A Short Lesson in Hawaiian!

Want to learn a bit of Hawaiian because you are visiting, or are lucky enough to live in the Islands? It really isn't difficult to acquire at least a nodding acquaintance with a language that ties in so graphically to Hawaiian culture and heritage. Here are a few basic rules and a word list designed to help you with the pronunciation and meaning of place names and frequently-used phrases.


First of all, if you know any Spanish, Hawaiian will seem easier to pronounce because of the similarity in vowel sounds. We can glibly rattle off the vowels in English...a,e,i,o,u...but the Hawaiian equivalents are:

  • a as in father
  • e as in set or like a "long" a, as in "pay"
  • i as in the ee in "see"
  • o as in the o in "pole"
  • u as in the oo of "moon"

There are variations on the above themes when there are accents or other diacritical markings in words, but you won't go too far astray with the rules above. Take the word "aloha". It is easy to learn to pronounce this lovely Hawaiian word that means hello, goodbye, peace, and love, all rolled up together, though the most common mistake in pronouncing it seems to be in pronouncing the first "a" in the word like "uh" instead of "ah". "Aloha nui loa (new ee low a)" expands on the theme, with "nui" meaning "much, great" and "loa" meaning "very". If you sign your letters with "love", or "affectionately", try using the Hawaiian phrase Aloha Nui Loa instead..."Very Much Aloha".

"Mahalo", meaning "Thank you", should be another familiar word. You will hear that word on flights to and from the Islands, in many stores as you pay for purchases, and on all the occasions when that response is in order. Or, have you wondered what people meant when they asked you if you were "pau"? That's Hawaiian for "done", or "finished". Note that the word has no diacritical markings and all the letters are together - it's pronounced like "pow."

"Mele Kalikimaka" and "Hauoli Makahiki Hou" are the equivalents of "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year"; greetings you should know if you are in Hawaii for those holidays. Every vowel is usually pronounced. Make a pause in the word where if you see an apostrophe, or "okina". The accent or stress is generally on the second to last syllable unless otherwise noted.

Place names can often be difficult for newcomers unless they apply the simple rules given above. There are some really long words but they will become simple to pronounce if you concentrate on the individual vowels and the stressed syllable. Let's look at the name for a popular tourist attraction, Place of Refuge National Park, in Honaunau. The Hawaiian name is "Pu'uhonua O Honaunau". "Pu'u" is pronounced "poo oo", and "nau" is pronounced like the word "now".

Here are a few more tips: Restrooms often have the Hawaiian equivalent of "Men" and "Women" on the doors, so it's probably a good idea to learn that the gentlemen use the one marked "Kane", and the ladies head for the one marked "Wahine". (Remember to pronounce the ending "e" in both of these words as "ay" is pronounced in "pay", not like "ee"! That would be how you'd pronounce them if they ended in an "i", as in "bikini"...) When getting directions, you may hear someone say "mauka" or "makai". The first means toward the mountains and the second means toward the ocean. What better way to give directions on an island?

Good luck with your new language skills! Don't be afraid to try them out. Hawaiians and others who are fortunate enough to have lived here a while appreciate the attempt to establish communication in the first language spoken in these beautiful islands of Hawaii.

Visit the Ulukau Hawaiian Dictionary


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