Larry Kimura is known as the “grandfather of the Hawaiian language,” an honorific that, at 74, he supposes he’s the right age for. But he has no intention of retiring from promoting and advancing the study and appreciation of the Hawaiian language. “There’s still so much to do,” says Kimura, an associate professor of Hawaiian language and studies at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
In 1972—when it was still technically illegal to speak Hawaiian in public schools—Kimura launched Ka Leo Hawaii, a Hawaiian-language radio show in Honolulu. Over 16 years, he recorded more than 550 hours of interviews with every native speaker he could find. He’s now digitizing the files for future generations to hear.
His nonprofit group Aha Pūnana Leo (“nest of voices”) has opened 12 Hawaiian-language preschools. He also chairs the Hawaiian Lexicon Committee to create new Hawaiian words. It’s a task he gladly embraces whenever astronomers at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Maunakea call on him to bestow a Hawaiian name upon their discoveries, taking the language far beyond the island chain.
What’s the translation of Oumuamua, an interstellar object you named? It means “scout from the distant past.” It was coming into our galaxy at great speed. It seemed to be a spy, a scout, checking out our solar system. What qualities of the Hawaiian language bring joy to your ear? Because it is very vowel-heavy, the sound is round and melodic. It lends itself well to music.
Will you share two Hawaiian words with us that capture the culture and language? Mauli, “the spirit of life.” It’s something we value greatly in our language and our culture. And manawa, which is usually translated as “heart,” but it’s more than that. It’s not just the seat of emotions but of capacity and awareness.
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Larry Kimura’s Hilo Highlights
Naung Mai Thai Kitchen: It’s an outstanding little Thai spot. I enjoy their tom yum soup.
Hilo Bay Cafe: It’s beautiful place to take visitors, with great views from their two-story building. Their creative menu features food such as steaks, poke and sushi.
Cafe Pesto: They serve good little pizzas and Kona coffee. Their hot and fresh Keanakolu apple crisp is named for a famed orchard on the island that sits at 6,000 feet elevation.