The Hawaiian language is a lovely and rich language. And by the end of this you’ll be able to read and say “humuhumunukunuku‘āpua‘a” (which is the name of the Hawai‘i State Fish).
While you won’t need to be fluent in it at all, knowing some of the basics will help you feel more comfortable and make it easier to get around the islands. Being able to pronounce things correctly will also show your respect for the history, the people, and the culture.
// Some basics
There are 13 letters in the Hawaiian language.
H, K, L, M, N, P, W
All act pretty much the same as typical English pronunciation, except the W. The W, when it follows an I or E takes a V sound.
So, when speaking the name of the state, instead of “ha-WAH-ee” (or “ha-WHY-EE”) you might hear some people say “ha-VAH-EE” (or “ha-VY-ee”). And technically, the “AH” sound is correct, as you’ll see here…
When you add a consonant to a vowel, you can just put the pronunciation of the vowel after it. Take K, for example:
Ka sounds like “Kah”
Ke sounds like “Keh”
Ki sounds like “Kee”
Ko sounds like “Koh”
Ku sounds like “Koo”
Putting two vowels together, you get a diphthong. It’s pronouncing them both but giving priority to the first vowel.
au is similar to house in English (“ah-oo”)
ou is like bowl (“ow-oo”)
ei is like eight (“eh-ee”)
So keiki (which means, children) is pronounced “KAY-Key.”
On Maui, the city of Kihei is pronounced “KEY-hay.”
If you’re counting, we’ve only had 12 letters so far. The last is a glottal stop marked by a backward apostrophe (‘).
An ‘okina is a hard stop that separates words.
The ‘okina doesn’t always appear in some words in writing (as you’ll even see on this site!). And most of the time both pronunciations are acceptable (with or without it). Although sometimes it changes the meaning of the word, most of the time it’s just a matter of helping with the pronunciation.
Kaua‘i (sometimes written Kauai) is not “kah-WHY” it’s “kah-WAI-e” (the i is an e sound).
Hawai‘i is “ha-VY-e”
On Kaua’i, the city of Po’ipu is often said “POI-poo” but is really “poi-E-poo.” You’ll normally just see written as Poipu.
Same with Lihu‘e, Kaua‘i. It’s pronounced “lee-HU-e” not “LIE-hue”
The last thing to chat about is the Kahakō. It’s the line over a vowel which signifies a long vowel sound.
As an example: Mānoa Falls is “MA-noa” not “ma-NO-a”
Nobody is going to look at you silly for saying it the second way, and you won’t get lost when asking for directions, but it’s nice to know.
// Four Simple Rules
- Hawaiian words can start with any letter (or even an ‘Okina) but will ONLY end in a vowel.
- Syllables are only one to three letters long, at most.
- Syllables will always end in a vowel. If there are three vowels in a row, there should be an ‘okina, even if it’s not written.
- Two consonants won’t appear next to each other.
So let’s take this word apart. Let’s divide it up by different syllables:
Now put them together:
hoo-moo hoo-moo noo-koo noo-koo ahh poo-ah ah
Try it again looking only at the Hawaiian:
Great job! If you’re still having a hard time, check out this video on youtube.