How To Speak Hawaiian Like A Haole
Important Note: There is no way we can teach you either Hawaiian or Pidgin. We are not native Hawaiian speakers - and we did not grow up on the island with an infusion of daily Pidgin. What we can do, however, is give you the basics that makes reading and speaking Hawaiian easier.
We are certain our Hawaiian speaking friends are rolling their maka and laughing their lemu off at this page - hopefully once they are done they will help us make any corrections necessary.
The Hawaiian Islands are a huge melting pot of races. The recent 2000 US Census showed that over 20% of Hawai'i residents listed ancestors of more than one race, giving the state a much higher percentage of multiracial residents than anywhere else in America.
With 25% of the population considering themselves to have at least some Native Hawaiian ancestry and 58% of the population being at least part Asian and 39% having some white ancestry - you can imagine the impact on language within the islands.
Hawai'i is also the only American state to have two official languages, Hawaiian and English. However, a 3rd unofficial language is also widely spoken, Pidgin which is a slang combining words from many aspects of island life and culture.
Of course, you do not need to speak Hawaiian (or Pidgin for that matter) to enjoy Hawai'i. English is everywhere. However, most of the names of towns, streets, places, and scenic sites are in Hawaiian. Learning a bit about the language can greatly improve your pronunciation and reading of Hawaiian words. This will also greatly improve your island navigation skills and ability to communicate with locals about the island.
The Hawaiian Alphabet
When Captain Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, he also discovered that Hawaiians had a totally oral tradition. There was, up until western contact, no written version of the Hawaiian language. In 1820 western missionaries living in the islands first standardized a written version of the Hawaiian language.
The written Hawaiian language is based on English letters. There are 8 consonants and five vowels - much simplier than English! (Or so it appears at first glance.)
|H||As in English|
|K||As in English|
|L||As in English|
|M||As in English|
|N||As in English|
|P||As in English|
|W||After i and e pronounced v|
After u and o pronounced like w
At the start of a word or after a pronounced like w or v
|'||'Okina - a glottal stop (more on this below)|
|A||Like the a in far|| |
|E||Like the e in bet|| |
|I||Like the y in city|| |
|O||Like the o in sole|| |
|U||Like the oo in moon|| |
|Source: Hawaiian Dictionary|
Special Symbols - the 'Okina and Kahakō
Two symbols appear frequently in Hawaiian words... the 'Okina and the Kahakō. These two symbols change how words are pronounced.
The 'Okina is the apostrophe mark and is a glottal stop - or a brief break in the word. The break is very fast, and if you're not careful listening you may miss it. As an example, think of the English oh oh - the small break, or silence, between the first oh and the second oh is the same break you would make if an 'Okina appeared in the word (for example... oh'oh).
The 'Okina is an official consonant - just as any of the other consonants. An 'Okina will appear in front of a vowel, never before another consonant. Additionally, an 'Okina will never be the last letter in a word - but will always appear between letters or at the beginning of the word.
The Kahakō is a stress mark (macron) that can appear over vowels only and serve to make the vowel sound slightly longer. The vowels ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū sound just like their non-stress Hawaiian vowels with the exception that the sound is held slightly longer.
Missing the 'Okina or Kahakō can greatly change not only the how a word sounds, but also its basic meaning. For example, the word kāne (kaa-nay) means male while the same word without the Kahakō, kane (ka-nay), means skin disease. Likewise the word moa (mo-ah) is a chicken while mo'a (mo ah) means cooked.
The sections above gave you some of the basics behind the language itself and how it appears and sounds. However, there are a couple of simple tricks to help you figure out Hawaiian words quickly and pronounce them properly:
- Hawaiian words may start with any letter, vowel or consonant.
- Hawaiian words will never end with a consonant.
- Syllables in Hawaiian words are only one or two letters, never longer.
- Syllables must end with a vowel, or can be a single vowel, but can never be a single consonant.
How do the above rules help us? Well, let's consider one of the longer words in Hawaiian (the word for our state fish):
If we remember our rules about syllables we can quickly, and visually, break it up into syllables like this:
Suddenly it becomes much easier to read. But how did we do that? Well, the humuhumunukunuku part is easy because (1) a consonant can not end a syllable and (2) syllables can be only one or two characters in length. But what abut the 'ā-pu-a-'a at the end? That was also easy because we have to remember that the 'Okina (') is a consonant (thus 'ā is a two character syllable), the pu then stands by itself as a syllable, and finally we have a'a which must be two syllables since there are three characters, and since the middle character is the 'Okina (a consonant) the first a must be its own syllable with the final 'a the last syllable in the word.
I personally find that the syllable rules are the number one thing that helps me pronounce complex or long Hawaiian words properly. Consider another word, this time a place name near Hilo:
At first glance we might be tempted to sound this out and have it end up sounding Japanese - pu-a-i-na-ko (poo-ah-eh-nah-co). That certainly sounds Japanese, but not Hawaiian. For a long time I always thought it was a Japanese name, until I learned about the syllable rules. But if you look at the word, there would be no way to divide that word up into syllables and still pronounce it in a Japanese manner while adhering to the rules. Instead, if we break it up according to the rules we get pu-ai-na-ko - wow, that's completely different (poo-eye-na-co) and suddenly the word comes out sounding Hawaiian, not Japanese.
In general you will not find very many complete Hawaiian phrases on road signs - and thus you won't need to learn much more than what we have taught you here concerning how to speak and read basic words.
However, as you begin to pick up on words, and listen to local radio or read newspapers where Hawaiian phrases are used you will begin to pick out basic meanings to what is being said.
The ordering of words in Hawaiian phrases is reverse from what it is in English. Specifically, nouns precede adjectives. For example, in English we would say The big red car; in Hawaiian we would say Ke ka'a nui 'ula (The car big red).
All About Ke and Ka
As you see Hawaiian words and names used you will notice that a huge number of the words begin with either Ke or Ka. Both Ke and Ka are equivalent to the English word the. Words beginning with either Ke or Ka are often named after an item - for example, the female name Kalei means the flower wreath (the lei).
Of course, Ke and Ka can also appear as words in a sentence. Our example in the last section was Ke ka'a nui 'ula, or, The car big red (in English The big red car). The Ke at the beginning of the phrase is, again, The in English.
But when do we use Ke instead of Ka? The choice to use Ke versus Ka has to do with the word that immediately follows it. If the next word begins with K, E, A or O you would use Ke, otherwise you would use Ka (there are a couple of exceptions to this such as a few words that begin with an 'okina).
A simple trick that is taught in most Hawaiian language courses as well as used in various books on Hawaiian language is:
The Hawaiian phrase Ke ao means The cloud in English. It also uses all the letters that Ke should be used in front of, instead of Ka, and it also conforms to the rules.
Below we show a random Hawaiian word along with a clue on how to say it in English, the most important dictionary definition and in most cases, a WAV and MP3 audio version of the word being spoken. Again, we are not native Hawaiian speakers and thus, we may have made mistakes, but hopefully we are fairly close (I'm sure our Hawaiian readers will be more than happy to send us E-mail correcting any mistakes we might have made.
The English clue we show is not meant to be 'proper English' but more over the mid-western English sounds you would use to mimic the word in Hawaiian.
Piko - (pee-ko) |
The navel (bellybutton) and umbilical cord. Also the summit of a hill or mountain or the top of your head. (Another Word)
In Hawaiian, a single name may have many meanings (just look up the meaning for aloha if you want to see what we mean). The definition we list with the words is either the top dictionary definition or the most common used definition in every day language.
Finally - this is only the tip of the iceberg. We invite you to look at some of the books we offer in the sidebar at the left (the links take you to Amazon).
Mahalo Nui Loa