Learning the Hawaiian Language

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Although Hawaii is an English-speaking US State, it comes with its own very distinct culture, identity, and Hawaiian language (or rather, languages). Before I came here I tried to get a handle on some of the Hawaiian words and phrases, but in practice here, integrating into and learning Hawaiian language goes beyond the average guidebook.

There are actually a few languages being tossed around in Hawaii (aside from Japanese, Pilipino, and other languages spoken by common and prolific immigrants): Traditional Hawaiian, and Pidgin English.

See also: Tips to Learn Another Language

This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

Traditional Hawaiian Language

The written Hawaiian language has only 13 letters in their alphabet, five of which are vowels. And since most streets and towns have Hawaiian names, the words can get pretty long in an effort to provide variety in the absence of available letters.

Taking directions from other people, I have more than once been told to go to “honohumaekalulu” or some such indistinguishable place and wondered where I went wrong when I forgot the name and missed the turn.

There are however, a few secrets to learning and remembering the names and places of Hawaii:

  • Everything is pronounced pretty much phonetically.
  • Every vowel is sounded out. There is no silent “e”. So “hale” is pronounced “ha-lay” as opposed to “hayl” as we might originally guess.
  • “W’s” are pronounced with a “v” sound.
  • The apostrophe indicates a break in the word. For example, Hawaii is accurately spelled “Hawai’i”, and as such is pronounced “ha-vai-ee” with a break between the “vai” and “ee“.
  • Look for the little words in the big ones. When faced with an insurmountably big word, just look for the little three or four-letter words in the big one and sound it out. Once you get a handle on the general pronunciation words above, it gets easier to sound out words. Remembering them however, is still a different ball of wax.

Here are some Hawaiian words used by most people here in daily conversation:

Aloha – used for hello, goodbye, welcome, and a general term for goodwill

Haole Caucasian, literal meaning is “without breath”

Humuhumunukunukuapua’a – I kid you not. It is Hawaii’s unofficial state fish (a kind of trigger fish). I haven’t ever seen it written anywhere in full, but I had to include it to give you an idea of how daunting some Hawaiian words can be, especially if they are street names!

Kapu – restricted, taboo; usually on a “no trespassing” sign

Keiki – child

Kipuka – sacred forest; land spared when lava flows around it

Mahalo – thank you

Mahalo Nui Loa – thank you very much

Makai – towards the sea, used as a directional indicator (eg: on the makai side of the road)

Muumuu – yup. It’s a muumuu…those big loose flowery dresses that look like sheets. And yes – there are lots of them here.

Pakalolo – marijuana; it grows prolifically here, so of course there needs to be a Hawaiian word for it!

Pau – finished, done, quitting time

Pupu – appetizers. (I had to work in some sort of food reference, of course)!

Wahine – woman


Many locals speak pidgin English to one another, which although is a derivative of proper English, when spoken fluently sounds entirely foreign. There are some periodicals written in pidgin, and as long as you phonetically sound it out, you can get the picture pretty easily.

Pidgin English is considered by many to be nothing more than “bad English”, as it contradicts many of the proper English grammar rules. Not only that, but people who speak Pidgin are often considered to be of lower intelligence. However, there are some accomplished and highly educated Pidgin speakers who are trying to give the language and history behind it more credit.

Words like “the” are often abbreviated to “da”, and “kind” to “kine”. It all sounds very Caribbean when spoken smoothly. Must be an “islan’ ting“.

Some common pidgin terms include:

Brah or Cuz – friend. When addressed as such by a local, you know you’re “in”. They are pidgin for “braddah” (brother) or “cousin” if you hadn’t already figured it out.

Chicken Skin – goosebumps

Hobrah – Hawaiian braddah; home-braddah

Howzit – How’s it going? What’s up?

Kay den – okay then

Rubbah Slippahs – flip flops

Talk Story – chat, casual conversation

As you can see, most Pidgin is simply an abbreviation of English, with a good dose of colloquialisms thrown in there. It becomes tricky to pick up from people who are quick-talkers or who have thick accents, but for the most part you can catch the flow of the conversation if you keep nodding your head and smiling and pretending to understand.

Then again, I guess that can be said for much of life in general.

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