Ahh, the Hawaiian Islands! Lush tropical rainforests, beautiful sandy beaches, and impressive volcanic landscapes dominate this popular vacation hub. I was recently visiting with family in Honolulu, and was inspired to share some information that vacationers might not be aware of.

The Hawaiian Islands were colonized by Polynesian settlers around 300-500 CE, and Hawaii became the 50th state of the union in 1959. As the stereotype goes, Hawaii residents do seem to be generally easy-going, and tend to run on their own “Hawaiian time”.

Their culture combines aspects of Western, Asian, and Polynesian heritages. As you may be aware, Hawaii’s rich heritage is full of names and words that are unfamiliar to most people who weren’t raised on the island, and can be a handful in terms of pronunciation.

Below is a small beginner’s guide to language in Hawaii, and will be useful and/or interesting for most anyone visiting or who has visited the islands.

Word Pronunciation

What street was the hotel on? Kalanianaole Hwy or Lili’uokalani Avenue?

It’s surprising how difficult some Hawaiian words appear, especially since there are only 12 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet. The 5 vowels A, E, I, O, and U exist, along with the consonants H, K, L, M, N, P, and W.

But what the Hawaiian language lacks in alphabet characters, they make up in repetition. Fortunately, pronouncing Hawaiian words is easier than it looks.

In most cases it will help to slow down and take time to enunciate each vowel on its own. From above, Kalanianaole is pronounced “ka-lah-nee-ah-nah-oh-lay”.

By sounding out each vowel, one can usually get pretty close to the actual pronunciation of Hawaiian words. However, be careful not to factor in English rules such as the silent E – for example, the Like-Like Highway is pronounced “leekay-leekay”.

Looking for more? Get additional information about pronouncing Hawaiian words.

Pidgin English

Pidgin English is a local tongue spoken by residents of the Hawaiian Islands. The language is a combination of words and accent, and is influenced by many different ethnicities including Portuguese, Japanese, Samoan, Chinese, and Philipino.

The extent of Pidgin English depends on which areas of Hawaii you visit. Pidgin is somewhat limited in popular tourist spots such as Waikiki, but is much more prevalent in surrounding areas where locals live.

Here are some common Pidgin terms you might encounter during a visit to Hawaii:

– Howzit – Literally means” how is it” or “how’s it going”
– Haole – This is a term used to describe a Caucasian person. Being called a haole isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so don’t take offense if you hear it.
– Da-kine – Da-kine is…well…da-kine. Da-kine can be pretty much anything in context, and is often used to describe something good or when describing an object.
– Shootz – This term means “OK” or “alright”, often used in context as “let’s do it then”.
– Ono – Ono is used to describe a delicious or tasty food/drink.
– Mahalo – Thank you.

Comedian Frank De Lima (full name Frank Wilcox Napuakekaulike De Lima, Jr.) is a favorite act among locals, as he joins comedy, singing, and Pidgin English. His song lyrics in the video below are a great example of Pidgin, and he even explains the lyrics translated into proper English.

Famous Hawaiians

There are some notable Hawaiian names you may come across as you visit the tropical islands.

King Kamehameha (Kah-may-ha-may-ha) is likely the most striking figure and face of Hawaiian culture. He was the first leader to unite all the Hawaiian Islands under one rule, creating a widely recognized political entity. He was a battle tested warrior, and is also well-known for creating human rights laws.

Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (Kah-mah-kah-wee-woh-oh-lay), known to locals as Braddah Iz, was a treasured singer and songwriter best known for his soft voice, ukulele strumming, and support of Hawaiian culture and lifestyle. Sadly Iz passed away in 1997, yet his songs and voice will live on forever. His hugely popular version of “Over the Rainbow” is below.

Duke Kahanamoku (Kah-ha-nah-mow-ku) was a swimming and surfing legend of Hawaii in the early to mid 1900s. He won 5 medals in the Olympics, and is widely considered the ambassador of surfing. He is credited with starting the surfing movement in Australia and popularizing it in California. His full name is Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku.

The last bit of advice I can give is to pronounce “Hawaii” reasonably close to local pronunciation. Try to say something close to Ha-wuh-ee, and stay away from the 2-syllable pronunciation of Ha-why.