Aloha: A look into the Native Hawaiian language

Aloha: A look into the Native Hawaiian language

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated May 10, 2022

‘Ōlelo Hawai’i is the native Hawaiian language. You may be thinking, “do people still speak Hawaiian?” The answer is absolutely yes, and Hawaiians are rightly proud of their language. 

Thanks to preservation and education initiatives, the number of native Hawaiian language speakers is increasing. 

You’ve probably heard cool surfers say words like aloha. That’s a form of greeting in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i.

This article will give you some background and take a more detailed look at the native Hawaiian language.

And if you’re interested to learn more about other languages and accents that are spoken in the US, check out our American accents map.

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Where did native Hawaiian language come from?

Pacific Islanders are possibly the greatest sailors in history. About 3,000 years ago, people from Southeast and East Asia sailed thousands of miles on outrigger canoes with only the stars to guide them. They landed on Polynesian islands across the Pacific including Hawaii. There is evidence to suggest that they made it as far as modern-day Chile.

The 38 different Polynesian languages share clear origins. These origins can be traced to Tonga and Samoa. Hawaiian language is considered an Eastern Polynesian language and is not mutually intelligible with other Polynesian languages. 

WordSamoanTonganHawaiian
sky/laŋi//laŋi//lani/
house/fale//fale//hale/

Prior to contact with Europeans, the Hawaiian language was not written. Oral history was preserved through song and dance. 

There were political, cultural and economic changes after the arrival of Europeans and Americans in the late 18th century. 

Eventually, the United States overthrew the sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii and annexed Hawaii as a territory in 1898. Many Hawaiians define this history as being conquered and stolen by the United States. 

What languages do Hawaiians speak?

Many Hawaiians are trilingual. They speak English, Hawaiian Pidgin and the native Hawaiian language.

Hawaiian Pidgin

When US Americans arrived in Hawaii, they started to cultivate locally grown sugarcane on a large scale. 

The first sugar plantation was established in 1835. With the back-breaking work of sugar plantations, workers were brought from China, the Philippines, Japan and Korea to maintain sugar production. 

Hawaiian Pidgin is an English-based creole that allowed these workers from all over the world to communicate in a common language. Hawaiian Pidgin is an official language

Like pidgins and other creoles, there is both a simplification of the root language and systematic grammar use. Here’s an example of Hawaiian pidgin:

“Brah, wen you go da beach?” (Hey, when are you going to the beach?)

About 600,000 people speak Hawaiian pidgin on a daily basis.

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‘Ōlelo Hawai’i: native Hawaiian language

There are around 327,000 speakers of native Hawaiian language and the number is increasing.

When Hawaii was annexed by the United States, they implemented an English-only education system. 

Cultural pressure to conform to “American” culture meant generations of Hawaiians didn’t grow up speaking native Hawaiian language. 

There is an expression in native Hawaiian language: I ka ‘olelo no ke ola, i ka ‘olelo no ka make. It translates to “in language there is life, in language there is death.” 

Thanks to the efforts of the Hawaiian people, their language lives.

Examples of native Hawaiian language

We’ve answered what the native language of Hawaii is from a historical context. Let’s look at examples of the grammar and pronunciation of native Hawaiian language.

Pronunciation

It’s important to understand how the native Hawaiian language is written and pronounced. There are 5 vowels that can be long (with a line over the top) or short (no line). There are an impressive 20 diphthongs. There are 6 consonants including the ‘okina which looks like punctuation but is a consonant.

VowelsPronunciation
a (ā)/ah/
e (ē)/eh/
i (ī)/ee/
o (ō)/oh/
u (ū)/oo/
ConsonantsPronunciation
h (hē)/heh/
k (kē)/keh/
l (lē)/leh/
m (mū) /moo/
p (pī)/pee/
w (wē)/veh/
‘okina

Long and short vowel sounds are important and could mean the difference in meaning:

  • Kala = a type of fish
  • Ka lā = sun
  • Kālā = money

The‘okina is a glottal stop. English speakers make a similar sound in “uh-oh.” Take a look at the name of Hawai’i – it’s pronounced /ha vai ee/. 

English speakers often overlook the ‘okina and blend the vowels to say /huh why/.

Expressions

Here are some basic expressions to get you started learning native Hawaiian language.

HawaiianEnglish
AlohaHello/Goodbye
Pehea ‘oe?How are you?
Maika’iGood
‘O wai kou inoa?What’s your name?
‘O [name] ko’u inoaMy name is [name]
Mahalo nui loaThank you very much

Native Hawaiian language lives

Native Hawaiian language is one of the most spoken indigenous languages in the United States. It is steeped in the traditions and history of Pacific Islanders. 

Learn these expressions for your next trip to Hawaii and you’ll show some respect for an incredible language.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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