Category Archives: Language

So What’s With all the Vowels?

If you’ve spent any time in Hawaii you’ve noticed that the Hawaiian language seems to consist only of vowels.  From the state fish, Humuhumunukunukuapua`a, to the road signs that seem almost as long, the words can be quite the mouthful. One time my husband and I were using Siri on his Iphone to give us directions; he had Siri set to be an Australian male voice and listening to the accent pronouncing the Hawaiian street names was hilarious – we couldn’t understand the directions at all but we certainly got a good laugh out of it.  Years ago, Dave Barry wrote a column  where he joked that the Polynesians encountered a big storm on their way to Hawaii resulting in their consonants washing overboard.  I laugh whenever I think of this column.

Interestingly enough, despite the heavy use of vowels, there are more consonants in the Hawaiian language.  This language consists of 12 letters – 5 vowels (a,e,i,o and u) and 7 consonants (h,k,l,m,n,p and w).

Despite the unfamiliarity of the language, there are some Hawaiian words such as aloha that have made it into our everyday language.  Aloha, with its multiple meanings of hello, goodbye, greetings and love has come to symbolize the whole experience of the warmth and friendliness of the Hawaiian islands.

Other words are very useful to understand. Some key words are mahalo which means thank you, lanai which translates to balcony or patio, and those vital bathroom signs – wahine – women and kane – men.  Island directions may use the words mauka, towards the mountain, and makai, towards the ocean.  One may also hear the words windward and leeward to describe the island. The windward side is exposed to the wind and is wetter; the leeward side is protected and is typically drier.

The humpback whales are known in Hawaiian as kohola and the infamous green sea turtle is honu.   One of my favorite Hawaiian words is pono which means proper or moral and I love this sticker:


Menus may list pupu which are appetizers and also describe food as ono which means good. Looking for a child’s menu? The word to use is keiki.   Signs saying  E komo mai mean welcome, come on in.

Most know the words hula for the native dance and lei for the beautiful garland of flowers visitors often receive.  One may hear the word haole which means foreigner, usually a Caucasian,  while kama’aina means a Hawaii resident.

These are just a few key words to help get you started or refresh your memory.  I always try to pick up a few words every visit. Leave me a comment and let me know what words you consider key.

Known as the shaka, this gesture means hang loose
Known as the shaka, this gesture means hang loose