Hawaiian language

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Hawaiian (‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i)
Spoken in: Hawaii
Total speakers: ~1,000 native
~15,000 total
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Austronesian

  Central Eastern
      Remote Oceanic
       Central Pacific
          Nuclear Polynesian
           Eastern Polynesian
            Central Eastern

Official status
Official language of: Hawaii (with English)
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1 -
ISO 639-2 haw
See also: LanguageList of languages

Hawaiian is the ancestral language of the indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands, the Hawaiians, a Polynesian people. Hawaiian, along with English, is an official language of the State of Hawaii. The ISO language code for Hawaiian is haw.

Hawaiian is a member of the Austronesian language family, most closely related to Polynesian languages like Marquesan, Tahitian, Sāmoan, Māori, and Rapanui (i.e., the language of Easter Island), as well as to other languages in the Pacific, like Fijian, and more distantly to Indonesian, Malagasy, and the indigenous languages of Taiwan and the Philippines.


Use of the language

Hawaiian is an endangered language. On six of the seven inhabited islands, Hawaiian was long ago displaced by English and no longer used as the daily language of communication.

The one exception is Ni‘ihau, where Hawaiian has never been displaced, has never been endangered, and is still used almost exclusively. This is because:

1. Ni‘ihau has been privately owned for over 100 years;

2. visitation by outsiders has been only rarely allowed;

3. the Caucasian owners/managers of the island have favored the Ni‘ihauans' continuation of their language;

4. and, most of all, because the Ni‘ihau speakers themselves have naturally maintained their own native language, even though they sometimes use English as a second language for school.

Native speakers of Ni‘ihau Hawaiian are able to use a manner of speaking among themselves which is significantly different from the Hawaiian of the other islands, so different that it is unintelligible to non-Ni‘ihau speakers of Hawaiian.

For a variety of reasons starting around 1900, the number of native speakers of Hawaiian diminished from 37,000 to 1,000; half of these remaining are now in their seventies or eighties (see Ethnologue report below for citations).

The most important cause for the decline of the Hawaiian language was its voluntary abandonment by the majority of its native speakers. They wanted their own children to speak English, as a way to promote their success in a rapidly changing modern environment, so they refrained from using Hawaiian with their own kids. Even as early as 1885, before the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, and before the Bayonet Constitution of 1887, while King Kalakaua was still on the throne, the Prospectus of the Kamehameha Schools announced that "instruction will be given only in English language" (see published opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Doe v. Kamehameha Schools, case no. 04-15044, page 8928, filed August 2nd 2005).

Efforts to revive the language have increased in recent decades. Hawaiian language "immersion" schools are now open to children whose families want to retain (or introduce) Hawaiian language into the next generation. The local NPR station features a short segment titled "Hawaiian word of the day." Additionally, the Sunday editions of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, one of Honolulu's two major newspapers, feature a brief article called Kauakukalahale written entirely in Hawaiian by a student.

Those learning Hawaiian as a second language, without native speakers as models, have a tendency to pronounce Hawaiian words as spelled, with English values for the letters, and to use English word order in sentences. Even students of the immersion schools, where there are older native speakers to imitate, sometimes deviate from these older native speakers where Hawaiian words are substituted directly into English syntactic patterns. Sam Warner, a major proponent of the immersion schools, has described some of the students' expressions as "bizarre" in his dissertation on the immersion program. There is also a certain tension between those who would revive a purist Hawaiian, as spoken in the early 19th century, and those who grew up speaking a colloquial Hawaiian shaped by more than one hundred years of contact with English and pidgin.

Hawaiian Pidgin (more properly known as Hawaiian Creole English) is a local language, based on English but with its own unique syntax and phonology. Its vocabulary comes from English, Hawaiian, and Asian languages, predominantly Japanese and Cantonese introduced by immigrants hired to work at sugar and pineapple plantations, but Philippine languages have made contributions as well. Often overlooked but also important are the contributions of European languages, especially Portuguese.


Hawaiian is notable for having a small phoneme inventory (see Hawaiian alphabet, below), like many of its Polynesian cousins. Especially notable is the fact that it originally did not distinguish between /t/ and /k/; few languages do not make that distinction. A /t/ pronunciation of this phoneme was common at the Kaua‘i end of the island chain, and a /k/ pronunciation at the Big Island (island of Hawai'i) end. The /k/ pronunciation won out over the /t/ pronunciation after Kamehameha the Great, who was from the island of Hawai'i, conquered all the islands. However, the /t/ realization remains on Ni'ihau.


The consonant phonemes of Hawaiian are shown in the following table:

Consonants Labial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Stop p   k ʔ
Nasal m n    
Fricative       h
Approximant w      
Lateral approximant   l    

The phoneme /w/ has two main allophones, [w] and [ʋ] (a labiodental approximant). Their distribution is as follows (Elbert and Pukui 1979, 12–13; Pukui and Elbert 1986, xvii):

  • After /i/ and /e/ usually [ʋ]
  • After /u/ and /o/ usually [w]
  • After /a/ and initially, free variation between the two


The vowel phonemes are shown in the following tables:

Monophthongs Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a
Diphthongs Ending with /i/ Ending with /u/ Ending with /e/ Ending with /o/
Starting with /i/   iu    
Starting with /e/ ei eu    
Starting with /o/ oi ou    
Starting with /a/ ai au ae ao

Syllable structure

Hawaiian syllables may contain zero or one consonants in the onset; unlike many languages, Hawaiian syllables with no onset contrast with syllables beginning with the glottal stop: /alo/ "front, face" contrasts with /ʔalo/ "to dodge, evade". Codas and consonant clusters are prohibited.


Hawaiian is written in a variety of the Latin alphabet, called ka pī‘āpā Hawai‘i in Hawaiian.

Aa Ee Hh Ii Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Uu Ww
/a/ /e/ /h/ /i/ /k/ /l/ /m/ /n/ /o/ /p/ /u/ /w/ /ʔ/

All the letters have their IPA value, except for , called ‘okina, which is the glottal stop. Vowel length is marked by a macron above the vowel, i.e. Āā Ēē Īī Ōō Ūū. The macron does not represent stress, although under the rules for assigning stress in Hawaiian, a long vowel will always receive stress.

The ‘okina

Main article: ‘okina

The ‘okina is officially written as ʻ with the Unicode value ʻ (decimal &#699), which although always having the correct appearance is not supported in some fonts/browsers, or alternatively written as an opening single quote with the Unicode value ‘ (decimal ‘), which appears either as a left-leaning quote or a quote with greater thickness at the bottom than at the top.

For examples of use of the ‘okina consider the word "Hawaii", in its proper form appearing as Hawai‘i, or "Oahu", which is O‘ahu. The words are actually pronounced (using IPA): /ha.ˈʋai.ʔi/ and /o.ˈʔa.hu/, with a glottal stop where the ‘okina is written.

See also


  • Elbert, Samuel H., and Mary Kawena Pukui (1979) Hawaiian Grammar, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0824816374
  • Pukui, Mary Kawena, and Samuel H. Elbert (1986) Hawaiian Dictionary, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0-8248-0703-0
  • Schutz, Albert J. (1994) The Voices of Eden: A History of Hawaiian Language Studies, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0-8248-1637-4

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