0502E Thoughts on the Number Twenty

Learn about the number iwakālua

Image of a Hawaiian Newspaper clipping


This post is in response to a great comment received from Elithe Manuha’aipo Kahn which read as follows:

I learned to count “twenty” as: iwakaulua versus iwakalua. “Kaulua” equals a “pairing”….. 2 nines iwa = 18 + 2 lua = iwakaulua = 20
Sometimes it is in the hearing and spelling that sounds and meanings of words are misunderstood, misheard and then miswritten.
My knowledge of Hawaiiana is limited but this I understand. I do hope this will shed some light on the long standing mystery concerning the number 20. Pēlā paha, ʻaʻole paha (maybe, maybe not!) Ha!!!

Mahalo to you, Elithe. This is a very interesting topic, and one that I have been pondering for over 20 years!

As can be inferred from the comment, the theory is that possibly due to inaccuracies in the early days of reducing Hawaiian language to a written form, the word “iwakālua” replaced the more ancient (and perhaps logical) “iwakaulua”. But in the case of the word for twenty (20) in Hawaiian today, I am certain that it has been spoken as “iwakālua” for more than 200 years. We have proof, in fact, that it was already in use during the time of Kamehameha The Great, Liholiho, and Kauikeaouli in the early 1800s. Let me explain.


Although the full history of the Hawaiian word “iwakālua” is not known, we do know that its spelling was obviously “updated” from simply “iwakalua” to “iwakālua” (adding the kahakō, or macron) around the mid-1900s and fixed as a standard with the publishing of the Pukui-Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary in the early 1970s.

The two main sources we have for researching the etymology of the word are (1) Hawaiian newspapers of the 19th and 20th century; and (2) audio recordings of native Hawaiian speakers made in the mid-to-late 20th century. In all cases, I feel confident in saying that the word has been spoken as “iwakālua” and written as either “iwakalua”, “iwakālua”, or sometimes with a dash inserted, as “iwa-kalua”. The latter is considered a non-standard way of writing it today.

Looking into the Ulukau Newspaper archive database (www.ulukau.org or nupepa.org) I find 1,635 occurrences of the word “iwakalua” on 1,135 different pages*.

There are no occurrences of “iwakaulua” in any variation of spelling I can think of.

The first use of “iwakalua” in newspapers was its appearance twice on the very first page of the very first Hawaiian newspaper “Ka Lama Hawaii” (The Hawaiian Luminary) issued on Feburary 14, 1834.

…he iwakalua kanaka…

Translation: twenty men

Ka Lama Hawaii: Makahiki 1, Helu 1, ʻAoʻao 1. 14 Feberuari 1834.

Then there were the 1,600+ other occurrences of the word throughout the years, until something interesting happened in the 1920s, when someone writing in “Ka Nupepa Kuokoa” (The Independent) decided to write the numbers with dashes inserted.

…iwa-kalua-kumamaha mau moku hahai topido…

Translation: twenty four torpedo chaser boats

Ka Nupepa Kuokoa: Buke 63, Helu 40. 2 ʻOkakopa 1924.

…no ka piha ana o na makahiki he iwa-kalua-kumamalima o ke ku ana o keia ahahui…

Translation: for the twenty fifth anniversary of the existence of this society – in reference to the Kamehameha Society

Ka Nupepa Kuokoa: Buke 66, Helu 11. 17 Malaki 1927.

Regarding the audio recordings we have, there are no alternate pronunciations of “iwakālua” that I know of. The same goes for all of the grammar and text books that were produced in the 1800s and up to the mid-1900s.

So while I agree with the sentiment that sounds and words are sometimes “misunderstood, misheard and then miswritten,” I think this doesn’t apply to the case of “iwakālua” for as far back as we can effectively trace.

an image of old Hawaiian text

Word Confusions

There are many words with meanings that don’t seem to make sense when looking at the parts of the word. It is easy, therefore, to find oneself at a loss when trying to explain how certain words came to be what they are. Take the English word “refute” (to prove a statement or theory to be wrong), for example. It sounds like it should be “re-“ (again) plus “fute” (??) and therefore “to fute something again” in the same way that “readjust” means “to set or adjust something again.” But of course there is no word “fute” as far as I know, although it would be quite convenient for us to make a meaning for it that makes sense and allows us to explain the word “refute” to students who might ask.

Another word that befuddled me well into my 20s was “pronounciation” (which, of course, should be “pronunciation”). It just seemed logical to me that the word should be the root “pronounce” plus some sort of normal “-ation” ending, and so I stubbornly said it that way for years. The fact is, however, that “pronunciation” is probably the more ancient and “correct” term: the Latin word “nuntiare” (meaning to announce) was prefixed by “pro-” to get “pronuntiare” which the Old French made into “pronuncier” – and voilà you’ve got “pronunciate” and therefore “pronunciation” in English! Something odd must have happened to “pronunce” (I just made that up) after being associated with the Old French “annoncer” (to announce) when Old English and Old French were rubbing shoulders half a millenium ago, and that’s perhaps how we ended up saying “pronounce” and “announce” rather than “pronunce” and “annunce”! What a complicated story. I just had to re-read that four times myself! But I hope you get the idea.

Come to think of it, there are folks in England who do actually pronounce those words as “pronunce” and “annunce”. But I digress…

Looking For Order And Logic

This same sort of confusion and wish to find order and “logic” in words which don’t seem to make sense also applies to “iwakālua” in Hawaiian, which just doesn’t seem to make sense when we take it apart. We all want to somehow relate it to “iwa” (nine) plus “kā-“ (possible transitivizer) plus “lua” (two or twice). This is especially the case since 2 x 9 = 18 and 18 is only 2 away from 20 – so naturally there must be a connection! But alas, I do not think there is one.

So in summary, I also wish there were an easy way to explain “iwakālua”. I just don’t see it yet though, although I am hoping that one day I will discover a Polynesian cognate that will help to shed some light on this seemingly daft designation. Until then, if any of you have any insight to lend, please feel free to drop me a line or leave a comment below. Mahalo!

*as of 2014-12-24 when the search was done

me ke aloha

Pane mai

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