When it comes to experiencing incredible new destinations, language is the ultimate travelers' tool. Although English is the primary language used in Hawaii, there are still plenty of circumstances where knowing a few Hawaiian words will come in handy as a visitor. Recognizing some may deepen your understanding while at an event or visiting a cultural attraction, while others can make a difference in getting to the airport on time.
ʻŌlelo Hawaii ("Hawaiian language") is an incredibly beautiful, melodic, and unsurprisingly one of the most sacred and respected elements of the Hawaiian culture. As a visitor, be sure to pay attention if you’re walking through a museum or enjoying Hawaiian music, because although you may not understand all of the words, the feelings behind them are always full of value.
History of the Hawaiian Language
The state of Hawaii has two official languages: English and Hawaiian. Some consider Hawaiian Pidgin English, a casual, locally spoken language that developed over many years influenced by the many cultures that immigrated to Hawaii, as a third language.
Hawaii uses just 13 letters in its alphabet and includes the ʻokina glottal stop (the same breaking sound made when pronouncing the word “uh-oh”) and the kahakō (indicating an elongated vowel). The speaking and teaching of the language was banned in 1896 after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, until a resurgence of Hawaiian culture brought it back almost four generations later. By 1978, the state’s constitution had been amended to promote the study of Hawaiian culture and language in schools as well as recognize Hawaiian as an official state language.
Learning a Hawaiian word or two before your trip isn’t just practical but appreciated as well. Making an effort to respect and understand the language that is so deeply rooted in the islands' history is a great way to be a responsible and respectful traveler.
Useful Words and Phrases
Here are some basic words to know to greet people you meet, talk about your family, or recognize common words in the places you visit.
|Aloha||Hello, goodbye, love. Aloha is a word with many different meanings, and though it is mostly used as a greeting, form of farewell, and acknowledgement of love or affection, it is so much more than that. Aloha is also a feeling, a way of life and something you share with others. This significant sense of compassion and substance is what helps give Hawaii its famous “Aloha spirit.”|
|E komo mai||Welcome|
|A hui hou||Until we meet again|
|Lei||Garland or necklace of flowers. Leis are given as a token of aloha. As visitors, you may be given a lei when you arrive or leave Hawaii.|
|Mahalo||Thanks, gratitude; to thank. You will also likely hear “mahalo nui loa,” which simply means “thank you very much.”|
|ʻOhana||Family or relative|
|Keiki||Child, offspring, descendant|
|Kāne and Wahine||Male and female. Often used on bathroom doors inside of restaurants and stores in Hawaii.|
|Aloha kakahiaka||Good morning|
Traveling and Sightseeing
These destination-focused words will help you ask questions about places you're going or help you navigate any signs in the area, whether you're headed for a day at the beach, a hike, or wildlife viewing.
|Kamaʻāina||Native-born. Kamaʻāina literally translates into “child or person of the land,” and is also used to refer to longtime Hawaii residents. As a tourist, you may run across “Kamaʻāina discounts” at certain attractions, but these prices are reserved for Hawaiian residents with a valid Hawaii state ID.|
|Kapu||Taboo, prohibited. Kapu is used to designate private land or sacred sites in Hawaii (it is basically the Hawaii equivalent of “keep out”). If you’re hiking along a trail in Hawaii for example, and see a sign that says “kapu,” be respectful and move on.|
|Kuleana||Responsibility. Kuleana goes further than one’s work responsibilities, however, describing a broader sense of one’s personal responsibility to their communities and to themselves. For example, as visitors to Hawaii, it is our kuleana to leave its beautiful places just as pristine as we found them.|
|Lānai||Porch or balcony|
|Mauka and Makai||Locals often give directions this way, with “mauka'' meaning toward the mountains (inland) and “makai” meaning toward the sea. You will also probably hear “windward,” and “leeward, which refer to the directions that Hawaii’s trade winds usually blow, the former referring to the windier east side of the island and the latter meaning the drier west side.|
|Kōkua||Help or give assistance. You’ll sometimes see signs saying “mahalo for your kōkua,” which basically means “thank you for complying.”|
|Honu||Turtle. In Hawaii, honu especially refers to the Hawaiian green sea turtle, a threatened species of hard shelled turtle that is protected under the Endangered Species Act (it is illegal to harass or touch a sea turtle in Hawaii).|
Eating Out at Restaurants
When you're out for a meal at a restaurant, keep these words in mind or look out for them on signs or menus.
|Pau||Finished. You’ll also see the phrase “pau hana,” meaning “after work” to describe happy hour drinks.|
|ʻOno||Delicious. However, ono is also a type of mild, white fish that is popular in Hawaii restaurants.|
|Poke||Pronounced “POH-keh,” poke literally translates into “slice” or “cut,” but is primarily used to describe a popular dish made of marinated bite-sized pieces of raw fish (such as ʻahi tuna).|
|Kālua||Baked in an underground oven, or an “imu” in Hawaiian.|
|Lūʻau||Typically used to describe a Hawaiian feast, but is also the name of a dish made from taro leaves baked with coconut and octopus.|
|Poi||A traditional Hawaiian condiment made from pounded taro root that has been thinned with water into a paste.|
Attending a Holiday or Cultural Event
If you're in Hawaii for a special occasion or timed around a cultural event, learn these words to truly understand and enjoy the experience.
|Hula||A Hawaiian form of dance that is used to preserve stories of ancient Hawaii, often accompanied by songs or chants in the Hawaiian language.|
|ʻUkulele||An instrument resembling a small guitar. Literally translates to “leaping flea.”|
|Heiau||A shrine or place of worship. Some heiau are well preserved to this day but others may be less obvious. It's important to show respect for these ancient Hawaiian temples if you run across one.|
|Hau’oli La Hanau||Happy Birthday|
|Mele Kalikimaka||Merry Christmas|
|Hau’oli Makahiki Hou||Happy New Year|