Arts and Culture

Hawaiian Words and Phrases Every Visitor or New Resident Should Know

Did you know that Hawaiʻi is the only U.S. state with two official languages? If you’re lucky enough to find yourself vacationing or moving here, you may want to learn some of the Hawaiian terms you’ll be most likely to run across.

Before we jump into specifics, though, here’s a quick timeline of highlights in the history of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian language):

1820s: when European missionaries begin to arrive in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has no written form.

1840: King Kamehameha III establishes a public education system across the kingdom.

1893: Queen Liliʻuokalani is overthrown by insurgents, a new provisional government is established, and a request is made for the U.S. government to annex Hawaiʻi. By this time, Hawaiʻi is said to have a literacy rate of over 90% (one of the highest in the world)!

1896: the use of Hawaiian for teaching and learning is banned.

1900: the U.S. Congress names Hawaiʻi an official U.S. territory.

1959: the U.S. Congress names Hawaiʻi the 50th state.

Early 1970s: a Hawaiian cultural renaissance begins.

1978: ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi is reinstated as an official language of the islands.

1986: the Hawaiʻi Department of Education establishes a Hawaiian language immersion program.

Here’s another interesting fact: when Captain Cook arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, approximately half a million inhabitants spoke ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi – but by the 1980s, that number had fallen to under 2,000! And unfortunately Hawaiian is still on the United Nations’ list of endangered languages. But by 2016, over 18,000 residents reported speaking ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.

Okay – now let’s dive in and learn some vocabulary!

Polite Hawaiian Exchanges

Aloha: love/affection/kindness, also used to say hello and goodbye

E komo mai: welcome

Mahalo: thank you

A hui hou: until next time

Terms for Individuals

Kāne: man

Wahine: woman

Keiki: child

Kupuna: elder

Kamaʻāina: literally “of the land,” now mostly used to mean “resident”

Directional Words

Makai: toward the sea

Mauka: inland/toward the mountains


Lūʻau: feast

Pau hana: literally “finished work,” the Hawaiian version of happy hour

Pūpū: appetizer

ʻOno: delicious


Hula: the traditional form of dance in Hawaiʻi

Mele: song

Hana hou: literally “do it again,” the Hawaiian version of “encore!”

Hauʻoli lā hānau: happy birthday

Mele Kalikimaka: merry Christmas

Other Terms You’re Likely to Hear

ʻOhana: family

Hui: club/group

Hale: house

Lanai: deck

Mālama: to care for/protect

Pono: goodness/righteousness

Kapu: forbidden/keep out


So now you may be wondering … what’s that line over some of the vowels, and what’s the other symbol that looks like a backward apostrophe? Those are diacritical marks that help with reading/pronouncing Hawaiian. When a kahakō appears over a vowel, it tells us what part(s) of a word should be stressed. When an ʻokina appears, it signals a tiny pause; for example, the ʻokina in hauʻoli (happy) indicates a brief break that might sound something like the break in “uh oh.”

 You may have also noticed that just seven consonants (H, K, L, M, N, P, and W) and the vowels A, E, I, O, and U make up the entire Hawaiian alphabet! So Hawaiian words sometimes have quite a few vowels. As a general guideline, the vowels in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi sound pretty much like they do in Spanish, meaning that A is pronounced “ah,” E is “eh,” I is “ee,” O is “oh,” and U is “oo.”

If youʻve already spent some time in the Hawaiian Islands, you may also have heard some pidgin terms. Pidgin evolved from a combination of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi; approximations of Hawaiian that were spoken by sugarcane plantation laborers from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, Spain, etc. in the late 1800s; and English. Turn on the radio or television in Hawaiʻi, and you’ll definitely hear some pidgin sprinkled in!

Common Pidgin Vocabulary

Choke: a lot of something

Da kine: anyone or anything you can’t remember the name of

Grinds/grindz: food

Rajah/shoots: used to show agreement with someone

Slippahs: flip flops

Small kine: just a little

Want to learn more about ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi? Check out Hawaiʻi Public Radio’s Hawaiian word of the day, or try some free Hawaiian lessons on Duolingo!

And if you want to learn more about life in Hawaiʻi or Maui real estate, contact me today!

Nancy Beebe, REALTOR(S), SRES

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