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The photograph in Figure 1 shows the street sign erected in 2000 for a newly named street called "Kaupakue‘a Homestead Road." The street is located about 10 miles north of the town of Hilo on the eastern side of the island of Hawai‘i and connects the area known traditionally as Kaupakuea Homesteads with Highway 19.

Figure 1

Figure 2 shows this particular land division (Hawaiian: ahupua‘a) of South Hilo District extending from the sea upland to 1500 feet at Pu‘u Ka‘uku, a volcanic cone on the eastern slope of Mauna Kea, from which two lava flows reached the sea (Pukui, Elbert and Mookini 1974:93). The word pu‘u found in many other place names as well means ‘hill/cone/mountain/peak/elevation’ and ahupua‘a is a term referring to a traditional land division extending from the uplands to the ocean. It was given this name because the boundary was marked with a heap (Hawaiian: ahu) of stones surmounted by an image of a pig (Hawaiian: pua‘a), or because a pig or other tribute was laid on the altar as a tax to the ruling chief.

The place name Kaupakuea is mentioned in Ka Nūpepa Kū‘oko‘a, a Hawaiian language newspaper published during the 1860s. A post office with the name Kaupakuea was established in the area in 1858 and was operational until 1869. This spelling follows the old missionary orthography which does not mark glottal stops and vowel length. Nevertheless, I have not been able to uncover convincing evidence indicating that the place name Kaupakuea was/is pronounced with a glottal stop and should be spelled with an ‘okina in the new orthography. Hence, I believe it is another example of a glottal goof.

This account of how the name appeared in the form it took on the sign provides a good illustration of continuing inconsistencies in usage, and confusion about the ‘okina, as described in the article "Signs of identity, signs of discord."

As far as I can tell, the place name is composed of two words: kaupaku + ea. The word kaupaku means ‘ridgepole, highest point’. According to Pukui and Elbert (1971) kaupaku is a common variant of kaupoku. Although Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini (1974) do not record the name Kaupakuea, the formative Kaupaku appears in two of the place names they recorded: Kaupakuhale (‘house ridgepole, roof’) on the island of O‘ahu and Kaupakulua (‘two ridgepoles’) on the island of Maui (Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini 1974:96). If the Kaupakuea Homestead Association’s originally proposed spelling as Kaupakuea is accurate, this would mean accepting ea with no glottal stop, as the second formative. However, Pukui and Elbert (1971) also note that ea is sometimes pronounced with an initial glottal stop as /?ea/. The word ea has multiple meanings, among them ‘sovereignty/rule/independence’; ‘life/air/breath/breeze/ spirit’; ‘to rise’; and ‘to smell’. My view is that the meaning most consistent with the principles of structural composition outlined in Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini (1974) is ‘rising ridgepole’. There are at least two other recorded place names of this type: Lokoea ( ‘rising pond’), old fishponds near Waipahu on O‘ahu (Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini 1974:133), and Pu‘uea (‘rising hill’), an ancient surfing area in Honomū on Hawai‘i not far from Kaupakuea (Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini 1974:195).

This interpretation is in conformity with both the morphology and semantics of the 4,000 place names Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini (1974:244;180) analyzed, most of which contain two words (most commonly a noun followed by a qualifier), and most of which (83 percent) have discernible meanings. The etymology of the name is also consistent with the topography of Kaupakuea Homesteads ahupua‘a, as shown in Figure 2, whose high ridge culminating in Pu‘u Ka‘uku, a prominent feature of the landscape, is visible from a great distance. Since the greatest number of Hawaiian place names (21 percent) refer to geographical features (Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini 1974:258), it is not unreasonable to suppose this is an appropriate etymology for Kaupakuea.

By contrast, I can find no convincing evidence for accepting the spelling on the sign as "Kaupakue‘a," unless it is an indivisible name with no reconstructible etymology. Pukui and Elbert’s dictionary does not record e‘a at all, so it does not appear to be possible to argue that the name consists of kaupaku + e‘a. This suggests that the County of Hawai‘i’s spelling is inaccurate. Note, however, that the symbol they use for the ‘okina is typographically correct, unlike many of those found on other state and county signs on the island of Hawai‘i.

The documents in Figures 3 through 7 explain the process which led to the County of Hawai‘i’s approval of the name on the new street sign, and how it came to be spelled as "Kaupakue‘a". As noted in the article ("Signs of Identity, Signs of Discord"), the State of Hawai‘i does not have legally binding standards for spelling Hawaiian names on signs, but each of the four counties has procedures for establishing street names. Figure 3 contains the relevant procedures for the County of Hawai‘i (also available at

In 1996 Roger W. Moser, Jr. wrote to the County of Hawai‘i Planning Department, acting in his capacity as President of the Kaupakuea Homestead Association, to request the name "Kaupakuea Homestead Road" for a newly paved road leading from Highway 19 into Kaupakuea Homestead. Figure 4 shows the letter dated January 7, 1997 which Moser received from County of Hawai‘i Planning Director, Virginia Goldstein, confirming that the name was not already in use and that it would be reserved for the road in question pending a poll of the property owners in the area.

Moser attended various County Council meetings concerning the proposed name and the requested street sign. When he and his wife, Ku‘uleinani Snyder, learned that the County Council was proposing the addition of an ‘okina to the name, Snyder went to the County offices in Hilo, where she spoke to Barbara Hashimoto in the Planning Department on April 8, 1999. Hashimoto explained that an unnamed expert at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo had advised that the name meant ‘Hawksbill Turtle Ridge’. According to this interpretation then, the name is composed of two words kaupaku ‘ridgepole/highest point’ and ‘ea ‘Hawksbill turtle’. Snyder did not find the etymology convincing and persuaded her that the name had no ‘okina, and Hashimoto agreed to put the name before the County Council in the spelling originally proposed by the Kaupakuea Homestead Association.

Shortly thereafter, Moser received a copy of a memo dated April 20, 1999, from Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd, Chair of the County of Hawai‘i’s Committee on Planning, sent to the Chair and Members of the County Council. The memo (shown in Figure 5) indicated that a resolution had been drafted about the proposed street name and that an ‘okina had been inserted into the name. Thus, the originally proposed name "Kaupakuea Homestead Road" would be approved as "Kaupaku‘ea Homestead Road," despite Snyder’s reassurance from Hashimoto that the name would be kept as originally requested without the ‘okina. Figure 6 shows the letter Moser received from County of Hawai‘i Planning Director, Virginia Goldstein, dated June 8, 1999, indicating that the County Council had passed a resolution approving the new street name with the ‘okina. Figure 7 shows a copy of the resolution dated May 5, 1999.

Ironically, however, when the sign was actually erected, the spelling "Kaupaku‘ea" proposed in Leithead-Todd’s memo and the resolution passed by the County Council was not used. Instead, yet another unexplained spelling was introduced with an ‘okina in a different place, and thus, the name is spelled on the sign as "Kaupakue‘a", as seen in Figure 1.

Moser and Snyder were exasperated and continue to be unhappy about the outcome because they feel that the resulting sign is inaccurate. As suggested above, there are good linguistic grounds for their dissatisfaction. The spelling which they originally proposed is also consistent with local usage in which the name is pronounced as /kaupakuea/ with no glottal. However, as the article points out, many Hawaiian place names have undergone a process of phonological restructuring due to influence from English, and salient features of traditional Hawaiian phonology such as the glottal stop and vowel length have been lost. Hence, one cannot rely entirely on current pronunciations in decisions about how to spell place names. In the absence of knowledgeable elders having sufficient familiarity with the Hawaiian language and the area to offer their views on the pronunciation and meaning, we can examine possible etymologies for their coherence in the light of what is known about place names. Unfortunately, etymology is also not an entirely reliable guide either. It is not always possible to prove that a particular etymology is "correct," and many names may have multiple etymologies.

In addition, it is not clear how representative Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini’s (1974) sample of 4,000 place names is of the total corpus of Hawaiian place names, but it is a significant and indispensable starting point for attempting to reconstruct an appropriate etymology. Their coverage is rather eclectic, and is not exhaustive. They describe their collection of place names as a list of "samples of all sorts of names" ranging from features of the landscape to Honolulu streets and buildings. Street names outside Honolulu were not included unless deemed of special interest or importance, and within Honolulu only street names with meanings not easily discoverable in the dictionary were included. Their work does not provide uniform coverage of all the islands, and is restricted to areas in which the compilers had special interest or knowledge, and for which adequate published sources are available. This meant that the island of Moloka‘i is extremely well treated, but the island of Kaua‘i least well (Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini 1974:xi-xii). The book also includes a certain number (approximately 14 percent) of English names.

Nevertheless, even if we accept Kaupaku for the first formative, that leaves us with the origin of <ea> to consider. Is the County Council’s proposal of the spelling as Kaupaku‘ea reasonable etymologically speaking and is there sufficient evidence in favor of it to outweigh a rendering of the name as Kaupakuea, as originally proposed by Kaupakuea Homestead Association? According to Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini (1974:258), only a small number of the place names (N = 32) they examined refer to sea life. Specifically, 11 make reference to i‘a ‘fish’, 11 to manō ‘shark’, and 10 to honu ‘turtle’. They do not mention ‘ea with the meaning ‘hawksbill turtle’ as a formative in place names, and the word also has other meanings such as ‘spray’ or ‘dust’ (through association with similar ‘e‘a with which it is sometimes interchanged). Examination of their list of place names, however, reveals ‘ea as a component in at least two place names: Pāpa‘a‘ea (‘turtle shell piece’), a land section and stream on Maui (Pukui, Elbert and Mookini 1974:179), and Waiaka‘ea (‘water [used] by the turtle’), a pond and land division in Puna District on the island of Hawai‘i (Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini 1974:219)

Hence, from a linguistic point of view, two renderings can be given coherent etymologies and are structurally analogous to place names recorded in Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini (1974):

  1. Kaupakuea (as proposed by the Kaupakuea Homestead Association) meaning ‘rising ridgepole, ridge’ and pronounced either as /kaupakuea/ or /kaupaku?ea/, taking into account the variant pronunciation noted by Pukui and Elbert (1971). In the latter case, one could also spell the name in the new orthography as Kaupaku‘ea.
  2. Kaupaku‘ea (as proposed by the County Council) meaning ‘Hawksbill Turtle Ridge’ and pronounced as /kaupaku?ea/, or alternatively, as /kaupak?e?a/ (if one takes into account the variant pronunciations noted by Pukui and Elbert 1971. In the latter case, one could also spell the name in the new orthography as Kaupaku‘e‘a).

Yet neither of these spellings was used on the sign. Still, it is not surprising that the spelling on the sign would take the form *Kaupakue‘a since there is still much confusion about the ‘okina and kahakō. It is possible either that the County Council did not spell the name as they had intended when giving instructions for the sign to be made, or that the sign makers, not knowing Hawaiian, simply misplaced the ‘okina. Certainly, the correspondence shown in Figures 4 through 7 illustrates the variable and inconsistent usage in official documents produced by state and government agencies mentioned in the article. Consider the spellings of the place names Hawai‘i, Pepe‘ekeo and the word ahupua‘a.

The letterhead used by the County of Hawai‘i Planning Department does not use the ‘okina in its spelling of Hawai‘i (see Figures 4 and 6). However, in Figure 4, Goldstein’s 1997 letter to Moser, the ‘okina in the place name Pepeekeo in Moser’s address, is marked (although the typographically correct symbol is not used). In Goldstein’s 1999 letter to Moser in Figure 6, the place name appears as Pepeekeo without the ‘okina. In her 1997 letter the word ahupuaa does not have an ‘okina, but in the resolution shown in Figure 7, it is spelled according to the new orthography with an ‘okina. The resolution in Figure 7 contains the variable spellings Hawaii and Hawai‘i.


Thanks to Roger Moser and Ku‘uleinani
Snyder for the photographs and the documents in Figures 1 through 7.


Pukui, Mary Kawena and Samuel H. Elbert
  1971 Hawaiian Dictionary. Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Pukui, Mary Kawena, Samuel H. Elbert, and Esther Mookini
  1974 Place Names of Hawai‘i. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press. Revised and enlarged 2nd ed.

© 2002, Suzanne Romaine

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