hawaii mountains panorama
hawaii panorama

General Overview of The Hawaiian Language

The Hawaiian language (ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi) is one of the oldest surviving languages in the world. Today, Hawaiian along with English are the official languages of the state of Hawaii.

Over the years, the language has undergone several changes and developments. Although few people speak the Hawaiian language today, there are many individuals interested in learning it, like you are…


A Short History of The Hawaiian Language 

In 1778, British explorer James Cook arrived in Hawaii. Before his arrival, the Hawaiian language was purely oral. Cook and his men noticed that the language was similar to the French Polynesian Tahitian and Maori languages of New Zealand. He and his men proceeded to record the Hawaiian language for the first time in 1778.
In his report, Cook wrote the name of the islands as “Owhyhee” or “Owhyee”. It was later, in 1822 that a writing system based on one similar to the new New Zealand Grammar was developed and printed by American Protestant missionary Elisha Loomis. This original version consisted of an alphabet that included five vowels and twelve consonants. By 1826, the missionaries had fully developed the Hawaiian alphabet (piapa). This way, they were able to teach Hawaiians to read and write the language and translated the Bible into Hawaiian.

The Hawaiian Language Banned

Following the annexation of Hawaii as a territory of the United States in 1898, the original Hawaiian language was subsequently banned from official use (in schools and government). Regardless of the official ban, Hawaiians still spoke the language on a daily basis, when not in an official setting.

Renaissance of the Hawaiian Language

As the decades passed, the original Hawaiian language remained popular among locals. In 1978, the Hawaiian language was recognized as one of the official languages of the state of Hawaii (with the other being English).

Fast-forward top today and there are about 8,000 people who are able to speak the Hawaiian language and about 1000 native speakers (just over 0.1% of the population).

The Hawaiian language lives on.


How To Pronounce Hawaiian Words

A short and simple rule to follow is to pronounce constants as you would in English and break up words into syllables, so they are easier to say, for example Waianapanapa sounds like Wai-a-napa-napa and humuhumunukunukuapuaa sounds like                              [hoo-moo-hoo-moo-noo-koo-noo-koo-ah-poo-ah-ah]

In addition, pronounce vowels as follows…

How To Pronounce Hawaiian Vowels.

A –  [ah] as in “far” or as in “Ahh! This is delightful
E –  [ay] as in “hay” or as in “Hooray!
I –  [ee] as in “week” or as in “See!
O – [oh] as in “no” or as in “So?
U – [oo] as “moon” or as in “Oops!

Rules of the Hawaiian Alphabet

The Hawaiian language follows four basic rules:

  • All words end in a vowel.
  • Every syllable ends in a vowel.
  • Every consonant is followed by at least one vowel.
  • Two consonants never appear next to each other.


The Hawaiian Alphabet

The Hawaiian alphabet consists of 13 letters – five vowels and eight consonants:
A, E, I, O, U, H, K, L, M, N, P, W,‘.

The alphabet is a combination of the five vowels, A, E, I, O, U and seven constants H, K, L, M, N, P, W,‘.

Yes, you will notice that the list only contains seven letters. One of the constants in the Hawaiian language is the glottal stop (called ʻokina). Why is the ʻokina considered a constant?

The reason the ʻokina is considered a consonant is because of its important. As an example, a missing ʻokina can change the meaning and pronunciation of a word. Here’s an example:

kai = sea
kaʻi = to lead


lanai = balcony

lanaʻi = one of the Hawaiian Islands


molokai = pronounced “Moh-loh-kai”

moloka‘i = pronounced “Moh-loh-kah-ee.”

Note that saying “Moh-loh-kai” or “Moh-loh-kah-ee” won’t change the meaning of the word in this case, but a native Hawaiian speaker would make the distinction in pronunciation.

For more on the ʻokina, go to the section ʻokina


The Glottal Stop (ʻokina)

The ʻokina is an important element of the Hawaiian language. Unlike in English where ‘ is simply a punctuation mark i.e. a backward apostrophe (ʻ), in the Hawaiian klangauge, it is important to the meaning and pronunciation of certain words.

An ʻokina indicates a slight pause in the sound when a word is spoken, similar to when one says “uh-oh”. Try it, say kaʻi. Now say kai. See the difference?

In general, the ʻokina is only found at the beginning of a word or between two vowels. Although you may not see it on the internet or even in certain written literature, native Hawaiian speakers still use it when speaking the Hawaiian tongue. Today, it is still used in major Hawaiian newspapers and books related to Hawaii history, culture, its people, etc.

The Macron (kahakō)

There is yet another grammatical mark in the Hawaiian language, the macron (kahakō). It is simply a symbol that looks like a line (-) placed above a vowel. The kahakō means that you should pronounce a long vowel. Again, the absence or presence of it can also change the meaning (and of course pronunciation) of a word e.g. Mãnoa is pronounced Mah-noa.


Vowel and Constant Pairs (Pronunciation)

By tradition, the W in the Hawaiian language sounds like the letter “V” in the English language.

Whenever a constant is paired with a vowel, the constant will join the vowel sound. As an example, if we pair the letter L with a vowels, we will get:

La would sound like “Lal”
Le would sound like “Lel”
Li would sound like “Lee”
Lo would sound like “Lol”
Lu would sound like “Loo”

Go slowly at first and master the art of Hawaiian word pronunciation. This way, you will steadily and comfortably increase your speed, eventually reaching a point of accuracy.