`Olelo Hawai`i

`Olelo Hawai`i: How to Pronounce the Hawaiian Language

Visitors to Hawai`i will encounter the Hawaiian language, which can be tricky to pronounce for newcomers. Here is a guide to help improve pronunciation.

Though it is considered a “dead” language, the original Hawaiian language is still common in Hawai`i – visitors might see it used for street names, on public signs, or even as translated text in numerous documents. Nobody speaks Hawaiian as their first language any longer, but it is making a comeback after being all but wiped out in the last two hundred years. Understanding how to pronounce the language can help the visitor to Hawai`i have a more “authentic” experience.

Hawaiian Syllables

The Hawaiian Language is vowel-centric; that is, the words are created using either vowels or consonant-vowel pairs, each of which comprises a syllable. The word aloha has three syllables: a (a vowel without a paired consonant), lo (a consonant-vowel pair) and ha (also a consonant-vowel pair). Some words have no consonants, like aea (to rise up from being submerged), which would be considered to have three syllables.

Those familiar with the construction of Japanese words may find Hawaiian syllable construction, as well as pronunciation of many sounds, to be very similar, though the languages do not share a common root.

Consonants and Vowels

There are only eight consonants used in Hawaiian: h, k, l, m, n, p, w (which is pronounced closer to v in most cases), and a glottal stop, represented as a ` symbol. The glottal stop is called an `okina, and pronounced by momentarily stopping one’s voice with the throat, much like English speakers do when pronouncing the hyphen in uh-oh! The `okina is often left off words, though its omission can dramatically change the meaning of a word, and is as important to proper Hawaiian as consonants are in English.

For example, pau is a common word for “completed,” and is often used in daily speech in the Islands. The word pa`u means “soot,” and would probably not make sense in context if the `okina was left out.

Only five vowels appear in Hawaiian: a, e, i, o, and u. A is pronounced as in “across,” e as in “get,” i as in “kitty,” o as in “hole,” and u as in “yule.”


Each vowel can also be stressed, represented by a macron over the vowel which appears as a straight line. Stressed vowels are given longer expression, usually just a fraction of a second.

Hawaiian words naturally place the stress on the second-to-last syllable, then every other syllable preceding. Thus, a word like Honolulu would place the stress on the first syllable, Ho, and on the penultimate syllable, lu. Vowels with macrons, as mentioned above, are also given stress.

Putting It Together

Try pronouncing a few words you may encounter while visiting the Islands:

pua’a (poo-AH-‘ah): pig

Kamehameha (ka-MAY-hah-MAY-hah): one of Hawai`i’s most beloved kings.

`ohana (`oh-HAH-nah): family

Waikïkï (WAI-KEY-KEY): the most popular district of Honolulu with tourists. This one’s tricky because the macrons over the vowels on the final two syllables ensure each syllable is equally pronounced.

käne (KAH-nay): male

wähine (WAH-HEE-nay): female

mana (MAH-nah): the spiritual power that infuses the land and all life within it.

kapu (KAH-poo): forbidden. Signs that say this basically mean “no trespassing” or “keep out,” though kapu can also refer to a complex set of laws used in ancient Hawai`i. The English word “taboo” comes from the Tahitian version of this same word.

Hawai`i (Hah-WHY-‘ee): our lovely islands, or the “Big Island” that shares its name. Note the `okina at the beginning of the last syllable.

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