The etymology of words can tell terrific stories. Investigating the modification and permutations of certain words can identify migration patterns as humans have dispersed across the globe. This story is of the word ‘Hawaii’ and how it helped solve the question of Polynesian dispersal across the vast Pacific Ocean. The word’s evolution can be traced from the far ends of the Polynesian triangle, all the way back to the mystical island of Sumatra in Western Indonesia.  

In August 2023 Coral Expeditions will be launching its inaugural ‘Circumnavigation of Sumatra’ expedition, an exciting endeavour to unlock the mysteries of Sumatra. Many of us know little of this enormous island, but Sumatra launched Austronesian traders across two oceans. Sumatra was sought after by Alexander the Great and features in Ptolemy’s map of the world produced in AD150. Indeed, this is the homeland for some extraordinary trading civilisations. 

The etymology of the word Hawaii, meaning ‘homeland,’ has enthralled linguists for over a century. The Hawaiian language belongs to the Austronesian language family, within the large Malayo-Polynesian subgroup that extends from faraway Madagascar across the Indian and Pacific Oceans to the Moai of Easter Island. This word has travelled a vast distance. Around 1800 BCE, advanced trading societies journeyed from the Malacca Straits on Sumatra and went searching for new lands to settle and communities to trade with. These migrating tribes had developed the best out-rigger canoes and an unparalleled understanding of the ocean and heavens above. They took with them their commensal plants and animals and set sail upon the open sea.  

Their first steps were to Java, before establishing trading hubs in Makassar at the base of Sulawesi, then eastwards to Halmahera and Ceram. From there, Austronesians skirted the top of New Guinea and settled on islands along the north coast off Wewak and Madang, establishing trading hubs which survived until modern colonial settlement. Around 3500 years ago they had established settlements in Watom Island off New Britain and Mussau Islands to the north where the first examples of the distinctive Lapita pottery style can be found. These early traders took shards of obsidian from Talasea on New Britain that were eventually traded across vast stretches of ocean. 

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They reached the furthest extent of human expansion in the Solomons soon after. Humans had made it to the Solomons on crude watercraft during periods of low sea level tens of thousands of years earlier. There expansion was held up by the distanced involved in what we call the Near Pacific. However, these new Austronesians modern outrigger canoes quickly made the great leap to colonise uninhabited islands of Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa, and Tonga. In Samoa, there seems to be a brief hiatus of Polynesian expansion of a couple of hundred years until a monumental period of rapid colonisation throughout the rest of the Pacific.   

Along the way these brave seafarers talked of their homeland. Current evidence points to Hawaii being the most recently colonised Island, but this dispersion throughout the Pacific was very sudden. We see the word Hawaii reappear in different forms following a multi-branched path back from Hawaii, Tahiti, the Cook Island, Samoa, New Zealand, Halmahera, Ceram, Java and into Sumatra.  

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New Zealand Māori have stories of them migrating from a faraway Island they called Hawaiki. A location which has a bewildering number of possible islands. The first Hawaiians came from Tahiti and close by Marquesas Islands. We know this because there is a strait between Maui and Lanai called Kealaikahiki which is loosely translated means ‘road to Tahiti’. Within Malayo-Polynesian, the sounds to the letters W, V, N, K and H appear to be interchanged at will. In the Cook Islands they have a word for their original homeland is Avaiki. Samoa obviously had a significant impact on migrating groups, but the word reappears back along the path of migration. The main Island of Samoa is Savai’i 

The Indonesian Island of Halmahera provides some extra clues. The Halmaherans referred to their islands as Sava and the southerly Ceram Island, Sawaii, meaning little homeland. Was this where Polynesians picked up the double ii’s pronounced ‘e-e’? As words evolve, sound changes are affected by each new generation (usually through teenagers) and suffixes and prefixes are integrated to help define word meaning.  

Closer to their homeland, Jawa is the Bahasa spelling for the island of Java, and you may assume this is where it all started. Linguists have now linked the word for homeland back to the great trading communities of Sumatra. While much of the archaeology of Sumatra still awaits to be unearthed, linguists have mapped the expansion of Malayo-Polynesian back to this island. Suggesting more ancient origins, the Indianized Buddhist state of Srivijaya was once the pre-eminent trading port in Asia. Today this is built over by the modern city of Palembang. It was here that trade goods, religions, languages, migrants were all funnelled through the melting pot of the Malaccan Strait.  

Malayo-Polynesian words also recently entered half a dozen indigenous Australian languages. When the Macassan trepang Praus discovered Australian Beche De Mer, they introduced dozens of words in the Australian lexicon. The most interesting one for us here is the Yolngu word Ballanda, a corruption of the Macassan word Hollander, referring to Macassar’s colonial power. Hollander incidentally refers to where they came from as well. Holland in old Dutch meaning woodlands.  

Stay tuned for Coral Expeditions upcoming release of ‘Circumnavigation of Sumatra’. Let us unlock further secrets of this fascinating part of our world along the way. 

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