A Quick Guide to the Hawaiian Language

Waimanalo Beach Park, Waimanalo, Hawai’i

Unlike other states in the US, Hawai’i has mostly kept it’s indigenous language (especially Niihau). Pidgin is a mixture of languages (Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, English, etc.) that is also used often besides Hawaiian. Whether you’re planning on moving here, backpacking here, or just spending some vacation here, it is best to learn these phrases before you go anywhere in Hawai’i.



Did you know there are two types of Hula? Ancient Hula and Modern Hula.

Every “W” Is Actually A “V”

Even the name “Hawai’i” is actually pronounced havaii in Hawaiian. This is true for many other words such as Haleiwa (halay-eva) or Kawela (kaw-vey-lah). If you’re just a tourist you’ll get mad props for actually pronouncing it correctly and if you’re moving to one of the islands then better get practicing on the pronunciation now!

Mind the ‘Okina

You probably noticed that little apostrophe in the word “Hawai’i” and even again in “‘okina.” The ‘okina is what that is and is officially part of the Hawaiian language. It signifies a slight pause in the middle of the word, almost like a comma. Many words have it and if you forget it–most people won’t care. In fact, most people don’t even use it. This is just so you won’t be confused seeing a name written out like that.

Pronounce Everything

For true Hawaiian pronunciation you pronounce every letter in the word, including when two vowels are next to each other. Hawai’i isn’t just havaii it’s ha-vai-ee. The island of Lanai it is not like the porch lanai, its lah-nai-ee. Molokai isn’t mo-low-kai but mo-low-kai-ee. If you pronounce it with the more English pronunciation then you’ll be seen as nothing but a tourist.


“E’s” Usually Make An “A” Sound

I just mentioned Haleiwa, right? Ewa Beach (minding the “w” remember?) is actually ava beach. Haleiwa is actually halay-ava and so on. You’ll also get mad props for knowing the right pronunciation for all of this. Remember, “w’s” are “v’s” and “e’s” are “a’s.”

Everyday Words and Phrases in Hawaiian

Ancient Hula was from before missionaries banned Hula, and Modern Hula is from when they lifted the ban and brought it back.


I’m sure you’ve heard of this one before. There is a reason but it is known as hello and goodbye (and a lot more!). “Ha” means breath and in the ancient Polynesian greeting two people would rub noses and foreheads, exchanging breath. Therefor aloha means “my breath recognizes yours.” So that is how aloha is used for hello, goodbye, I love you, see you later, etc.



This means thank you. It’s everywhere. People say it to each all the time. Often the phrase “many mahalos” will be used. If you want to get really creative “mahalo nui loa” means thank you very much.



Turtle, and they are very common in Hawai’i. They are a symbol for the wise and means longevity of life and also are good luck. This is why when you go to any kind of souvenir store in Hawai’i they often have wooden carved or pottery turtles for sale. If you go snorkeling or scuba diving while in the islands you will most definitely see turtles.


Pau (pow)

This means done or finished. If someone asks, “When are you pau?” they are asking “When are you done?”



So the origination of this word is complicated, but it basically means white person. Some say it originally meant foreigner, and since white people were the first foreigners here, why not? I’ve also heard it actually means “no breath.” Remember that exchanging breath and rubbing noses greeting I was talking about? Well when the first white people came to the islands they didn’t exchange breath, so therefor the word no breath. Either way, if someone says this they’re talking about white people.



Is a form of saying you need to use the bathroom.



This means mountain. You’ll come across words like Maunakea or Maunaloa (especially on the Big Island because that is where those mountains are). This means Mount Kea and Mount Loa.



Toward the beach. So instead of saying north, east, south, and west, people say either toward the beach or toward the mountain.



Toward the mountain.



It literal translation means native to the land. In Hawai’i sometimes there is a “kama’aina discount” which you can only get if you have a Hawai’i driver’s license (or other ID). So if you’re just visiting, you’re out of luck. If you’re moving here get the ID so you can get those discounts!


Ala Moana

By now you probably know moana means ocean. However ala moana means by the ocean.



You’ll hear this on the buses on Oahu and you might see the sign sometimes in the bathrooms. It means “help.” Please kokua. They want you to be clean and courteous to the environment and the others around you. Help keep the buses clean by not eating on them and the toilets unclogged by putting sanitary napkins in the trash can.

Did I forget any common words?

About Leanne

Leanne got the inspiration to travel the world at 12-years-old when her family moved from Washington State to Florida. Although she still had to attend 7th grade she used her time to gain inspiration from travel bloggers. Now, 7 years later, here she is! Today she's living in Honolulu, Hawaii and preparing herself both physically and mentally to travel the world. Come join her here on Countries To Go!

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