Hawaiian Language: some rules

by Terry Wallace

‘Olelo o ka wa‘a - canoe language.

Lula kulu. (Some rules)

When we get through these, we’ll go on. This is probably the hardest part of the whole program. Hopefully, you’ll get “kinda’ close” to the pronunciation. Don’t depend on your friend who “went to Hanalula once twenty years ago so he probably knows.” Uh, uh, oh no!


There are 12 letter symbols or “sounds” in the Hawaiian language. Vowels — a-e-i-o-u — are ALWAYS pronounced the same. Spanish/Italian is the closest to Hawaiian vowel sounds.

As in;

  • a = ah
  • e = aee
  • i = ee
  • o = oh
  • u = oooo

EXCEPT!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Actually, there are more than 5 vowel “sounds.” More like 20!

Vowels can have four different sounds, regular, short, long (or with emphasis) and short with emphasis. As in ‘ōlelo, emphasis is placed on the first vowel and none on the others. ‘Okina (hamza) is a glottal stop similar to the oh’s in English oh-oh. This symbol is a small forward slash like an apostrophe, only backwards (‘). It should look like a “6,” only much smaller. I’ve seen “ ’ ” (like a tiny 9) which is NOT correct.

Note: some older browsers don’t recognize the ASCII code for the kahako (macron), which is an emphasis line placed over a vowel. If your browser doesn’t recognize the ASCII code, you’ll see the code instead of the symbol.

So the vowel sounds are: a, ‘a, ā, ‘ā  +  e, ‘e, ē, ‘ē  +  i, ‘i, ī, ‘ī  +  o, ‘o, ō, ‘ō  +  u, ‘u, ū, ‘ū.

Later we’ll do “rising diphthongs.” (no, your bikini isn’t too tight!)

Huikau ‘e? (Confused already?) Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff and will become obvious later on. Mahope! (After!)

Consonants are; h, k, l, m, n, p and w. These are pronounced just like English, EXCEPT for the “W” which can change, depending. “Depending on what?” It can be like “W” or “V” or “VW,” depending. Depending on where in the regional accent or especially where in the word it’s located. So, if you say, “HaWai‘i” or “HaVai‘i” or “HaVWai‘i,” any of these is OK.

Another thing - “All them dang Haiwyun words start with ‘K.’” Right! That’s because “the” in Hawaiian can be “ka” or “ke.” Oh-oh, here comes another one! OR - “nā.” (notice I emphasized nA). Nā is the “S” in this language. Nā precedes any word you want to make two or more of. “The man” = ke kanaka. “The men” = nā kanaka. ‘īako is ‘īako is ‘īako. Notice it’s ‘īako, not ‘iako (look closely at the “i”). Emphasis here is on the first vowel in the word. One, two or twelve of them: ‘īako.

(I suppose it’s always plural because that’s the way they’re used. Two or more at a time. What good would one do?)

OR you can say, kānaka which is the same as nā kanaka. Emphasis is on the capitalized vowel.

Since “Hawaiian” is an Anglicized word, in future we will use the term “Maoli” instead. This is a common Polynesian word meaning roughly, “original people” (or a variation of that), as opposed to immigrants.

As in;

  • Hawai‘i = Maoli
  • Tahiti/Marquesas region = Maohi
  • Aotearao (New Zealand) = Maori

Ho‘opau ka ha‘awina (end of lesson)

Kū‘auhau mai (that’s me, my name & I’m here, mai, not dead or somewhere else)

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