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The Hawaiian Language

The prevailing language of Hawai‘i today is English, liberally peppered with Hawaiian words and phrases.  All of a visitor’s requests for services can be understood as well as answered in English.  An elementary understanding of the Hawaiian language however, is the foundation of appreciating all of Hawaiian culture and your attempts to correctly pronounce words will show respect to the people who are your hosts.

Hawaiian place names are commonly used, so familiarity will breed less contempt when traveling.  Some words such as aloha, lū‘au and lei, you already knew before you became a malihini (newcomer); other words such as mahalo (thank-you), you will probably add to your vocabulary of the ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) on the first day of your visit.

Hawaiian belongs to the Polynesian family of languages related closely to Tahitian, Marquesan and Māori, and more distantly to Fijian, Malagasy and Malay.  The first European to listen to the Hawaiians speak, Captain James Cook, found he was able to communicate with them thanks to his rudimentary grasp of Tahitian.  The Hawaiian that Cook heard evolved from the language of the Tahitian voyagers who populated the Hawaiian Islands centuries earlier.

The Hawaiians were rich in unwritten literature that included poems, songs, genealogies and mythologies.  Hawaiian existed in only its oral form until the early 19th century.  Christian missionaries, anxious to have Hawaiians read their teachings, set upon the daunting task of putting the unwritten language to paper.  The Hawaiian language, in both oral and written forms, continued as the language of general use for the government, business and social circles for several decades.  As their monarchy died, so did usage of the Hawaiian’s language.  Hawaiian is no longer spoken as the mother tongue except on the privately owned island of Ni‘ihau and in the homes of a few old Hawaiians.  Some local churches hold services in Hawaiian as well.

Recently, Hawaiian is receiving renewed attention by the state government and the school system.  In 1978 Hawaiian was again made an official language by the State of Hawai‘i, the only state to officially use a Native American language.  The government reestablished schools that teach through Hawaiian in 1987 and the University of Hawai‘i offers degree programs in Hawaiian language studies.

Children of Hawaii at Anahola School

Listeners to Hawaiian, delight in painting it with such flattering, but vague adjectives as melodious, soft, fluid, gentle and mellifluous.  Gushing metaphorically, Hawaiian sways like a palm tree in a gentle wind and slips off the tongue like a love song.  There are two unvarnished reasons for Hawaiian sounding this way.  First, unlike English, Hawaiian has no consonant clusters, and every syllable ends with a vowel, resulting in a high vowel to consonant ratio.  Second, Hawaiian has no sibilants (s-like sounds), an attribute endearing to singers.

The missionaries assigned only twelve letters to the alphabet when they phonetically rendered the Hawaiian language.  The consonants are: h, k, l, m, n, p and w.  Five vowels are used: a, e, i, o and u.  The consonants are pronounced as in English, except for the w, which is often pronounced as a v when it follows an e or an i in the middle of a word.  When w  follows an a it can be pronounced as either w  or v, thus you will hear either Hawai‘i or Havai‘i.   Hawaiian vowels come in both short and long duration forms.  Long duration vowels are stressed with a bar above the letter called the kahakō in Hawaiian and macron in English.  The vowels are pronounced as: a as in “father” when stressed and as in “above” when not stressed, e as in “they” when stressed and as in “let” when not stressed, i as in “marine”, o as in “boat” and u as in “true.”  As well as the kahakō, Hawaiian uses the diacritical mark called an ‘okina and is represented with ‘ which looks like a backwards apostrophe.  The ‘okina indicates a glottal stop and is used as an additional consonant.  In English it would approximate the sound between the vowels in the expression “oh-oh.”  Use of the kahakō and the ‘okina are important to correct pronunciation of the words in which they appear.  Their usage has become more prevalent in recent years; in older guidebooks and maps they were sometimes omitted.


There’s just one more rule you need to learn.  Consonants aren’t, but vowels can be clustered into diphthongs.  A diphthong is created when two vowels join to form a single sound.  The vowels glide together with stress being placed on the first vowel.  In English, examples are toil and euphoria.  Examples in Hawaiian are lei (lay) and heiau (hay-ee-ow).  The eight vowel pairs that make up Hawaiian diphthongs are: ae, ai, ao, au, ei, eu, oi, ou.

Some words are doubled to emphasize their meaning.  Wiki means quick, wikiwiki means very quick.  Hawaiian appears formidable when you are attempting to pronounce many long and similar-looking words.  The long words are usually combinations of shorter words and if you segment the long words into their shorter components, pronunciation becomes more easily achievable.  Several words begin with ka, meaning “the”, which is attached to the word itself.  Therefore Kā‘anapali, which means “the rolling precipices,” should be broken down to Ka-a-na-pa-li.  The name for Hawai‘i’s state fish is so long it will barely fit on a T-shirt, but when you break down humuhumunukunukuāpua‘a into humu-humu-nuku-nuku-apu-a-a, it’s not so bad.

Glossary of Hawaiian Words

a‘a  rough clinker lava, accepted as the correct geological term

‘ āina  land

ali‘i  chief, royalty

aloha  love, affection, hello, to greet, goodbye

ānuenue  rainbow

‘apōpō  tomorrow

a‘u  swordfish

hale  house

hana  bay

haole  Caucasian, recently come to mean any foreigner.

hapa haole  half Caucasian

hau  hibiscus tiliaceus

hau‘oli  happy

hau‘oli lā hānau  happy birthday

heiau  ancient terrace or platform for worship

he mea iki  you are welcome

hoaloha  friend

hono  bay

honu  sea turtle

hukilau  pull-net fishing

hula  Hawaiian dance with chants where a story is told with the hands

‘i‘iwi  scarlet honeycreeper

imu  underground earthen oven used in cooking at a lû‘au

ka  the

 belonging to, of

kahiko  ancient, old

kahuna  priest, expert

kai  sea water, seaward

kālua  to bake in an underground oven, kâlua pig is the featured entrée at a lû‘au

kama‘ āina  native, literally “child of the land”

kanaka  human being, man, person

kānaka  human beings, men, persons

kâne  male, man, husband, used to indicate a public men’s restroom

kapu  taboo, forbidden, sacred, keep out if it appears on a sign

keiki  child, children

koa  a type of hardwood

kōkua  to help, assist

kona  leeward or a leeward wind

kukui  candlenut tree

kula  plain, upland

ku‘u ipo  my sweetheart

lae  point (geographic feature)

lānai  porch, terrace, balcony

lani  heavenly

lei  garland of flowers

liliko‘i  passion fruit

limu  seaweed

lomilomi  salt salmon minced with onion and tomato

lū‘au  traditional feast

mahalo  thanks, to thank, admiration

makai  toward the sea (used when giving directions)

mahimahi  dolphin fish (not a dolphin!)

mai‘a  banana

maika‘i  good, fine, beautiful

maka‘āinana  public, common people, citizen

malihini  newcomer, visitor, tourist

mana  supernat ural power

manō  shark

mauka  inland (used when giving directions)

mauna  mountain

mele  song

Mele Kalikamaka  Merry Christmas

moana  open sea, ocean

moku  island

mu‘umu‘u  long loose-fitting dress introduced by the missionaries

 the (plural), by, for

nani  pretty

nēnē  Hawaiian goose

niu  coconut

nui  big, large, important, many, much

‘ohana  family including extended family

‘ono  delicious

pāhoehoe  smooth and ropey lava, accepted as the correct geological term

pakalōlō  marijuana, literally “crazy smoke”

pali  cliff, precipice

paniolo  cowboy

pau  finished, completed

poi  starchy paste made from taro roots

poke  cubed, marinated and spiced raw fish

pono  righteous, honest, moral

pua  flower

pua‘a  pig

puna  spring, creek

pūpū  hors d’oeuvre

pu‘u  hill

‘ukulele  small stringed instrument

wa‘a  canoe

wahine  woman, wife, female, Mrs., used to indicate a public women’s restroom

wāhine  women

wai  fresh water

wailele  waterfall

wikiwiki  very quick, in a hurry

Meanings of Kaua‘i Place Names

‘Aliomanu  scar made by birds

‘Ele‘ele  black

Hā‘ena  red hot

Ha‘ikū  haughty, to speak abruptly

Hanakāpī‘ai  bay sprinkling food

Hanakoa  bay of warriors

Hanalei  crescent bay

Hanamā‘  tired bay

Hanapēpē  crushed bay

Honopū  conch bay

Kāhili  feather standard

Kalāheo  proud day

Kalalau  the wanderer

Kalapakī  double-yoked egg

Kalihiwai  water's edge

Kapa‘a  solid

Keālia  salt land

Kekaha  dry hot place

Kīlauea  spewing of many vapors

Kilohana  beautiful view

Kīpū  to remain as mist or rain

Kīpūkai  Kīpū at the sea

Kōloa  tall sugarcane or a native Hawaiian duck

Līhu‘e  goose flesh

Limahuli  turning hand

Makana  gift

Moloa‘a  tangled roots

Miloli‘i  fine twist

Nā Pali  the cliffs

Nāwiliwili  grove of wiliwili trees, a member of the legume family

Nu‘alolo  brains heaped up

Olokele  former name of the ‘i‘iwi or Kaua‘i honeycreeper

Pāpa‘a  secure enclosure

Polihale  house blossom

Puhi  eel, set on fire

Waiakalua  water of the pit

Wai‘ale‘ale  rippling water

Waikea  white water

Wailua  two waters, spirit of a ghost

Waimea   red water

Wainiha  hostile waters

Wai‘oli  joyful water

Waipouli  dark water


Pidgin is the spicy Creole tongue that borrows from other languages.  Hawaiian pidgin has roots in the plantation days of the 19th century when European and American owners had to communicate with recently arrived Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese laborers.  It was designed as a simple language, born of necessity and stripped of dispensable words.

Modern pidgin is a vernacular of mainly Hawaiian and English-derived words with a unique syntax and a rising inflection that can change the meaning of what it being said.  It is a colorful, ever-changing dialect as regionally distinct as the speech of Louisiana Cajuns.  No longer plantation talk, pidgin is learned at school and on the streets.

Hip young locals are the main pidgin speakers.  They choose to speak pidgin as a private “in” language and are perfectly capable of speaking English.  Whole conversations can take place in pidgin or one or two words can be dropped into conventional English.  You might not be able to understand what the locals are saying in pidgin, but you should get a sense of what is being meant.  Pidgin is the mark of the local; newcomers shouldn’t attempt to speak it.  You won’t sound cool–just stupid.

A Sampling of Hawaiian Pidgin

an den?  then what?

any kine  anything

ass right  that’s right, you’re correct

beef  fight

brah/bruddah  friend, brother

broke da mout  delicious tasting

buggah  guy or thing that is a pest

bumbye  later on, after a while

chicken skin  bumps on your skin when you get the chills, goose bumps

cockaroach  steal

da kine  used as filler when the speaker can’t think of the right word to use

garans  guaranteed

geevum  go for it, try hard

grind  to eat

grinds  food

Hawaiian time  to be late

howzit?  how is it going? how are you?

lolo  dumb, crazy

Maui wowie  particular type of marijuana

mo bettah  good stuff, great idea

moke  big, tough local guy

pau hana  finish work, quitting time

poi dog  a mutt, a person of mixed ethnic background

stink eye  a dirty look

tita  a tough local woman

talk story  a conversation

shahkbait  pale, white-skinned person

yeah yeah yeah yeah  yes I know already so shut-up



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