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iconpdf (1K) Printable Version (.pdf)

This tutorial outlines every major feature of Hawaiian as it has been described in other works. It is not intended to establish fluency, rather, it gives students requisite knowledge of pronunciation, basic vocabulary, and grammar to stay buoyant in an intensive speaking or reading environment, such as having a conversation with a Hawaiian speaking friend or relative, or reading books in Hawaiian. I would like to express my appreciation to Dr. Paul de Lacy of Rutgers University, Professor of Linguistics, Dr. 'Ōiwi Parker Jones, and Dr. Katie Dragger, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa for their support. Lessons 2-8 are still pending.

This website uses special characters. If the content in the left box does not match the content in the right box below (if there is not a horizontal line above each vowel), then your web browser cannot properly display certain letters of the Hawaiian alphabet, and may need updating. Try viewing this site with Internet Explorer version 5.0+, Netscape Navigator version 6.0+, or Mozilla 1.7.5+. For more information, visit http://www.unicode.org/.

Proper Display
Ā / ā
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Ē / ē
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Ī / ī
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Ō / ō
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Ū / ū
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Not everyone who speaks Hawaiian today is ethnically Hawaiian, but this is usually the case. Therefore, unlike major world languages like English, French and Spanish - which are spoken by various peoples around the globe - Hawaiian is considered "the language of Native Hawaiians". Native Hawaiians come from Austronesia, which is in the Pacific Ocean between Asia and Australia, and the Americas. There you'll find hundreds of small islands, some of which are nations or confederated into nations, within a few main territories.

Austronesia starts in Southeast Asia with the Malay Archipelago, encompassing places like Singapore, East Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia (from Latin: "Indian islands"), which is where Java, Sumatra, Bali, and West Papua are located. Continuing southwest we have Australasia, which somewhat informally refers to Australia and surrounding islands like Tasmania and New Zealand. Oceania consists of islands to the northwest of Australia.

Oceania is trifurcated into i. Melanesia (from Latin: "black islands") to the south which has places like Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Fiji, ii. Micronesia (from Latin: "small islands") to the north which contains such islands as Palau, Guam, and Nauru, and iii. Polynesia (from Latin: "many islands"), or the Polynesian Triangle, which is comprised of notably Nauru, Tonga, Samoa, and Niue to the west, French Polynesia (incl. Tahiti, the Marquesas), and Easter Island (Rapa Nui) to the east, the Maori homeland of New Zealand (Aotearoa) to the very south, and the Hawaiian archipelago to the very north, which was formerly called the Sandwich Islands.

Oceania Map

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Polynesia is culturally split into eastern versus western: whereas Eastern Polynesia (which includes Hawaii) is generally accustomed to smaller islands with the exception of New Zealand, Western Polynesia has higher populations and strong marital, judicial, and economic traditions.

People have been living in Melanesia and Australia for tens of thousands of years, but Micronesia and Polynesia were settled only a few thousand years ago. By observing zenith stars, fishing birds, ocean swells, changes in sea color, and other signs, seafarers from aboriginal (pre-Chinese) Taiwan, voyaged eastward by outrigger canoes bringing useful plants (banana, taro, coconut, sugar cane etc.), a few animals (boar, red junglefowl, poi dog, black rat etc.) and traces of their distinctive "Lapita" pottery on the islands they discovered. Portions of them stayed in Melanesia, mixing with the dark skinned peoples there, but future generations traveled upward to Micronesia and eastward to Fiji, then to Samoa and Tonga, which became known as the Cradle of Polynesia from which other Polynesian islands were discovered.

Oceanic Settlement Map

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All Polynesian languages are similar to one another, in fact at one time they were thought to be dialects of a single language. Just like how related European languages like English and Spanish have similar words for things (such as 'tortoise' and 'tortuga'), Polynesian languages have several cognates as well. Hawaiian is most similar to Tahitian, Marquesan, and Maori, but it has cognates in other Austronesian languages as far east as the Philippines and Malaysia.

Cognates in Austronesian Languages

English sky face to eat
Hawaiian lani maka ‘ai
Samoan lagi mata ‘ai
Tahitian ra‘i mata ‘amu
Tongan langi mata kai
Maori rangi mata kai
Fijian lagi mata kana
Tagalog (Filipino) langit mukha kumain
Malay langit muka kumakan

Numbers 1-10 of these languages are very similar, in fact lima (five) and walu (eight) are thought to be identical to their proto-forms (as far back as these words can be traced), which are 6,000 years old!

Note that just because two islands are near each other does not necessarily mean their languages are most similar. A number of factors made proximity a merely semi-reliable means of guessing linguistic similarity. For one, certain islands traded with each other. Also, the ancestors of a given island people could have emigrated from one of several neighboring islands. For instance, Hawaiian shares more in common with Maori than with Tongan despite the fact New Zealand is nearly twice as far from Hawaii as Tonga. This is due to the fact people ventured to New Zealand (circa 1,300 AD) and Hawaii (circa 400 AD) from eastern Polynesia long after Tonga was already settled (circa 1,500 BC).

Sociolinguistic practices also warped certain languages at different points in history. For instance, Tahitians once followed the practice of pi‘i by forbidding words phonologically (sound-wise) or semantically (meaning-wise) associated with a chief's name. Until that chief passed away, they would substitute forbidden words with semantically approximate terms that might become inveterate if the chief lived for a long time. For instance, in Tahitian (Hawaiian: ) originally meant to stand and was the name of a god, but to stand became ti‘a during and after the reign of chief nui‘ē‘aiteatua (Tū-nui-‘ē‘a-i-te-atua, literally: Tū-great-road-to-the-god 'great Tū, road to the gods').

It is now understood that the languages of Polynesia are not highly mutually intelligible, just as Spanish and French speakers cannot understand each other splendidly. In fact, Polynesian languages are growing even more distinct as time passes. Different terms for foreign concepts and technology have been coined in each, often borrowed from non-Austronesian languages of influence like English (most islands), French (Vanuatu, New Caledonia, French Polynesia), Spanish Easter Island, the Marianas, the Caroline Islands, Guam), German (Papua New Guinea), Japanese (Guam, Nauru), Hindi (Fiji), etc. depending on the history of world relations and business, colonization (especially during WWII), immigration, and tourism.

The islands of Hawaii are at the northwesternmost tip of Polynesia, consisting of The Big Island i.e. Hawai‘i (Hawaii), followed by seven smaller, older (geologically speaking) islands to the east: Maui (Maui), Kaho‘olawe (Kahoolawe), Lāna‘i (Lanai), Moloka‘i (Molokai), O‘ahu (Oahu), Kaua‘i (Kauai) and Ni‘ihau (Niihau), not to mention numerous tiny, uninhabited islands to the northwest. It is widely accepted that waves of high ranking Tahitians (from Ra'iatea, Bora Bora and Huahine) stumbled upon Hawaii and conquered the preexisting settlers about 1,000 years ago, who were probably Marquesans from 1,000 years prior.

Hawaiian Islands Map

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Dialectal differences between speakers from different islands amount to little more than minor variations in pronunciation (e.g. Molokai/Lanai: lanalana vs. elsewhere: nananana for spider), and a handful of variant terms (e.g. Niihau/Kauai: piaia vs. Oahu: ‘ōhua manini for a small manini fish). The most aberrant dialect has long since been that of Niihau, which will be discussed later in the lesson.

Hawaiian speakers have adopted a plethora of terms from other languages due to mass immigration from mainland America, Puerto Rico, Europe (Germany, Portugal), Asia (Russia, China esp. Cantonese and Hakka speaking, Korea, Japan, the Philippines esp. Ilokano speaking), and elsewhere in Oceania (esp. Samoa, Tahiti, New Zealand), not to mention the fact military personnel of all nationalities are often stationed there. Terms from Hebrew, Classical Greek, and Latin were introduced by missionaries, and a few words from Spanish (via Mexican cowboys), French (via Francophone Catholics or French traders) entered the language. Hawaiian even has terms from Assyrian, Czeck, Ute, and some believe the word for sweet potato, ‘uala (elsewhere: kuamara), comes the Peruvian Quechuan i.e. Incan word 'kumar', and in fact the plant was imported from trade with pre-Columbian Indians. Borrowing still goes on today, and the Hawaiian Lexicon Committee tries to select the best Hawaiian terms for new things like computers and internet terminology and cell phones. A lot of times bilingual Hawaiians will just use English words while speaking Hawaiian instead of adopting them into their sound system, e.g. ‘ekolu a‘u DVD. (I have three DVDs), or they will refer to a new term via a nickname, e.g. mokulele (airplane), from moku (ship) and lele (to jump, fly) 'flying ship'.

Note that throughout history, Hawaiian speakers have introduced Hawaiian words into several world languages as well, especially English (discussed in Lesson 5: Possession). A few Hawaiian speakers got to travel throughout the world to places like mainland America, England, and Germany, and a couple Hawaiian words (maybe more) entered Chinook and Eskimo trade jargons as Hawaiian adventurers sailed with a diverse crew that consisted of some Americans Indians.

Only about 2/3 of Hawaiians live in Hawaii today; many have exodused to the escape the high cost of living on the islands. Outside of Hawaii, roughly half of mainland Hawaiians reside in California, and most of the rest live in adjacent states like Nevada and Washington. However, Hawaiian fluency in these areas practically always vanishes with the second generation.

Hawaiian is not the only language associated with ethnic Hawaiians. Deaf Hawaiians had their own form of sign language (‘ōlelo kuhi lima, literally: hand-gesture language), the remnants of which can be seen in modern Hawaiian Pidgin Sign Language (HPS), which is distinct from American Sign Language. There was also kake, a lingo consisting of garbled words and arcane jargon that was used by elite in chanting. Today, more Hawaiians speak Hawaiian-Creole English a.k.a. Hawaiian Pidgin than Hawaiian, which consists of a mixture of features from Hawaiian, English and other tongues that became a bona fide language once children started acquiring it.

Originally, Hawaii was originally spelled 'Owhyee', 'Owhyhee' or 'Owhihe', and pronounced "oh   hwye   ee" [oʍaɪiː] which reflects the 18th Century British English pronunciations of ‘O Hawai‘i (this is Hawaii); ‘o precedes proper nouns in the language. The Hawaiian pronunciation of Hawaii is "hah   wye   -ee" [həwɐiʔi] (or "hah   vye   -ee" [həvɐiʔi]) where the dash represents a glottal stop, just like the dash between 'uh' and 'oh' in the interjection 'uh-oh!' The American English approximation of the Hawaiian pronunciation is "hah   wye   ee" [həwaɪiː].

How one pronounces Hawaii and its islands today is a politically charged matter for reasons that will not be discussed here, but SAIVUS takes a purely linguistic approach to the issue. We treat 'Hawaii' as a loan word in English from Hawaiian, in which the foreign sound (the glottal stop) is dropped; just as ‘Amelika (America) is a loan word in Hawaiian from English in which the foreign sound (R) is substituted for a Hawaiian sound (l). Thus, whereas Hawai‘i is used in Hawaiian text, 'Hawaii' is used in English text.

No one knows for sure where the name Hawai‘i came from. Some scholars speculated that Hawaii was originally called Hawaiki, which means place of the gods. Hawaiians believed gods resided at places like Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, and Hawaiki could have changed to Hawai‘i over time as in many words k changed to . This etymology has been accepted by several English dictionaries. Others point out the fact that elsewhere in Polynesia, Hawai‘i (originally Sawaiki) refers to the underworld or one's ancestral homeland, but don't carry the ball any further.

Another popular theory, particularly in academic circles, is that homesick Samoans named Hawaii after Sava‘i - the largest island of Samoa - meaning homeland, and as the sound systems of Hawaiian changed so did the sounds that make up the word Sava‘i. There is evidence to suggest Sava‘i could have changed to Hawai‘i as s in words from other Polynesian languages are frequently pronounced with h in Hawaiian. In fact, this theory accounts for a whole slew of other island names like Havaiki (New Zealand), Havai‘i - a former name for Ra‘iatea, (an island of Tahiti), and ‘Avaiki (Cook Islands).

Most other etymologies of Hawaii are obvious fabrications. Some claim Hawaii was named after chief Hawai‘iloa, who was accredited in an old legend for initially discovering the islands. However, the name Hawai‘iloa was given to him by future Hawaiian speaking storytellers and no one knows what his original name was, if he existed. One folk etymology tells that Hawaii is a compound of (breath) wai (fresh water) and ‘ī, which is the tone of the supreme God, similar to "ohm" or "aum" in Sanskrit. The problem with this theory is that while ha and , and i and ‘ī, were written the same until recently, they have always been different words and such a compound spells Hāwai‘ī not Hawai‘i. Unlike other claims, there is nothing to suggest the sounds of Hāwai‘ī would change to Hawai‘i; linguists have studied how sounds change in Polynesian languages quite extensively. A similar claim with no backing is that Hawai‘i comes from hawa meaning homeland, and ii (actually spelled ‘i‘i) meaning small. Yet, hawa is not even a Hawaiian word and again, Hawa‘i‘i is not the same as Hawai‘i.


In 1778, when Captain Cook landed on Hawaii, there were reportedly 400,000 Hawaiians, but contemporary scholars believe original estimators overlooked inland populations and some of the coastlines (where there is evidence of home sites and agriculture), and claim the actual figure was at least over 800,000 (possibly over 1 million), all of whom were fluent speakers.

Hawaiian flourished in most of the 1800s, specifically after 1826 when the alphabet was developed and the majority of speakers became literate. In the decades to follow language description was published and there were over a dozen Hawaiian language newspapers. Yet, after Captain Cook's crew and extensive immigration from various countries introduced diseases like small pox, influenza, leprosy, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis (for which Native Hawaiians had no immunity since Hawaii was a quarantined environment), the Native population was decimated to around 37,000 (roughly 1/20th the initial estimate).

English rose to dominance and Hawaiian was banned under punishment in public schools. The Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown and both English and Hawaiian speakers encouraged Hawaiian children to focus on mastering English only so they would be more successful in Hawaii's new Western society, and less prone to teasing and prejudice. The number of speakers then fell to about 1,000 in the 1900s, most of whom were very elderly, and it was predicted the language would soon die. Yet, Hawaiian remained strong in traditional kua‘āina (backwoods) communities and is the primary language (secondary to English at age 8) of a few hundred people on the private, "forbidden island" of Niihau, whose way of life has remained virtually undisturbed for centuries.

Right around the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s there was a grassroots Hawaiian Renaissance where traditional Hawaiian culture, music and dancing, sports, medicine, cuisine, arts and crafts, and martial arts regained popularity, and improved language resources were made. Not only that, factors that lead to the destruction of Hawaiian were for the most part reversed. Today, Hawaiian speakers are celebrated by society, and Hawaiian culture is seen as an asset to diversity seeking colleges and employers rather than impetus for discrimination. In fact, The Kamehameha Schools - which offer a 6 year program in Hawaiian - effectively reject applicants on the basis they cannot prove any Hawaiian ancestry, due to their preference for Native Hawaiian enrollees. The opposite of English-only language policy, language immersion programs like ‘Aha Pūnana Leo (language nest) and Kula Kaiapuni (immersion school), have children take classes taught in Hawaiian by native Hawaiian speaking staff all day for years. By the time students graduate from these schools they are fluent enough to write Ph.D. dissertations in Hawaiian, and often get accepted to prestigious universities. In fact, American Indian tribes are starting to follow their example, just as Hawaiians copied New Zealand's Kohanga Reo (language nest) model. Local colleges like the University of Hawaii, which is renowned for its linguistics department, offer Hawaiian language curriculum (even online!), and other resources, and even offer bachelor's (since the 1970s), master's (since 2002) and doctorate (since 2006) degrees in Hawaiian. There has been a resurgence of small Hawaiian newspapers and newsletters, television episodes, movies, radio shows, websites, blogs, podcasts, and more books in Hawaiian than ever before, and there are also more language teaching resources (textbooks, audiorecordings, software, etc.) for Hawaiian than most American Indian languages. Due to all these advances, the number of fluent Hawaiian speakers is actually on the rise.

Yet, Hawaiian is still an endangered language. In 2000, 140,652 people in the United States Census claimed they are Native Hawaiian (and about twice that number claimed they are part Native Hawaiian: 260,510), which is altogether less than 1% of the total population of the United States. While a few thousand people can speak or understand a little Hawaiian, the number of fluent, heritage speakers is only around 2,000, which means less than 1.5% of Hawaiians speak their language, and under .1% of the statewide population. Fortunately, about 50% of fluent speakers are young.

SAIVUS believes we can improve the health of the Hawaiian language by providing a free online study course geared towards distance learners. Home study courses are generally ineffective in increasing the number of speakers, yet, many Hawaiians speak Pidgin (Hawaiian Creole English), which has roots in Hawaiian and other Austronesian languages, meaning Hawaiian should be easier for them to pick up; just as German would be easier for an English speaker to acquire than Zulu. Also, many non-Hawaiian speaking Hawaiians have relatives that speak Hawaiian they could practice with if only they knew the basics. Hawaiian already has plenty of language learning resources, but many Hawaiians work menial labor and have little time or money for formal classes or even textbooks. Besides, we are striving to create a tutorial that is superior to others by incorporating discussion of culture, and vamping linguistic explanations with animations and games.

In general there are two ways in which languages are taught:

1. Textbook Approach: This method requires students to learn grammar rules, has them memorize lists of words, and encourages them to translate texts. It works best for the students interested in philology and linguistics, but will bore other students. Once a student masters this formal approach, it becomes easier for them to learn other languages rapidly. Contrary to popular belief, this method was never intended to establish fluency. Rather, it equips students with enough preliminary knowledge of the language to survive immersion or to produce important makeshift translations.
2. Immersion Approach: This method teaches little to no grammar, and instead favors participation and group work, and exposes the student to constant language use in the form of audio stories, movies, games, etc. to mimic the way children learn language. It works best for students who struggle with grammar, but other students find it unpleasant and wasteful. In fact, one reason for why the immersion approach has such a deceptively high success rate is because students who despise this method simply don't enroll in language courses.

Unfortunately, language teachers usually promote one approach or the other, under the belief only one strategy is effective, to help their careers or reputations. In contrast, at SAIVUS we try to cater to the learning style of every student by taking a hybrid approach: we mention grammar but also give copious examples of language use. Unlike the textbook approach we do not find drills effective, however, we find short quizzes, games and exercises highly effective, and unlike immersion, we support translation practice (mostly Hawaiian to English).

Native peoples tend to favor more natural ways of learning language, such as focusing on teaching children or pairing youths with elders. These methods are only feasible for large scale revitalization efforts rather than a distance language maintenance program such as this one. However, SAIVUS makes an attempt to teach culture along with language, a practice that is favored by most Native communities, and one that is gaining popularity in academic circles. This practice is controversial, but we avoid making direct connections between language and culture. We merely juxtapose facts about culture to facts about grammar, with the thinking it will keep the reader's interest from waning since most people are more fascinated by culture than by language.

While we minimize technical jargon, we do give linguistic terms for the concepts we discuss for those who would like to know, and are sure to explain every term thoroughly for readers with a weak educational background. We find it effective to relate grammatical features to English and other well known languages, however, we strongly advise the reader to refrain from conceptualizing Hawaiian grammar through the lens of other models. For instance, we mention that he functions like a/an (as in 'a pear', 'an apple' etc.) in English, but caution the reader Hawaiians use he in ways English speakers do not use a/an. Language is constantly changing, and we've made an effort to discuss differences between past (grandparent's generation) and present (children's generation).

Each lesson usually consists of the following components:

Vocabulary Lists: introduce you to categories of words from certain parts of speech. Words are more easily memorized when they are grouped by association. Note that these associations follow indigenous taxonomy. For instance, although whales are considered mammals in Western science, Hawaiians grouped them in the same category as fish, i‘a. We also do our best to saturate definitions with cultural tidbits, pieces of trivia and detailed word origins, believing it will make the words more significant, more interesting and therefore easier to retain. Rest assured however, strides are made to lead students away from incorrect "folk" etymologies.
Grammar Topics: introduce you to various aspects of the language in the form of either function words, or phrase constructions. The organization is such that simple topics are discussed before the nitty-gritty and unlike the immersion approach, you are not overwhelmed by simple and complex grammar rules all at once. We try to provide as many diagrams and illustrations to compliment grammar topics as possible.
Exercises (5-15 questions): are sometimes featured at the end of a section to help the vocabulary list or grammatical concept sink in.
Printable Notes: are featured at the end of the lesson to synopsize that lesson's overall content.
Quiz (10 questions): are featured at the end of the lesson and evaluate your comprehension of the material. One of the nice things about learning Hawaiian online is that there is no pressure, meaning you can learn at your own pace in your own free time. No grades are issued, and the quizzes act as friendly means of self-assessment. If you get a lot of questions wrong, don't think of it as receiving a poor grade, think of it as learning additional facts.

We recommend you read at least one grammar topic within a lesson per day. By steadily accumulating small doses of grammatical knowledge on a daily basis - in the time it would take to read a newspaper article - you will eventually be able to break down complex sentences. And, if you decide to quit prematurely at least you'll walk away with some basic phrases under your belt.

We have done our best to make the greatest Hawaiian resource out there, and although we cannot satisfy everyone, please send any suggestions for improvement to webmaster@saivus.org. We'd love to hear them!

As this tutorial uses one language to discuss the very nature of language and different languages, we've developed our own format at SAIVUS that facilitates meta-discussion. It is very intuitive, yet still worth explaining.

Throughout this lesson Polynesian language text appears in bold, and English translations of Polynesian language text are italicized. Headings and newly introduced terminology appear in bold/italic text. Whereas single quotation marks (' ') around text emphasize meaning, double quotation marks (" ") denote sounds or pronunciation, in which syllables are buffered by long spaces. Individual English sounds are capitalized. Underlining emphasizes concepts. All of these practices are exhibited in the following paradigm. Hover your curser over any portion of it to see why a given style was employed.

Hawaiian speakers substitute T for k in pronouncing English words; kelepona (pronounced "keh   leh   poh   nah") means telephone in Hawaiian, and derives from English 'telephone' through borrowing, which is when the speakers of one language import words from another language.

There are strong efforts in place to ensure Hawaiian is well equipped for the digital age. To type Hawaiian in a word processing program, you can download a Hawaiian font at The University of Hawaii's website.

An alternative is to copy and paste special characters from this preface (refer to the chart below). Depending on what word processing program you use, and the version, characters might display improperly as boxes. Try converting the text to MS Mincho font.

Alternatively, there are some creative substitutes for macrons, namely letters with dashes after them (A- a-, E- e-, I- i-, O- o-, U- u-), colons after them (A: a:, E: e:, I: i:, O: o:, U: u:), umlauts (Ä ä, Ë ë, Ö ö, Ü ü), circumflexes (Â â, Ê ê, Î î, Ô ô, Û û), or double vowels (Aa aa, Ee ee, II ii, OO oo, UU uu), but note that some words in Hawaiian are already written with double vowels. To type vowels with circumflexes or umauts in Microsoft Word go to Tools and select Customize, then hit the Keyboard... button at the bottom. Find the Categories section and scroll down to Common Symbols. Then find the Common Symbols window and scroll down. Single clicking a character in this menu will tell you what keys need to be pressed in order for you to produce it. The default for umlauts is usually Ctrl + : or Ctrl + Shift + ; then release your fingers and type a vowel as you would normally. For circumflexes it is Ctrl + ^ or Ctrl + Shift + 6.

To generate vowels with macrons on your webpage, type the following hexadecimal entities in the source code:

Ā / ā
Ā / ā
Ē / ē
Ē / ē
Ī / ī
Ī / ī
Ō / ō
Ō / ō
Ū / ū
Ū / ū

First Lesson


i. Preface

ii. Proper Display

iii. Origin

iv. Etymology

v. Status


vii. Instructions

viii. Format

ix. Typing Hawaiian

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Last Updated: 06/09/2010