Sunday, March 23, 2014

Mauna Kea: One Word or Two?

The local newspaper, the Hawaii Tribune Herald, ran an article back on February 13 talking about a recent meeting by the Mauna Kea Management Board (MKMB). The article spent most of its time talking about the progress of the Thirty Meter Telescope, which was interesting enough, but what I found really fascinating was buried in the last sentence relating some of the other proceedings of the meeting. I've reproduced the sentence in question below and underlined the part I found so arresting:
“The MKMB also discussed the installation of a photovoltaic system at the Hale Pohaku Mid-Level Astronomy Facilities, its volunteer efforts, and the decision to change the spelling of Mauna Kea to one word instead of two.”
I find that a surprising topic of discussion for two reasons. Linguistically, “Maunakea” isn't really more or less valid than “Mauna Kea.” In Hawaiian “mauna” means “mountain” and “kea” means “white,” and “mauna kea” translates really well into English as “white mountain.” Of course, by this point it's become a proper name, and just as “Whitemountain” would be a perfectly valid (if a little odd) name in English, “Maunakea” would be a valid name in Hawaiian (and there are a lot of precedents for names in Hawaiian made up of multiple words being written as one, which is where the occasional name longer than twenty letters comes from). This form of name is actually somewhat common in European languages: the name “Montenegro” (the country in south-east Europe) means simply “Black Mountain.” The early Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi's last name I believe means “green mountain.” And there are cities in both France and Spain with the name Montblanc, which I think would translate to “white mountain.” I suspect such things probably also appear in other languages that I don't know around the world.

So this isn't quite as frivolous at it might as first appear, but it's at best neutral. Those other names have been long standardized in the form they appear, but just so “Mauna Kea” has been standard for quite a while. Which brings me to my second point: practically, Mauna Kea has been spelled that way for a long time now. Even if you could make a compelling case, linguistically, for spelling it as one word (which I don't think you can, although I do admit I'm not an expert in Hawaiian), the fact of the matter is that there's a lot of printed material out there calling it Mauna Kea. This should give serious pause to any consideration of name-changing, no matter what. It's just strange to me that the subject was even brought up for discussion.

To be fair, there isn't any indication in the article about what was actually decided in the matter or even how much time they spent discussing it. I haven't heard anything official since, but if I do I'll be sure to report on it. Until next time, a hui hou!


  1. Hmm! It would make it sounds more like a proper name, I think, but I don't think they can rename Mauna Kea and leave Mauna Loa alone. Maunaloa? I never thought about the names not being combined - it would be a bit weird to have Hale A Ka La over on Maui...

    Just out of curiosity, what are your thoughts on the thirty meter telescope?

  2. You should do a post about the BICEP2 results!

  3. Great points here. I think the bottom line really is about the mess that a name change makes. Right or wrong doesn't matter, if it was two words for so long why on earth do we need the mess that making it one word creates. Seems like a silly waste of time, effort, and (I'm sure) tax payer money...because in the end it always costs the tax payers :) Matt @


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