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Directions in Hawaiian

As I have previously learned astronomy in Hawaiian, I know hema and 'akau as South and North. Now I see that they are also left and right respectively. This implies one is always facing west, as indicated in the Hawaiian on-line dictionary. Does anyone have insight into the history or usage of these? If you tell someone "E hele hema", will they go left or South? Or perhaps the conception of North/South is something only used in astronomy, since in my limited experience on Hawai'i island, directions are given in terms of ma uka and ma kai.

February 21, 2019

1 Comment


Aloha e @JessicaEnn6! I’m surprised no one has commented on your question yet, but perhaps this is limited knowledge even within Hawaiian community.

You are correct in your question about “history” playing a role. This is a great example of why there was so much backlash within Hawaiian & Polynesian speaking communities with Duolingo’s addition of Hawaiian. Although it’s amazing to have the chance to learn and share the language, Polynesian languages including Hawaiian especially rely on “kaona” or multiple layered meanings of words that are understood as to which one is being referred to based on location in the sentence pattern, context, or both. Context is very important in Hawaiian. For this reason many felt and online platform would render “single” meanings and uses of words, where in a physical classroom, this could be better explained and conveyed.

Going back to your question about directions. The words ʻākau and hema are literally right and left as with the hands of the body. It also means north and sound because in the historical context of Hawaiian wayfinding using celestial navigation, the orientation of one’s reference point is in the path of the rising and setting sun. In this case West is the direction in which the sun has progressed to and so that is the forward facing direction. The back is to the east as that is where one (the sun) “comes from”. In this understood spatial context, ʻĀkau would mean North and Hema, South.

In your example sentence “E hele i hema,” the meaning being “Go left” or “Go South” would be solely understood based on context. If you were talking about general geography it would most likely be assumed you were referring to N, S, E , W. If telling someone how to drive to the grocery store from your house, it would most likely be understood to mean L,R.

Hope this helps!!

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