouring in through the wooden jealousies above him, a used hardcover textbook highlighted and dog-eared sat upon my desk. We memorized war days and ruling days, amounting to little else but daze in my former hormone-riddled self.
But my Hawaiian class today … offers a depth I can appreciate. Illustrating connections between language and culture always tickles my fancy, and I’d signed up for eight full weeks of almost entirely new material under both categories. I’m in brain sponge heaven!
Professor Carol Silva (center, above) paces back and forth along the whiteboard, her blonde white mane of hair resting lightly down the length of her back. She’s bubbling with so much knowledge of our ancestors’ experience, you can feel their ha, breath, flowing through her, through her own breath, through her rhythmic delivery – you may even feel graced by its presence.
She waxes lyrical about the cool compassionate moon goddess Hina and her aggressive counterpart, Ku (check out the featured image at the top). The opposing pair reminds me of the yin and yang in Chinese philosophy, the ida and pingala in yogic thought. I think we see our lives in opposing pairs as a result of the structure of our brains, how the left and right hemispheres control such different aspects of our thought processes. It’s easier for us to see things in black or white, right or wrong, as binary forms; when really it’s all hamajang mixed together, an ever-changing balance of chaos. Or maybe it’s the duality of life that shaped our brains that way!
But thereʻs a certain beauty and accessibility to the humanized Hawaiian version of this phenomenon. Hina and Ku …
My favorite lesson from the eight week course was about the difference between the words koʻu and kaʻu.
Koʻu words relate to beliefs, where one gives deference, things and actions that are critical to existence; they are often things that transcend time to the Hawaiians, like gods, elders, land, emotions, and the spirit realm. Family (ʻohana) would take koʻu, because family is forever, as is love for a friend, internal thoughts, or even lei when it is in contact with a part of a person. Lei that is touching a human has received some of that person’s mana (transcendent power, as in prana, ki, or chi) and becomes more powerful.
When the lei is not in contact with a person, when it is on a table, for example, it would take kaʻu.
Kaʻu is used for things you would not defend with your life … such as a husband or wife! Also very telling. Hawaiian partnering was sometimes for life, but often not, and separations were considered natural. Children of these broken partnerships would often be cared for by grandparents as their parents would be busy working and making a life on their own until the next partner came by.
Other kaʻu words include food, or speaking, giving birth, and children. Such things are often those we can control but, control is eventually relinquished, as with children, who inevitably grow up, leave the home, and make a life of their own.
The lesson spanned a few meetings and our teacher made sure to comment that most modern Hawaiian language schools, including many of the Kaiapuni immersion schools in the state, do not differentiate between these two kinds of words and the kaʻu/koʻu usage. She warned against losing the nuances of the culture in our push toward increasing the quantity of Hawaiian language learners.
I’m so stoked I was able to participate in this course at the UH Manoa Outreach College. Check it out for some lifelong learning opportunities – these classes are treasure troves of wisdom and passion!