Arts and Culture

The Hawaiian Language | Pronunciation Tips & Words to Know

Image Credit: Wild & Away 

One of the best ways to experience a new place is to learn its language. I learned by taking 4 years in high school (which very few people do) but there could be some Rosetta Stone-type options out there.

For this blog, we will just cover the basics to get you rolling.

There are 3 main differences between the English language and Hawaiian:

  1. There are never two consonants next to each other.  Always vowels in between.
    1. My kumu (teacher) said, “Hawaiian is like butter… there are lots of vowels and you let them melt together”
    2. Ie. Heiau – hay-ee-ow (all the vowels melt together, no breaks unless you see the ‘okina, or glottal stop)
  2. There are only 13 letters:  A-E-I-O-U-H-K-L-M-N-P-W and ‘ (‘okina = break in the sounds). ie. o’o = oh-oh
  3. The trickiest difference is the pronunciation of the two vowels I & E. GET THIS ONE WRONG AND YOU STAND OUT LIKE A SORE THUMB (ask me how I know that one!)
    1. I is pronounced “ee”, like beef
      1. ie. Waikīkī – Why-kee-kee (when you see a dash over the letter (kahako), you elongate/extend that sound a bit ie. “Why-keee-keee”
      2. ie. Hawai’i – Ha-wa-ee or Ha-vai-ee (both acceptable)
    2. E is pronounced “ê”, like bed or pet.  It is the short ê sound.  Quick and relaxed
      1. ie.  Pele (fire goddess) is pronounced “pê-lê”
      2. ie.  A’ole (no) is pronounced “ah-oh-lê”
    3. Or put the two together and try “Likelike” (Highway) – Lee-kê-Lee-kê
    4. “I will take 13 letter street names that start with K, for 200, Alex” (ADVANCED)
      1.  Kapi’olani = Ka-pee-oh-la-nee
      2.  Kalākaua = Ka-laa-kaua (melt like butter)
      3.  Kalani’ana’ole = Ka-la-nee-ana-oh-lê

Here are a list of the most commonly requested word translations:

Until we meet again, goodbye – a hui hou
Hello, love, or goodbye – aloha
Good morning – Aloha Kakahiaka
Baby – keiki, pēpē
Brother – hiapo (older brother) or poki’i (younger brother)
Butt – ‘okole
Computer – lolo uila (electric brain)
Dolphin – nai’a
Dragon – mo’o lele (literally flying lizard). Hawaiians didn’t know what dragons were, so a word is made up
Please come and be my guest – E komo mai
Family – ‘ohana
Food – mea’ai
Friend – Hoaloha
God bless – Ho’omaika’i
Golden – kula
Goodnight – aloha ‘ahi’ahi
Happy New Year – Hau’oli makahiki hou
Happy birthday – Hau’oli Lā Hānau
Hawai’i – the names of the islands are said to be so old that the meanings have been lost.
What you say when you are presently in Hawai’i- Hawai’i nei – for example, “I’m here in Hawai’i nei”
Hawaiian language – ‘Olelo Hawai’i
Homosexual – mahu
State fish – Humuhumunukunukuapua’a
The favorite waters (hidden meaning) – Kawaipunahele
Lookout – wahi nānā
Thank you – mahalo
Thank you very much – Mahalo nui loa
Take care of yourself – Mālama pono
Merry Christmas – Mele kalikimaka
Miss you – ha’o wale
The best – No ka oi
Large or big – Nui
Ocean – kai
Finished – pau
Rainbow – ānuenue
Sister – kaiku’ana (older sister), or kaikaina (younger sister)
Stay strong – ho’oikaika, kūpa’a
State motto – Ua mau ke ‘ea ‘o ka ‘aina I ka pono (the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness)
Tiger – kika
Tough local girl – tita
Turtle – honu
Volcano – luapele
Spouting water – Waikīkī
Welcome, no trouble – A’ole pilikia

How many people speak the language?

I often get asked how many people speak the language. And that is a tough question. In my grandparent’s day, the language was forbidden and frowned upon. You would get your hand slapped if you spoke Hawaiian in school. So the number of native speakers dwindled in the beginning of the century. However, a resurgence in the language has been ongoing since the ’70s to present day.

Pidgin English

An interesting language that is far more frequently spoken in Hawaii is “pidgin english” (might even be recognized as a unique language?). Pidgin is far more commonly spoken in Hawai’i, than the Hawaiian language. Pidgin arose in the 1800s when Hawai’i was flooded with immigrant workers from China, Japan, Portugal, Philippines, etc, to work the sugar and later the pineapple fields. Hawai’i was the true “melting pot,” where local people have at least 2-3 of those ethnicities present in their genealogy. Pidgin was how these immigrant workers communicated amongst each other. An “elegant” mixture of all these languages, and Hawaiian, which formed something completely unique to Hawai’i (listen for it).

ie. “If can, can. No can, no can” or “Wot bra! Boddah you?” or ”Da kine” or “I owe you money, o’ wot?”

The Hawaiian language is beautiful, and it unlocks a much deeper appreciation for these islands and its people.



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Sharon Devany

April 11, 2019

I enjoy your site.

Paul Janes-Brown

October 31, 2022

There are only 12 letters in the Hawaiian language.

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