So is it Molokai or Moloka’i?

Catherine Aki digs up some facts on the age-old question.

 By Catherine Aki

If you look in the Hawaiian dictionary, it is Moloka’i.  For most, the question ends there.  The dictionary has to be final authority in most people’s minds.  So why does the discussion continue?  If you ever listen to old timers who are from the island, they say Molokai.  But more importantly, Harriet Ne has said it is Molokai.  Finally, with a little research you yourself can see that it is Molokai.

So where does that research begin?  Well, the easiest and fastest place to find it is in the book “Molokai: A Site Survery.”  That is that green book with the fishpond on the cover and was written by Catherine Summers. On page 21, under the topic of discovery, the quotes of various sea captains indicate a 3-syllable phonetically spelled version of Molokai.  Here is a list:  Captain Cook spelled it Morotoi in 1778 as did King who accompanied him.  In 1792, Captain Vancouver spells it Morotoi as well.  So on that page alone, are some of the earliest written accounts mentioning Molokai.

Now for those of you who really are interested, here are more details; for those of you who yawned after the paragraph above, go to sleep, this does not concern you.  Another account of Vancouver’s voyage comes from a crew member named Archibald Menzies who also spells it as Morotoi.  

An early journal account of the island written by John B. Whitman in 1813 through 1815 lists the islands phonetically as Owhyhee, Mowee, Morokie, Rannie, Morotina, Towharowee, Oreahhooa, Woahoo, Attooi and Oneeheow.

Hiram Bingham who lived in Hawaii from 1820 to 1840 had in his published accounts a pronunciation guide resulting in the following pronunciations with accent marks: “HA-WAI’I,  MAU’I, O-A’HU, KAU-AI’, MO-LO-KAI’, LA-NAI’, NI-IHAU’, KA-HO-O-LA’-WE, MO-LO-KI’NI, LE-HU’-A, KA-U’-LA”. 

Finally, William Ellis shows Morokai in his 1823 journals.

So how is it the dictionary has the spelling as Moloka’i?  In 1961, Mary Kawena Puku’i, who co-authored the Hawaiian dictionary, came to Molokai and interviewed a number of elders in the Hawaiian language.  One of those people was an 80 year old man named Daniel Pahapu.  He was the one who said it was Moloka’i  after being asked point blank. 

Although Puku’i interviews a long list of Molokai’s “who’s who” from that time period, Pahapu was the only one asked the question.  He explained that his name includes his father’s name and that Pahapu was also his grandfather’s name.  My casual inquiries with some modern family members show Pahapu origins from the Big Island and Maui, because the family was involved with providing service to the king when he came to Molokai.  It is not clear from my conversations as to which Kamehameha. But that is how the dictionary spelling became Moloka’i instead of Molokai was from that interview.

In the book “Tales of Molokai, The Voice of Harriet Ne”, her grandson, Edward Ayau  writes a “Note” right in the beginning of the book which attempts to make corrections as Moh-loh-kī.  In it he says that Harriet Ne believed musicians from the 1930’s began the pronunciation change by the way they sang the songs.  The most important consideration from the “Note” is that  Mary Kawena Puku’i, right before her death, called Harriet Ne to tell her that Molokai was correct as the meaning of  Molokai was “Gathering of Ocean Waters”.

So it is Molokai.  Lots of Molokai people still pronounce it in the old way how their family taught them.  Now how to get the dictionary corrected and the University of Hawaii professors on board is a different set of problems.  If only they did some scholarly research it could be easily accomplished.


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