The Language of Hawaii

When a child is born and first becomes aware of the world around her, she is more an observer of this world than a participant. Her observations are refractions of life as seen through the eyes of a stranger. Her senses are easily overwhelmed, and her impressions continually evolving. Although she takes comfort in the familiar, she must leave it in order to grow.

And so it is with me as I become more familiar with Oahu, the most populated island in Hawaii. My senses are bombarded by impressions, my head is dizzy from sensations, and my perceptions reflect incomplete knowledge and the developmental shortcomings of any newborn. Any mistakes I make interpreting what I experience are innocent and lack malice. They are simply necessary first steps as I find the desired balance to walk forward on my own in this beautiful but unfamiliar place.

So far it has been easier for me to reflect and meditate than to communicate here. There are so many impressions to experience and so many unexpected delights that spoken language seems to get in the way.

Oahu is a diverse environment in many ways and that is reflected in the many languages spoken by its residents and the fact that no single ethnicity is in the majority. The longer I stay here and the more I travel within the island the more I’m exposed to a multitude of spoken and behavioral languages among its residents — including native Hawaiian, Japanese, Korean, “mainland English” (regional accents from the U.S. mainland), Mandarin (Chinese descent), Samoan (independent country of Samoa and the U.S. territory of American Samoa descent), Tagalog (Filipino descent), Tongan (Tonga descent), Vietnamese, and pidgin (a local dialect that combines English with many of the languages spoken in Hawaii). Of its nearly one million residents, itʻs said that nearly one-fourth speak a language other than English at home.

Although relatively rare even here, it’s Hawaii’s native language that primarily permeates and influences the names, spellings, and attitudes on the island. The sounds and pronunciations of Hawaiian words and phrases can be both beautifully melodic and challenging. Familiarity with the Hawaiian language would be a desirable component of island life were I ever to relocate here. Not because knowledge of native Hawaiian is necessary to communicate (it isn’t) nor even because a majority of residents would understand it (they wouldn’t), but because learning and properly using at least some native Hawaiian words and phrases would be respectful of this enchanted place, its culture, and its traditions. Knowing how the Hawaiian alphabet works and how to pronounce Hawaiian words facilitates the ability to communicate on the islands, to read local newspapers and magazines, to comprehend local news and programming, and to navigate Hawaii’s maps and street signs. Most street names are posted in native Hawaiian by city decree and most cities and many beaches bear native Hawaiian names.

In its simplest terms, native Hawaiian is described as a Polynesian language. It shares with English the status of being one of two official languages of the State of Hawaii. The Hawaiian alphabet has 13 letters, 5 vowels (long and short), and 8 consonants. Hawaiian vowels are pronounced differently than they are in English: “A” is pronounced “ah”; “E” is pronounced “eh”; “I” is pronounced “ee”; “O” is pronounced “oh”; and, “U” is pronounced “oo.” As for the consonants, the “W” in Hawaiian traditionally sounds like the English letter “V.” One of the consonants is a glottal stop designated by a symbol of a backwards apostrophe (‘) called ‘okina. An ‘okina basically represents a pause or break in a word’s pronunciation.

An ‘okina is important to the Hawaiian language because if it is included in a word it can change the meaning of a word; likewise, if it is omitted from a word, the word can mean something else entirely. My understanding is that is because native Hawaiian is traditionally a spoken language where the spoken word is more important than the written word and this symbol denotes a distinction in sound. The presence of this symbol is also one of the ways I identify a Hawaiian word from an English one: The word Hawai‘i is Hawaiian; the word “Hawaii” is English.

There is also a symbol used in native Hawaiian that looks like a small line over a vowel called a kahakō. Basically, it means that the vowel is pronounced as a long vowel when spoken. Like the‘okina, the absence or presence of a kahakō can change the meaning of a word. I am not knowledgeable enough to give an example of this, only to state my understanding that this can occur.

My understanding of native Hawaiian is also that the‘okina and kahakō are not always used when Hawaiian words or phrases appear in printed material or on the Internet — and sometimes when they are, they are used incorrectly. To be fair, Hawaiian language symbols do not exist in the regular “American English” keyboard of a MacBook Pro™, for example, but with little effort I was able to access a “Hawaiian” keyboard and character viewer option to access them on my laptop (in the input sources of the language & text feature under its system preferences). The primary newspapers and magazines in Hawaii seem to use the Hawaiian symbols for widely-recognized Hawaiian words and phrases most of the time.

Unlike many other languages, the Hawaiian language is not widely spoken outside of Hawaii and there are limited resources for those adults who desire to learn it here. There are no Berlitz™, Rosetta Stone™, or Pimsleur™ language courses in Hawaiian, and even in Hawaii there are relatively few native speakers of it available for instruction. There appear to be an increasing amount of Hawaiian language classes on the islands and an increasing number of online resources, some of which are free.

The native Hawaiian words and phrases I have seen or heard used most often since I’ve been here appear in most tourist guide books. They include: Aloha (hello, goodbye, love, affection); honu (turtle); kane (man); kapu (forbidden); luʻau (Hawaiian feast); mahalo (thank you); malihini (visitor or newcomber); manō (shark); mauna (mountain); ohana (family or extended family); pali (steep cliff); pupu (appetizer); keiki (child); and, wahine (woman). Knowing these few words and how to pronounce them do not make me fluent in the Hawaiian language and they don’t really impress anyone who lives here, but knowing these words and using them appropriately seems to be appreciated by many of the residents on the island — especially Mahalo (thank you).

Finally, there is a dialect spoken on Oahu called “pidgin” that should not be confused with native Hawaiian – it is not. It’s a local dialect that mixes English with many of the languages represented here and it is probably best reserved for the people who live in Hawaii and understand it. Most locals with whom I’ve spoken insist that pidgin should not be attempted by tourists, visitors, or newcomers; to do so often makes them appear naive or foolish — and sometimes it comes across as ridiculing those who live here and use it. I suppose it would be similar to someone from a northern state traveling to a state in the “deep south” and imitating the accent there.

As long as I leave pidgin to the locals of this island and carefully listen to Oahu’s residents when they speak, I’m able to communicate just fine. Just not in pidgin and not in the same way as I would do so on the mainland. Communicating in Oahu is more of a gift one gives to another than something that should be taken for granted. I suppose that is one of the many unique things about the Hawaiian islands that endears it to me.

 Photo Credit: Kobby Dagan (123RF License)

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