What you should know about the Hawaiian language if you’re visiting Hawaii

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Hawaii is America’s 50th state, but it’s vastly different from the other 49.

For one thing, Hawaii is the only state with an official language other than English: Hawaiian.

Visitors to Hawaii will find Hawaiian words used throughout the islands in menus, signage, and local parlance.

This post serves as a primer on the Hawaiian language, it’s structure, history, and how it’s used today—useful knowledge for anyone traveling to Hawaii!

The Hawaiian Alphabet

Originally, the Hawaiian language was a purely oral tradition that came with the Polynesian settlers that first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands. Without writing, history and culture were passed down in mele (song), hula (dance), and oli (chanting).

The written version of Hawaiian was developed by Protestant missionaries from New England that wanted to publish a Hawaiian Bible. Thus, the Hawaiian alphabet was created using Latin letters, like English and the Romance languages.

The modern Hawaiian alphabet consists of 13 letters:

Vowels A E I O U

Consonants

H J L M N P W

A few Hawaiian consonants “overlap” with multiple English consonants:

  • ‘ka’ could sound like ‘ka’ or ‘ta’
  • ‘la’ could sound like ‘la’ or ‘ra’
  • ‘wa’ could sound like ‘wa’ or ‘va’

These sounds aren’t perfectly represented in English, so you might have to hear them to understand.

The ‘okina (‘) is known as a “glottal stop” in English, and represents a vocal “break.”

The easiest way to understand the ‘okina is to think of the phrase “uh-oh.” The pause between “uh” and “oh” is a glottal stop, created by blocking airflow through your vocal cords.

You probably already know how to pronounce a glottal stop, even if you’ve never encountered Hawaiian before.

Like “uh-oh,” if you say “Batman” you’ll probably pronounce it with an audible break between “bat” and “man,” even though they’re one word. That’s a glottal stop.

Another common symbol in Hawaiian is the kahakō, or macron. Simply put, a kahakō indicates a long vowel sound.

The ‘okina and kahakō are important symbols as their presence or absence could completely change the meaning of a word. For example:

Word Meaning
Pau Finished
Pa‘u Soot, ink; tedious
Pā‘ū A woman’s skirt

Although the letters are the same, the pronunciations, indicated by the ‘okina and kahakō, are different, producing different words.

If you think this is confusing, remember that the English word “run” has over 100 definitions, but you probably never get confused by that! In many cases, the meaning of a word is understood within the context it’s used rather than the pronunciation or spelling.

The History of Hawaiian

Soon after missionaries developed a written system of the Hawaiian language, it was quickly adopted by the population as a whole.

The printing presses that were meant to create Bibles were also adapted to print primers for the Hawaiian language so that all Hawaiians would be able to read and write.

Reading was so popular in the Hawaiian Kingdom that, in the mid-1800s, Hawaii had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world.

Also in the 1800s, the first Hawaiian-language newspapers were published and were massively successful, becoming not only a source of local and international news, but also a platform for literary publications of Hawaiian and classical origin.

Since Hawaiian was an oral tradition for centuries before, the newspapers became the first place that many songs, chants, and stories were written down.

Even the government of the Hawaiian Kingdom operated in Hawaiian, and laws were written in Hawaiian as well as English.

Near the end of the 19th century, however, the use of the Hawaiian language began to decline with the Native Hawaiian population and as more parents taught their children English to be able to better communicate with the growing international population in Hawaii.

A major turning point for the language, however, was the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and subsequent banning of the Hawaiian language in 1896. At this time, children who spoke Hawaiian in school were disciplined with corporal punishment or sent home.

Since Hawaii achieved U.S. statehood in 1959, there has been a resurgence of the learning and use of the Hawaiian language. It’s even been recognized as an official language of the state, alongside English, with the 1978 State Constitution of Hawaii.

Common Words

The renaissance of the Hawaiian language has led to it being seen throughout Hawaii.

Here’s a list of Hawaiian words you’re bound to run into during your stay in the islands:

  • kāne – man, male
    • You’ll probably see this on a sign outside the restrooms as soon as you land at Honolulu International Airport.
  • wahine – woman, female
    • See above.
  • keiki – child/children
    • You might see a keiki menu in a restaurant or events/activities specifically for keiki
  • mauka – towards (in the direction of) the mountains
    • Locals generally use the terms mauka/makai when giving directions
  • makai – towards the ocean
    • See above.
  • kapu – forbidden; literally “taboo”
    • Used in warning signs. Please respect Hawaii’s land, nature, and residents!
  • kōkua – help, cooperate
    • Often used in requests, such as “Please kokua – no smoking”
  • honu – Hawaiian green sea turtle
    • You might spot a honu on a [snorkeling trip] or [day cruise], but please keep a respectful distance as they are a protected species.
  • mahalo – thanks
    • Used to express gratitude. “Mahalo nui loa” means “thank you very much.”
  • haole – Caucasian, foreign
    • From “ha-ole” (breath-without), which referred to the original European sailors that visited Hawaii. Since these men were bundled in clothing, the Hawaiians couldn’t see them breathe. Not to be confused with “malihini,” which can mean foreigner, stranger, or guest.
  • ‘ono – delicious
    • Used to refer to food. Not to be confused with “ono” (without the ‘okina) the species of fish also known as the wahoo.
  • pau – finished, done
    • Can be used for anything, but the phrase “pau hana” (finished-work) refers to the end of the work week on Fridays. Look out for extended happy hour deals!
  • poke – a traditional Hawaiian dish of seasoned raw fish.
    • A local favorite, poke is nowadays most commonly found in ‘poke bowls,’ bowls of poke served over rice, or at one of the [many luaus] held in the islands.
  • puka – hole, opening
    • Commonly used in “puka-shell necklace” or the hikes “Pali puka” or “Makapuu puka,” which are both named for a large hole in the side of the mountain.
  • lei – a garland traditionally made of flowers, shells, nuts, or leaves.
    • Lei are commonly shared on special occasions and are often given to guests as a way of recognizing or honoring them.

This list of fifteen words is anything but comprehensive, but it will hopefully give you a good start on what to expect during your stay in Hawaii.

Don’t feel pressured to memorize anything—English is still the most commonly used language in the islands. Hopefully you’ve learned something about Hawaii’s language, culture, and history.

Be sure to check out our article on pidgin as well!

Did this article help? Are there any other Hawaiian words you want to know about? Let us know in the comments!

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