“How to Pronounce Lili’uokalani? Ask Marvin Nogelmeier” – Man From Minnesota Teaches Hawaiians a Thing or Two About Their Own Language”

By Julia Flynn Siler

HONOLULU, Hawaii — The voice on the Route-8 bus pronounces the names of each bus stop in perfect,mellifluous native Hawaiian: “Kuhio and Lili’uokalani,” the recording says as the bus approaches a stop onthe way to Waikiki Beach. “Prince Kuhio Hotel, Waikiki Resort Hotel.”

Residents of Hawaii know the voice well. It also provides Hawaiian-language voice-overs for TV documentaries, announcements on Hawaiian Airlines and the native-language audio tour for Iolani palace in Honolulu. The voice belongs to Puakea Nogelmeier, a local professor whose pronunciation has become a model for Hawaiians wanting to speak the tongue of their native land.

Mr. Nogelmeier’s native land: St. Paul, Minn.

His real name is Marvin, and he’s in Hawaii because he got stranded here when he lost his wallet in 1972 on his way to Japan, lived on beaches for several months and ended up staying to study hula and Hawaiian.

“People like his voice,” says Kippen de Alba Chu, who’s half native Hawaiian and the executive director of Iolani Palace, which hired Mr. Nogelmeier’s voice three years ago. Mr. de Alba Chu says native speakers tell him the Minnesotan’s Hawaiian is flawless.

“‘O ka Lumi Kalaunu keia, kahi e kipa ai i ka mo’i,” Mr. Nogelmeier’s voice says on the audio tour. That’s Hawaiian for “This is the throne room, where one would have an audience with the sovereign.”

Mr. Nogelmeier became the Hawaiian voice of choice by mastering the once-nearly-extinct language over several decades during which the numbers of remaining elderly speakers were dwindling.

Now 57 years old and an associate professor in the University of Hawaii’s Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language, he has become one of the world’s leading experts on the tongue.

He advised Walt Disney Co. on language issues for a resort it is building on Oahu and he also consulted fora recent independent feature film called “Princess Ka’iulani” about a Hawaiian princess. The operators of Oahu island’s public-transport system chose his deep baritone as the voice for its often tongue-twisting bus-stop names.

Unlike most mainlanders, Mr. Nogelmeier has no trouble saying names like Lili’uokalani (pronounced Lee-leeooh-oh-kah-lani), Hawaii’s last queen and now the name of a Honolulu street, garden, children’s center and hospital.

Some people are surprised to learn that the voice on the bus doesn’t belong to a native Hawaiian but a white Minnesotan. Jessica M. Chong, a part-Hawaiian engineer who rides the bus to work, says she thought the voice was authentic Hawaiian generated by a computer. The bus voice taught her how to correctly pronounce certain Hawaiian street names. “So that’s how you say it,” she recalls thinking.

In 1896, shortly before the U.S. annexed Hawaii, the provisional government that overthrew the monarchy banned the teaching of Hawaiian in schools. By the 1960s, it was nearly extinct.

But in 1978, state legislators made Hawaiian the state’s official language alongside English, even though only a few hundred Hawaiians spoke it fluently at the time. In the 1980s, the state approved the first Hawaiian-language-immersion schools.

By state mandate, Hawaiian now appears alongside English on many public signs and buses. An estimated 20,000 people, out of a total population of about 1.3 million, now speak and understand some Hawaiian. Few are fully fluent.

The language resurgence has been helped by non-Hawaiians who, like Mr. Nogelmeier, made it a calling to learn Hawaiian.

Mr. Nogelmeier’s late hula teacher gave him the honorific name “Puakea,” or “fair child.” When he began learning about Hawaiian culture, “I was a real empty calabash,” he says, referring to a hollowed out gourd used in Hawaiian feasts. “I never even knew Hawaii had a kingdom or that it once had a monarchy.”

Over the years, he absorbed the language and culture by spending time with elderly native-Hawaiian speakers, whom he calls his “uncles” and “aunties.” He visited their homes several times a week, “talking story” with them, strumming a ukulele and singing his own Hawaiian compositions to them.

One of his “aunties,” 71-year-old Lolena Nicholas, has known Mr. Nogelmeier for more than 25 years and says his pronunciation is good even when he uses obscure colloquialisms. Asked if she can tell he’s a Minnesotan when he speaks Hawaiian, she laughs and says: “No!”

His pronunciation has become such a benchmark that some locals have changed the way they say certain words based on his direction. Locals had long mistakenly pronounced the name of one of the city’s main streets, Kinau, as “Key-now.” Mr. Nogelmeier began pronouncing it on the bus recording as “Key-Na-Oh” after he learned to say it correctly from an elderly white man who was fluent in Hawaiian and had attended the last queen’s funeral in 1917. Since then, many islanders have begun following his lead.

Jon Y. Nouchi, planning director for Oahu Transit Services Inc. and a former student of Mr. Nogelmeier’s, lobbied to hire his ex-teacher for the bus-voice job after several unsuccessful tries with other speakers,including a Texan for whom he had to spell out the pronunciation of every word. He pays Mr. Nogelmeier $500 an hour to record announcements.

Mr. Nogelmeier’s voice grates on some native-Hawaiian experts. “We’ve gotten to a time and place where Hawaiians need to be allowed to step forward,” says Leilani Basham, a former student of Mr. Nogelmeier’swho is now an assistant professor in the University of Hawaii’s Hawaiian-Pacific Studies Program. “He takes up too much space,” adds Ms. Basham, a native Hawaiian.

Mr. Nogelmeier acknowledges the challenges he faces being an expert in a culture that he was not born into. “You might as well put a target on your back,” he says.

Mr. de Alba Chu, the Iolani-palace executive director who is half-Hawaiian, says Mr. Nogelmeier is eminently qualified for the voice job. Besides, he says, there aren’t many native speakers with the right voice qualities.

Mr. Nogelmeier hasn’t abandoned his hippy past. At one of his recent university language classes, he wore a small white flower tucked behind his ear, a turquoise Hawaiian shirt and sports clogs.

Claire Hiwahiwa Steele, a native Hawaiian graduate student in the class, says she shows up early for class and works hard to please him. “You don’t want to disappoint Puakea,” she says.

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(Copyright (c) 2004, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)