The Hawaiian Language

The Hawaiian Language

[Illustration: A public sign using Hawaiian words on it (e.g., Komo mai!, or street sign)]


Hawaiian is one of about 30 languages comprising the Polynesian language family.  The Hawaiian language has a soft, smooth cadence, and a melodic, song-like quality that has been described as spoken music.

Linguists note that the Hawaiian language is most similar to the language of the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti and less so to Sāmoan and Tongan.  The Hawaiian language also bears a relationship to languages of the Philippines, Indonesia, Madagascar and Fiji.


Mai ka ā a ka w.

From A to W.

The alphabet of Hawaiian.

                                    (Pukui: 2056-223)


Hawaiian Becomes a Written Language

Hawaiian was a spoken language but not a written language when Captain Cook first visited the Hawaiian Islands in 1778.  Cook’s best linguist expert aboard the Resolution, Surgeon William Anderson, compiled a list of 250 words, writing down as best he could in English what the native Hawaiians were saying.

The First Missionary Company arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1820.  Missionary scholars (trained in mathematics, sciences, humanities, as well as Latin and other languages) weighed different options on formalizing a native Hawaiian language. 

One might say that Hawaiian officially became a written language in 1829 when missionaries voted to select the 12-letter alphabet.  They outlined a structure for a written Hawaiian language that adopted five vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) and seven consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p, and w).  The new written language was modeled after the oral Hawaiian language, attempting to accurately represent the sounds with English letters.

The missionary scholars provided some rules for the ordering of words in clauses and phrases.  In the Hawaiian language, mood, case, and tense are shown with particles rather than inflection.  Typically a sentence will begin with a verb, followed by a subject, object and prepositional phrase.

From the time Captain Cook’s linguist expert compiled a list of Hawaiian words until 1865, there were at least 12 more lists made by various people, though they all contained less than 400 words, with the exception of Lorrin Andrews’ 1836 list of 5,700 words. 

Andrews (1795-1868) was head of Maui’s Lahainaluna School, which was founded in 1831 by American Protestant missionaries as a seminary of advanced education for young Hawaiian men, with an overarching missionary goal of advancing Christianity.

 Andrews’ 1836 publication of 5,700 words was the first significant Hawaiian-English vocabulary.  Andrews also published a grammar of the Hawaiian language in 1854, and then in 1865 he published a list of about 15,000 words in his Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language. 

In 1845, the Lahainaluna Seminary Press published the first English-Hawaiian Dictionary, which was prepared by Artemas Bishop (1795-1872) and Joseph S. Emerson (1800-1867).


Refinements to the Written Hawaiian Language—Diacritical Marks

Refinements to the written Hawaiian language were made over the years, and symbols (diacritical marks) were developed to represent stresses and accents.

The reverse apostrophe symbol (‘) is called an ‘okina (also known as a hamzah), and represents a “glottal stop,” which is a slight pause similar to the stopping of sound in the English “oh-oh!”  A horizontal line above a vowel (e.g., ā), is called a macron, or kahakō, and is used to show long, stressed vowels, or glides.

In 1957, the first edition of Pukui and Elbert’s Hawaiian-English Dictionary was published.  Pukui and Elbert’s Hawaiian Dictionary: Revised and Enlarged Edition, published in 1986 contains more than 26,000 Hawaiian words, and is the definitive source for Hawaiian word spellings (e.g., diacritical marks), meanings, and pronunciation.

Of course the first source for the Hawaiian language is the Hawaiian elders themselves, who maintain a critical knowledge.  A new generation is now learning the language with the hopes of keeping the Hawaiian culture alive.  Music written and sung in the Hawaiian language has also made a popular resurgence.


Ke ho‘i a‘e la ka ‘ōpua i Awalau.

The rain clouds are returning to Awalau.

Said of a return to the source.

                                                                        (Pukui: 1698-183)



A general guide for pronouncing the vowels in Hawaiian words is to pronounce:

a as in about, or above

e as in wet, or let

i as in sweet, or the y in pity

o as in rope, or hole

u as in root, or moon


The vowels above are listed as they are pronounced when unstressed.  When stressed, they sound much the same, but the “e” is pronounced more like the “ay” in play rather than like the e in wet.

There are exceptions to the above rules, especially when vowels are combined with other vowels to form diphthongs.  Also, if a w is after an i or an e, it is usually pronounced like a lax v, but after u and o it is usually pronounced like the English w. 

Many Hawaiian words have been integrated into the daily lives of English speaking residents of the Hawaiian Islands.  For example, “mahalo” is said to express thanks.  The word “aloha” is often used to express hello as well as goodbye, and also expresses affection and love. 

An ancient proverb states, “He kēhau ho‘oma‘ema‘e ke aloha,” which translates to “Love is like a cleansing dew,” and is said to mean, “Love removes hurt.”[i]

In the Hawaiian Islands, most place names (an estimated 86%) are Hawaiian, including names of streets, towns, mountains, and valleys.  Ancient Hawaiians also named many rocks and trees (sometimes representing ancestors or gods) as well as taro patches, heiau (sacred places of worship), and fishing sites.  In the Hawaiian Islands today, many buildings and stores are also given Hawaiian names.

Residents of the Hawaiian Islands, including those of foreign ancestry as well as Hawaiian ancestry, commonly use many Hawaiian words during their daily lives. 

The number of native Hawaiian speakers declined rapidly in the 1800s and 1900s with the decline in the native Hawaiian population after Western contact (See Captain Cook Establishes Western Contact, Chapter 12.) 

In 1896, three years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, a law was passed stating that “The English language shall be the medium and basis of instruction in all public and private schools.”

The number of native speakers of Hawaiian in 1983 was estimated at only about 1,500 people, mostly elder citizens who spoke Hawaiian to each other.  Only an estimated 50 children spoke the Hawaiian language. 

Since that time the number of people speaking Hawaiian has grown considerably.  In the last three decades the number of native speakers has grown substantially as a result of Hawaiian language immersion schools, college programs, and mentoring by kūpuna (elders, grandparents), kumu (teachers) and kāhuna (spiritual leaders and experts in particular professions), who share their traditional cultural knowledge with the next generation.

  The first ever master’s degree in Hawaiian was awarded to University of Hawai‘i student Hiapo Perreira in 2002.  She went on to attend a newly established doctoral program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. 

A new generation is now learning the Hawaiian language, keeping the culture alive and perpetuating ancient knowledge and traditions.  Today the number of native Hawaiian speakers is estimated to be more than 10,000 people, and most are younger than thirty years old.  More than 2,000 children are speaking Hawaiian, and there are 23 immersion programs in the State of Hawai‘i.  Music written and sung in the Hawaiian language has also made a popular resurgence. (See Kī Hō‘alu—Slack Key Guitar, Chapter 12.)


The following section of this text is a listing of the words most commonly used by all residents of the Hawaiian Islands today.

[Photograph: Hawaiian elders]
The Top 150

Hawaiian Words

Most Commonly Used in the Hawaiian Islands


Note: The following list includes words commonly heard in the Hawaiian Islands today, and thus these are words that are useful to know for all those living in or visiting the Hawaiian Islands. 

Hundreds of other Hawaiian words are used throughout the text of this book, including names of plants, birds, place names, and many terms not commonly heard among most residents.

 ‘a‘ā (rough lava)

‘ahi (yellowfin tuna)

ahupua‘a (natural watershed land division extending from the mountains to the sea)

‘āina (land, earth)

akamai (smart, clever, knowledgeable)

‘alalā (Hawaiian crow)

akamai (knowledgeable, clever, smart)

ali‘i (chief, chiefess, royalty of ancient Hawai‘i)

aloha (hello, good bye, love, affection)

aloha kakahiaka (good morning)

ānuenue (rainbow)

‘aumakua (family or personal god, guardian, ancestral spirit (plural: ‘aumākua)

auwē (or aue) (expresses wonder, fear pity, scorn, or a groan (e.g., oh dear!)

E komo mai! (come in, welcome!)

haole (Caucasian)

hapa haole (of mixed blood, part Caucasian, part Hawaiian)

hālau (place for hula instruction, or canoes; group)

hale (house)

Hana (bay, valley)

hānai (adopted foster child)

haole (formerly any foreigner; now refers primarily to those of Caucasian ancestry)

hapa haole (half haole, half Hawaiian)

Hau‘oli Lā Hānau (Happy Birthday)

Hau‘oli Makahiki (Hou Happy New Year)

he‘e nalu (surfing, to ride a surfboard)

heiau (sacred temple, ancient Hawaiian place of worship)

hōkū (star)

honu (turtle)

Hono- (valley or bay (e.g., Honolulu))

honu (sea turtle)

honua (land, earth)

hui (group, organization)

hukilaua (group pulling a fishing net (huki) ashore (lau))

hula (Hawaiian dance, cultural practice, art form)

imu (underground earthen-oven using hot rocks; traditional for lū‘au)

ipo (sweetheart, lover)

ka (the)

kāhili (feather standard used by royalty)

kahuna (spiritual guide, priest, expert in a profession (plural: kāhuna))

kai (sea)

kakahiaka (morning)

kalo (taro)

kālua (cooked underground, baked (e.g., kālua pig at a lū‘au))

kama‘āina (native born, (means “child of the land”), also long-time resident)

kanaka maoli (native Hawaiian)

kāne (man or boy, male  (Kāne is a Hawaiian god))

kapa (cloth made from bark (also called tapa))

kapu (sacred, forbidden)

kaukau (food)

keiki (child, offspring (also kama))

kīpuka (vegetation surrounded by lava flow)

koholā (humpback whale)

kōkua (help, assistance)

kona (leeward side, leeward winds)

konohiki (head of an ahupua‘a)

ko‘oloau (windward)

kuleana (responsibility, right, small land parcel)

kumu (teacher)

kūmū (goatfish (Parupeneus porphyreus))

kupuna (ancestor, grandparent, relative)

lānai (porch, shed)

lani (sky, heaven)

lau hala (leaf of hala tree, used to weave many items)

laulima (cooperation, working together)

le‘a (joy, happiness)

lei (strands or garlands of flowers, seeds, ferns, shells, feathers or other materials)

liliko‘i (passion fruit)

limu (seaweed (many types are edible))

lo‘i kalo (irrigated taro terrace)

lomi (to rub, massage)

lomilomi (masseur, masseuse)

lomilomi (raw fish (e.g., salmon) worked with fingers and mixed with onions and seasoning)

lū‘au (Hawaiian feast (also means “young taro leaves”))

mauna (mountain, peak)

mahalo (thank you)

mahalo nui loa (thank you very much)

mahimahi (dolphin fish (not dolphins))

mahina (moon)

maika‘i (fine, good)

makai (toward the sea)

mālama (to care for, support, preserve)

malihini (newcomer, visitor)

mana (spiritual or divine power, wisdom)

mana‘o (thought, idea, opinion)

manō (shark)

mauka (toward the mountains, inland)

mauna (mountain)

Mele Kalīkimaka (Merry Christmas)

mele (song or chant, to sing, merry)

menehune (legendary small race of ancient Hawaiians)

moana (ocean)

mo‘i (king)

mo‘i wahine (queen)

moku (island, islet)

mu‘umu‘u (loose-fitting dress (introduced by missionaries))

nai‘a (dolphin)

nalu (wave)

nani (pretty, beautiful)

nēnē (native goose, Hawai‘i’s state bird)

nō ka ‘oi (the best! (e.g. Maui nō ka ‘oi—Maui is indeed the best))

‘ohana (family, extended family—named after the ‘ohā (offshoots) of kalo (taro))

‘okole (buttocks)

‘ono (delicious (also the name of wahoo fish))

‘ō‘ō (digging stick, digging implement)

pāhoehoe (smooth, ropy lava

pali (steep cliff or precipice)

paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy)

papa he‘e nalu (surfboard)

pau (finished, done (pau hana—end of work day, job finished, etc.))

piha (full)

pilikia (trouble)

poi (taro root pounded into edible paste)

pono (correctness, morality, goodness)

pua (flower, blossom, garden)

puhi (eel)

puka (hole, door, opening)

pūpū (appetizer, hors d‘oeuvre)

pu‘u (hill, mound)

tapa (cloth made from bark (also called kapa))

tūtū (grandmother, aunt)

‘ukulele (small, guitar-like instrument)

wahine (woman)

wai (water, stream, river)

wikiwiki (speedy, hurry, quick)


[i]p. 76, Pukui, Mary Kawena.  ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings.  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.  Proverb 683.