The change in plate design would only have affected the word “Hawai‘i”, but the bill supporting the effort failed.

For at least another year, state license plates won’t include Hawaiian diacritical marks, even in the small standardized text around the edges of the plate design, with the recent death of House Bill 105. But supporters hope that won’t be the end of the effort.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badge

The bill supported allowing all future drivers to show the okina on their license plates. It passed a second reading a few weeks ago but wasn’t picked up for the third and final reading it needed to pass before the session ended this week.

This change in plate design would only have affected the word “Hawai‘i” written on the top of its iconic rainbow-themed plate. But it took on added significance amid the state’s ongoing discussion around Hawaiian language revitalization.

The gesture of public acknowledgement for olelo Hawaii could have represented a step toward normalizing and protecting Hawaiian language on a mass scale, said Zuri Aki, public policy manager for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

“Diacritical marks, which are often overlooked … they add meaning. A simple ‘okina in a word can entirely change the meaning of a word,” Aki said. “It attests to Native Hawaiian culture and values that what you say really matters. ʻŌlelo Hawai‘i is one of the two official languages here, so it’s important for us to have the state recognize that.”

A bill calling for the okina to be used on license plates in Hawaii failed, but supporters vowed to try again. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

However, the Honolulu Police Department opposed the bill with concerns for officers about the legibility of the place name.

“This will affect the readability of the license plates, especially at a distance. In addition, the license plates can also be used in other states where certain markings may not be recognizable,” Stason Tanaka, acting major for the Traffic Division, said in a written testimony.

“It was intended that it’s just for the word ‘Hawaiʻi’ that’s on the top of the license plate,” said Derek Miyashiro, deputy director of the Department of Customer Services. “That should not affect the license plate number itself.”

But Miyashiro’s assurances were not enough for legislators.

  • Stories By University Of Hawaii Students

The text on the plates would have remained the same size and typeface as previous years, but the symbolism of seeing the spelling of “Hawai‘i” everywhere you go would be extremely valuable to Hawaiian cultural recognition, Aki said.

While the bill was pushed back to be recalled at a later date, meaning it didn’t survive this legislative session, Native Hawaiian language practitioners hope the emphasis on language will continue to be normalized across the islands and in future political contexts. And they hope to bring the idea back to the Legislature next year.

“The big picture is perpetuating Native Hawaiian existence,” Aki said. “Perpetuating or the normalizing of language strengthens the Native Hawaiian identity … and going into the future, it preserves place names, the history of the place, and meaning.”

“We’re hoping we can elevate the language to a degree that is used for business and in every other aspect of life. Because language carries culture with it … and we’ll get a deeper understanding of (our) culture,” he added.

Help Power Local, Nonprofit News.

Across the nation and in Hawaii, news organizations are downsizing and closing their doors due to the ever-rising costs of keeping local journalism alive and well.

While Civil Beat has grown year over year, still only 1% of our readers are donors, and we need your help now more than ever.

Make a gift today of any amount, and your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,500, thanks to a generous group of Civil Beat donors.

About the Author