Your first clue that people are speaking a foreign tongue is the fact that their
language sounds different. Therefore, the goal of this lesson is to
familiarize you with the sounds of Hawaiian to the point where you can
articulate them clearly, write them perfectly and read them accurately.
Pronunciation is discussed initially in order to maximize the amount of practice
you will receive sounding out words in subsequent lessons, plus this initializes
good pronunciation habits.
While no text can demonstrate precisely how a language is pronounced, the best
we can do is provide you with as much description as possible. While information
as to how Hawaiian is spoken can only help you to a point when it comes to
pronouncing the language yourself, it will at least sensitize you to various
phonetic properties. Concentrating on such properties while listening to fluent
speech can enhance your potential to effectively mimic them.
There is no vocabulary section in this lesson, however, animal words will be
used in the examples and exercises. It is good to start out learning animal
words since they refer to distinctive, tangible creatures, thus their English
translations are usually quite straightforward. Chances are you might see some
of these animals on a daily basis, especially since terms like pelehū
(turkey) double as food items. If so, may you be prompted to recall their
|"Hānau kū‘oko‘a ‘ia nā kānaka apau
loa, a ua kau like ka hanohano a me nā pono kīvila ma luna o
kākou pākahi. Ua ku‘u mai ka no‘ono‘o pono a me ka
‘ike pono ma luna o kākou, no laila, e aloha kākou kekahi i
|"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are
endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a
spirit of brotherhood."
On first hear, English speakers commonly perceive Hawaiian as sounding somewhat
'repetitious', probably due to its remarkably concise inventory of
Hawaiian constitutes merely ½ of English's 26 letter alphabet, and spoken
Hawaiian contains roughly ¼ of English's 40+ sounds! For this reason you should
find Hawaiian fairly easy to pronounce, especially since all of its sounds
exist in English.
(S/SH/CH) and guttural sounds, as well as consonant clusters, English
speakers have also been known to characterize Hawaiian as sounding very 'clean'
and 'fluid'. Another popular description is 'melodious', which could be
attributed to the fact that vowels are more bountiful than consonants.
Whether ancient Hawaiians once had their own writing system remains uncertain,
but around the islands there are several sites containing
petroglyphs; pictographs that were carved
into solid rock.
Little is known about these carvings. Although ostensibly semiotic, these
symbols bear a striking resemblance to the symbols of Rongorongo, an ancient
script from nearby Rapa Nui (Easter Island) that has never been deciphered.
In any case, today Hawaiian is written with the Latin alphabet, which was
introduced by missionaries so that the Bible could be translated. As you
probably noticed, this is the same script used to record English. For this
reason, it should be quite easy for you to master writing in Hawaiian. In fact,
Hawaiian writing is so straightforward that the first speakers to achieve
literacy were writing flawlessly in as little as one month!
As you may have noticed, Hawaiian is written with the same five vowels as
English, yet unlike English, all of Hawaiian's vowels are pronounced in one and
only one way:
as in 'fall4';
||"eh" as in 'bed';
||"ee" as in 'ski';
||"oh" as in 'so';
||"oo" as in 'duke';
Even though the Hawaiian u and English U both sound like "oo", this does
not mean they are identical, and this goes for all other vowels. Hawaiian
speakers consistently articulate vowels with slightly different mouth and tongue
positions than English speakers, causing the vowels to sound somewhat different.
In fact, not only is the English "oo" is different from the Hawaiian "oo", both
the English and Hawaiian "oo"s sound different from Japanese's "oo", which
sounds different from Spanish's "oo", and so forth.
A Hawaiian speaker can detect your English accent simply by listening to the way
you pronounce o. You may not realize it, but in English O is always
pronounced with a W sound following
This is obvious in words like 'low' or 'mow' because the W is written, but often
times the W is not transliterated. Words like 'go', and 'toe' still end in a W
sound, even though a W isn't included in the spelling.
In contrast, all of Hawaiian's vowels are
pure, which means o does not
necessarily pattern with w. Therefore, a word like no is always
pronounced as "noh" in Hawaiian and never as "nohw" like it would be in English.
To say no, try pronouncing the English word 'no' but freeze your lips
exactly midway into the utterance. The resulting sound should resemble the
Hawaiian pronunciation. The key is to keep your lips still.
Less noticeably, English speakers tend to form a W at the end of "oo" and a Y
after "ee", and perhaps after "eh" as well. Pay special attention to how native
speakers of Hawaiian pronounce u, i and e. Make sure you
are not producing them as uw, iy and ey.
Hawaiian also has longer versions of all five vowels. Whenever you see a line above
a vowel that means you should double that vowel's spoken duration. So, while
u is pronounced as "oo," ū should be pronounced as "ooo." In
English this line is known as a macron,
but in Hawaiian it is called the kahakō.
||"ahh" as in 'father'; IPA: /aː/
||"ehh;" IPA: /eː/
||"eee;" IPA: /iː/
||"ohh;" IPA: /oː/
||"ooo;" IPA: /uː/
Note that English speakers tend to hear and pronounce ē as "ay"
(as in 'play') but this is incorrect; only the segment ei is
pronounced as "ay." Ē is nothing more than a long "eh." Also, note
that when the kahakō is put above lowercase i, it
replaces the dot rather than hovering over it. Many scholars who write
about the Hawaiian language still make this mistake.
Although vowel length is trivial in English, it makes a very big difference in
Hawaiian; ignoring the kahakō will lead to some catastrophic
|kiha (supernatural lizard)
Hawaiian has only eight consonants. L, m and n sound more
or less as they do in English, however, h, k, n, p,
and w. differ slightly. There is also an additional consonant represented
by a single apostrophe.
| l, m, n
||Same as English more or less. IPA: /l, m, n/.
||Some claim that the Hawaiian h is a bit stronger than the English H,
resembling the H of Spanish and Arabic. IPA: /h/.
|hē (tiny caterpillar)
In Hawaiian, unlike English, h can go between two vowels. Make sure you
pronounce h in this position. Kamehameha, the name of Hawaii's
first king is pronounced
"kah meh hah meh hah"
NOT like kameamea.
||In general, the Hawaiian k is pronounced with less
aspiration. This means that the burst of
air that follows K is significantly softened. In this respect, it is more like
the K in 'skit' than the one in 'kit'. If you listen closely, the
K 'skit' sounds a bit harder than the one in 'kit'. English ears
often have trouble telling the difference between the two, but the distinction
is quite prominent to speakers of certain languages. IPA: /k/.
||As with k, The Hawaiian p is less aspirated, sounding more
like the P in 'spit' than the one in 'pit'.
Although p is pronounced with less aspiration from the lungs, it is
accompanied by a puff air from the mouth, which causes the lips to become
somewhat lax in its formation. IPA: /p/.
||The Hawaiian w can resemble either an English W or a light V. When
pronounced as a light V, the bottom lip gently grazes the top row of teeth.
After o or u it usually sounds like a W, probably having to do
with the fact those vowels are pronounced with rounded lips. After e or
i, w usually sounds like a light V. Otherwise, it is variable. IPA: /w6/ [w, v].
"-oo weee -oo weee"
"ah wah"/"a vah"
In fact, there has been some debate over which pronunciation of
'Hawai‘i' is correct. Some people say "hah wai -ee,"
others, "hah vai -ee." Well, now you know that both pronunciations
are completely acceptable.
||In Hawaiian, this sound is called the ‘okina (break)
because it represents a short pause in the start or middle of a word. It has
also been called the ‘u‘ina (snap).
In English it is called the glottal stop
because it is articulated by constricting one's glottis. It is found in
exclamations like 'uh-oh' and 'uh-huh'; the dash in the middle is where the
glottal stop occurs. It can also be heard in the midst of the words
'button' and 'kitten' - notice how neither of these words actually
contain a T sound. IPA: /ʔ/.
i‘a (marine animal)
The ‘okina cannot be capitalized. If a word beginning with an
‘okina begins a sentence or proper name, the vowel after it is
Certain fonts and handwriting styles change the shape of the ‘okina
from a single, reversed apostrophe (‘) to a
a straight apostrophe (') or a grave accent (‘).
Although the ‘okina is technically a break in speech, it is by all
means a consonant. Therefore, disregarding the ‘okina in your
writing or speech will lead to some significant mistranslations!
|apo (to circle)
||‘apo (to catch)
Until recently (post World War II), the kahakō and the
‘okina were not considered significant to Hawaiian, since they are
unimportant in the English language. If you have the chance to look at old
Hawaiian texts, you might not encounter them.
|29 ¶ Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face
of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be
yours for food.
Eventually it was realized that failing to including these sounds in writing is
very problematic since it results in high levels of ambiguity. For instance,
when encountering a word like ia (in the last line), the reader must
choose between four possible selections depending on whether it is pronounced as
ia, iā, ‘ia, or i‘a; and since each of
these individual words have multiple meanings, the translator must sift between
a total of ten possible intensions!
A good way to fine-tune your pronunciation of Hawaiian is to recite the letters
of Ka Pī‘āpā Hawai‘i (The Hawaiian
Alphabet). The name Pī‘āpā, was derived from the
process of explaining how syllables are formed. Hawaiians were instructed "B, A:
Ba" to which they repeated pī, ‘a, pā.
Every letter of the alphabet has a name that sounds close to the way it is
pronounced. The order is nearly identical to the English alphabet except for
the fact that all of the vowels appear initially, followed by the consonants.
Ka Pī‘āpā Hawai‘i
This Hawaiian alphabet song can help you remember all of the letters. It was
composed by Mary Kawena Pukui, a fervent advocate of Hawaiian language and
E nā hoa kamali‘i,
O fellow children
E a‘o mai kākou
Let us learn together,
I pa‘ana‘au ka pi‘apa.
Till we've memorized the alphabet.
‘Ā, ‘ē, ‘ī, ‘ō, ‘ū,
A, e, i, o, u,
Hē, kē, lā, mū, nū,
H, k, l, m, n,
‘O pī me wē nā panina,
P and w are the last two,
O ka pī‘āpā.
Of the pī‘āpā.
(Elbert 1979, 6)
A few words of borrowed origin are pronounced with these additional
Most borrowed words conform to the sound system of Hawaiian, however, there are
a few exceptions such as ‘ota (otter) and
Kristo (Christ). Z commenced a handful of
words, mostly from Greek (Schütz 1976, 87).
Before the spelling of words was standardized p was often written as
b, d as r or l, k as g or t,
and w as v. This is because monolingual Hawaiian speakers could
not hear the difference between these sounds and whenever they produced what
sounded like to an English ear as a p that approximated 'b', an
l that was especially 'r'-like, and so forth, English speakers
spelled words as such. Thus, lilo (to be lost) could have been
written as liro, rilo, riro, lido, dilo,
dido, rido, or diro!
A Hawaiian Language Spelling Bee would last almost indefinitely! Because Hawaiian
is written so close to how it sounds, there is little need for knowing how to
spell words aloud. In fact, speakers used to spell a word simply by reciting its
syllables. However, sometimes knowing how to spell can come in handy. For
instance, is not clear exactly how a word like ‘aweoweo (bigeye
fish) is usually spelled. One could spell it ‘aueoueo,
‘aueoweo, or ‘aweoueo.
When it comes to spelling out proper names like Hawaii, you might want to
specify uppercase by saying ma‘aka after a letter, or
lowercase by saying na‘ina‘i after a letter. Between
words you can say hua‘ōlelo hou (new word).
‘okina ‘ō kō mū ‘ā ‘okina ‘ō ‘ī ‘ō
‘ā lā ‘ā nū ‘ū ‘ī
By now you can write words you hear, and even spell them aloud, but you might
find that reading them is a bit more complicated. Quite naturally, native
English speakers tend to read Hawaiian as if they were reading English, perhaps
pronouncing a word like liona (lion) as
"lye uhn uh" because it looks like the
English word 'lion' rather than as
"lee oh nah."
✖ "lye uh nuh"
✔ "lee oh nah"
When most people learn how to read English they are taught phonics, which are
little conventions that help them navigate spelling irregularities. For instance,
phonics would dictate that the letter I is pronounced consistently as "ih"
before N, in words like 'shin', 'fin', and 'pin', and as "ai" after NE, in words
like 'shine', 'fine' and 'pine'.
Phonics are only necessary because English spelling is so warped. Take a look at
the letter P or the sequence GH. P can be silent (as in 'psychology'),
but it can also sound like F before H (as in 'philanthropy'). The
sequence GH can also be silent (as in 'thought'), or it can sound like an
F (as in 'laugh'), or it can even sound like a G (as in 'ghost').
In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a single letter that doesn't have an
The main reason why English spelling is so disorganized is because while the
pronunciation of words changed over hundreds of years, the way they're spelled
has remained standard. However, since Hawaiian has only been written down for a
couple centuries, its spelling has remained for the most part straightforward.
Thus, whereas an English letter such as A can sound like "ah" as in
'tall', "ae" as in 'tack' or "ay" as in 'take' depending on
what word it's found in, the Hawaiian a will always sound like "ah" no
matter what the word is.
Therefore, it is important never to apply English phonics to Hawaiian words.
This might prove difficult since for the average adult, knowledge of phonics has
become largely subconscious. However, try to make sure you never do any of the
• change the sound of any letters
• add any letters
• ignore any letters
Hawaiian is notorious for containing some very long words. Take
humuhumunukunukuāpua‘a - the name of Hawaii's former state
fish (it means triggerfish with a pig-like snout)!
The Reef Triggerfish [Rhinecanthus rectangulus]
This word is incredibly long, but by breaking down words into syllables you can
make it much easier to pronounce. It just so happens that Hawaiian has one of
the easiest syllabification patterns of any language! Every syllable within a
word can only consist of a:
1. V: Vowel or Long Vowel
2. CV: Consonant + Vowel or Long Vowel
So, when broken down into syllables, humuhumunukunukuāpua‘a
looks like this:
Now that's a lot more pronounceable!
Singers are often criticized for butchering words by reciting them in a
different tempo, as in pronouncing the word honu (turtle) as
hon u - which would violate rule 1 - instead of
ho nu. Learning the syllable structure of Hawaiian will
not only allow you to tackle long words, it will also make your speech more
As inferable by rule 2, ordinarily a vowel cluster cannot exist inside a single
syllable. A combination such as koala (koala bear) is syllabified
as ko a la. However, certain
pairs of vowels are exceptions to this rule. In each of the following vowel
combinations, the sounds mix together, and as a result these pairs are actually
pronounced as quickly, or perhaps near as quickly, as single vowels. These
||"ah" + "eh" (no English equivalent); IPA: /ae/
||similar to the word 'eye'; IPA: /ai/
||ah" + "oh" (no English equivalent); IPA: /ao/
||similar to the exclamation 'ow'!; IPA: /au/
||similar to the "ei" in 'eight'; IPA: /ei/
||"eh" + "oo" (no English equivalent); IPA: /eu/
||similar to the "oy" in 'boy'; IPA: /oi/
||similar to the word 'owe'; IPA: /ou/
It is important to learn the diphthongs of Hawaiian because they are syllabified
as if they are single vowels, rather than as separate vowels. Thus, a two-vowel
word like kao (goat) is actually only one syllable long due to the
fact it contains the diphthong ao.
||✖ ka o
Since some Hawaiian diphthongs are not found in English, you might have trouble
telling certain pairs apart. For instance, ae and ai might sound
nearly identical to you, and the same goes for ao and au.
Try pronouncing "ah" and then "eh" slowly. Increase the speed until you hear
them as one. Now do this with "ah" and "ee." After a while the difference should
become clearer. Repeat the process with "ah" + "oh" and "ah" + "oo."
In English, certain vowels in a word are emphasized more than others. For
instance, in the word 'present', as in "I received a present," the first E is
more noticeable than the second. Contrast this with the 'present' in the
sentence "I present you with this." In this case the second E is more
significant than the first. Accent marks are used to show which vowel is most
This property of language is called stress
and it works differently in Hawaiian than it does in English. For example, an
English speaker would usually stress a word like kikonia (stork)
primarily on the second syllable, ko, whereas a Hawaiian speaker stresses
the second-to-last syllable more, ni.
✖ "kih kOHW nee uh"
✔ "kEE koh nEE ah"
Fortunately you don't have to memorize how each Hawaiian word is stressed since
stress occurs in patterns. Hawaiian has a rule that allows you to predict which
vowels in a word receive stress.
|Stress the second-to-last vowel of every stress group.
A stress group (sometimes called an
accent unit) is just a section of a word
to which the Hawaiian Stress Rule applies. Some words consist of only one stress
1 stress group: nahéka (snake)
However, many other words consist of two or more. Dictionaries put periods
between them to let you know where they are.
2 stress groups: pòle.wáo (pollywog)
3 stress groups: ‘ài.nào.náo (anteater)
It is essential to remember that the Hawaiian Stress Rule does not apply to
words per say. Naheka, polewao, and ‘ainaonao are all
three syllable words, but they are all stressed differently. This is because the
second-to-last vowel of every stress group within each word is stressed; not the
second-to-last vowel of each word itself.
It is easier to see the Hawaiian Stress Rule applying to long vowels if you
think of them as sets of two identical vowels. In other words, for the purpose
of assigning stress, ā is really aa, ē is really
ee, and so forth.
Generally, the last stressed vowel is the loudest of all the stressed vowels
within a word.
||"OOO hEE nee"
|‘ùu.hìni.púle (praying mantis)
||"OOO hEE nee pOO leh"
Normally, stress groups are not indicated in writing since the way in which a
word is stressed does not affect its meaning. Hawaiian has no words like
'present' in which the meaning can change based on which vowels are stressed;
all words can only be stressed in one way. In other words, unlike if you were to
leave out a kahakō or ‘okina, misappropriating a word's
accent will not lead to a misunderstanding; it will just cause you to sound
Fortunately though, you don't have to look up every word you encounter in the
dictionary in order to find its stress groups since stress occurs in patterns.
These guidelines can help you to predict where a word's stress groups lie.
They only fully predict stress on words up to three syllables long, but this
still lets you account for a total of 11,390,625 possible words
(Schütz 1994, 20)!
||Every syllable with a long vowel constitutes its own stress group.
||Every syllable with a diphthong constitutes its own stress group.
|pīwai (wild duck)
||2-3 syllable words having no long vowels or diphthongs constitute their own
|koloa (domestic duck)
||2 syllables next to a stress group, none of which is is a long vowel or
diphthong, constitutes its own stress group.
The word nai‘a (dolphin) appears to consist of one stress
group since there are no dots in the word. If this were the case it would be
stressed on the i: naí‘a. However, notice how this word
contains the diphthong ai. According to rule 2, it should really be
stressed on the a: nái‘a.
Remember that dots are only put between two stress groups.
Nai‘a consists of a stress group, nai, followed by a
non-stress group, ‘a. Thus, only by knowing these rules can you
accurately predict where stress falls, even after you look a word up in the
dictionary to find its stress groups.
While rules 1 and 2 apply to every Hawaiian word, rules 3 and 4 only apply to
words under four syllables. This is why stress on words longer than three
syllbles is not fully predictable; long words like
pelikana (pelican) and kanakalū (kangaroo) have
additional stress not predicted by these guidelines.
However, in these cases stress will usually fall on the first and second-to-last
vowels of the word.
The guidelines you have learned do not apply to compound words, rather, they
apply to each word within a compound. The word
‘īlioholoikauaua (monk seal) seems to contain two
instances of the diphthong au, but Rule 2 does not apply. This is because
‘īlioholoikauaua is a compound word and there are no
diphthongs in the individual words that make it up.
‘ī.lio (dog) + holo (to sail) + i
(in) + ka (the) + ua.ua (rough) = "dog that
sails in the rough [seas]"
|‘īlioholoikauaua (monk seal)
Following a fluent Hawaiian conversation might prove more difficult than you'd
expect, even once you've mastered everything in this lesson. You see, the
Hawaiian language undergoes a number of subtle changes when uttered
Some of these changes affect a large number of words, like the fact that certain
vowels may change into other vowels; for instance ‘īlio
(dog) can turn into ‘īliu. Other changes affect only a
handful words, such as the following: a can be deleted before
‘a; for instance a word like pua‘a (pig/boar)
Unfortunately, changes like these have not been adequately studied so there is
not enough data to identify solid principles. So while it is good to be aware of
their existence, you don't have to pay them much mind.
Now that you know how to read Hawaiian words correctly, why don't you try
sounding out these commonly used words and phrases. Memorizing them would be a
good idea, since they are used so frequently.
To hear each word/phrase pronounced aloud simply click on the icon to the left.
Or, you can download the actual (.wav) sound file by clicking on the word/phrase
itself. These phrases were pronounced by ‘Ōiwi Parker Jones, a
Hawaiian native speaker linguist.
In English, certain greetings have informal versions. For instance, one says
"good bye" in seeing a person off, but just plain "bye" is common as well.
Hawaiian shares this feature in that certain parts of words/phrases can be
dropped in colloquial speech. Any part of a word/phrase enclosed inside
parenthesis, ( ), is optional.