[This article was originally posted on my Hawaiian history blog, HistoriAloha.]

The Hawaiian language is as interesting as it is complicated, and it’s impossible to travel to the Hawaiian islands without encountering it in some form or another. Whether it’s on street signs, landmarks, or simply trying to explain which island you’ll be visiting, you will be using the language in some way during a visit.

Let’s start with the basics:

The Hawaiian language consists of 13 letters, including five vowels, seven consonants, and a glottal stop known as an `okina.

Vowels are usually pronounced in much the same way one would expect to pronounce them in Spanish:

  1. a ——> “ah”
  2. e ——> “eh”
  3. i ——-> “ee”
  4. o ——> “oh”
  5. u ——> “ooh”

Consonants in the Hawaiian language are:

  1. K
  2. L
  3. W
  4. H
  5. M
  6. N
  7. P

And lastly, there’s the `okina. The `okina represents a glottal stop. Say the phrase “uh-oh” out loud. Do you hear the little break between “uh” and “oh”? That’s a glottal stop. The `okina is represented with a ` , similar to a backwards apostrophe. Not all fonts allow for this, though, so a regular apostrophe is often used in its place.

All consonants in the Hawaiian language are followed by a vowel. That is to say, a word cannot end in a consonant, and two consonants cannot be written or spoken together.

It is possible, though, to have two vowels next to each other. Similar vowels, like two a’s, will have an `okina between them, like in the word “ʻaʻā” (pronounced “ah-ah”), which means “stony, rough lava.” Dissimilar vowels, on the other hand, lead a speaker to form different vowel sounds that are not possible using the standard vowels on their own. “Pau,” for example, is often used today to mean “done” or “finished,” and is pronounced like the English word “pow.” Similarly, “Lanikai” on the island of O`ahu, is pronounced “lah-nee-kye.”

The individual vowels are still pronounced, but because of the way they are spoken together, they form a different sound. Take “pau” again, for instance. Technically, it’s pronounced “pah-ooh,” but when spoken, it forms a “pow” sound like we use in English.


(Photo via Wikipedia)

Captain Cook discovered the Hawaiian islands in 1778, marking the first time the language had ever been heard by Europeans. Prior to discovery, and for a period of time immediately afterwards, the Hawaiian language had no written representation other than picture symbols in the form of petroglyphs.


(Photo via maiabegiashvili.blogspot.com)

It wasn’t until the arrival of other Europeans and protestant missionaries in the early 1800s that the Hawaiian language took a written form. The missionaries used written language as a means of spreading their religion, and interestingly, it led to a nearly 100% literacy rate, a feat which many countries today have trouble emulating.

These missionaries weren’t all good for the language, though. Many of the missionaries discouraged the use of the Hawaiian language, and many parents saw the language as a barrier to success for their children. As a result, the number of Hawaiian speaking individuals dropped from 37,000 to just 1,000 around the turn of the 20th century.

This loss of culture led to a revival for the language, though, and in 1949, the first Hawaiian-language dictionary was printed. Also around this time, Hawaiian-immersion preschools began to form, which took English-speaking children and put them into a formal schooling environment in which the Hawaiian language was used.

Still, in 1997, there were only 2,000 native speakers of Hawaiian left in the islands. The late 90s and early 2000s brought a new push towards reviving the language, and its numbers are now above 24,000.

The island of Ni`ihau, is currently the only location in the world where the Hawaiian language is predominant. On Ni`ihau, children are raised speaking Hawaiian, and around the age of 8, they begin to learn English. The preservation of the language on this island is only possible because of its status as a privately owned property and the fact that outsiders are prevented from communicating with residents.

While there are many more nuances to the Hawaiian language, these are simply the basics. After reading this, you should be able to pronounce street names like Waiānuenue Avenue, Kawaihae Road, and Haleakalā Highway, right?

Maybe not yet, but with a little practice you could do so without any trouble at all.

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