10 Facts About Hawaiian: Vocab Range, Word Order and a Coup

Ōlelo Hawaiʻi, known in English as Hawaiian, is the native language of the seven Hawaiian Islands of Polynesia. Once an endangered language thanks to the dominance of colonial English, Hawaiian is now experiencing a renaissance in keeping itself and the culture of its people alive.

The language is still considered critically endangered, however – which is why it’s extremely important to learn about.

Language and culture are inextricably linked, and if we wish to preserve our global nations, then we must learn about languages and the people who speak them. The following are some interesting facts about Hawaiian.

A Few Facts about Hawaiian

1. Hawaiian’s decline began with the coup of 1896

The Hawaiian queen was overthrown and English became the mandatory language of instruction in schools and official organizations. Children were sometimes disciplined at school if they spoke in their native language.

2. In Niihau, the seventh and largest Hawaiian island, English is still a foreign language

While six of the Hawaiian islands operate mostly in English, the people of Niihau still speak Niihau-Hawaiian as their first language due to being relatively isolated compared to the other islands.

3. Since the 1950s, Hawaiian has experienced a rebirth

A comprehensive English-Hawaiian dictionary published in 1957 eventually led to the official Hawaiian renaissance of the 1970s. Due to education, media, government, and other efforts to re-establish Hawaiian – including in the form of Hawaiian immersion schools – the language has once again begun to establish itself.

The population of Hawaiians who spoke their ancestral native language was only 0.1% in 1997. Today, the number has risen significantly. In total, at least 1.7% of the Hawaiian population, native or not, is now fluent in Hawaiian – and that number is rising.

4. Within a generation of English dominance, Hawaiian was replaced by Hawaiian Pidgin, a hybrid of Hawaiian and English

Some call it a new language, while most see it as simply a dialect of American English, much like South African English varies from standard.

5. Hawaiian is a Polynesian language, closely related to Samoan, Māori, and others.

The family tree of Hawaiian’s development is below, following only the Hawaiian branch.

6. The Hawaiian alphabet has five vowels and eight consonants, including an ʻokina, the “apostrophe” mark. Vowels come first in alphabetical order, followed by the consonants, with the ʻokina last.

The names of the letters vary from their English equivalents, as well. Finally, there are eleven important diphthongs. Vowels also come in short and long form, and the long form is marked with a macron.

A a / Ā ā/a/ – /a:/ʻā
E e / Ē ē/e/ – /e:/ʻē
I i / Ī ī/i/ – /i:/ʻī
O o / Ō ō/o/ – /o:/ʻō
U u / Ū ū/u/ – /u:/ʻū
H h/h/
K k/k ~ t/
L l/l ~ ɾ ~ ɹ/
M   m/m/
N   n/n/
P   p/p/
W   w/w ~ v/
DiphthongSounds like
AiI as in nice
AoSimilar to ow as in cow
AuOu as in mouse
EiAs in weight
IuSimilar to ew as in pew (ee-yoo)
OiAs in noise
OuAs in soul
UiSimilar to gooey (oo-wee)

7. Hawaiian has a verb-subject-object (VSO) structure, though this is flexible and the word placed first in a sentence is emphasized

A standard Hawaiian sentence when literally translated is “read Aolani the article” instead of “Aolani read the article.” In negative mood, the structure changes to subject-object-verb (SVO).

8. The two noun genders in Hawaiian are not masculine and feminine but instead a-class and o-class. They only matter in genitive forms.

A-class nouns are ‘creatable’ things like color, relationships, descendants, and friends. O-class nouns are ‘uncontrollable thing’ like ancestors, names, houses, clothes, and body parts.

10. Because nature is so important to Hawaiian culture, there are thousands of different words to describe parts of nature depending on their type and function.

All of the following words are used to describe water. The list also contains some derivatives.

  • ʻAwa: fine rain from the mountains
    • ʻAwaʻawa: cold bitter mountain smoke, also a word for grief
  • Ho‘oilo: the wet season
  • Kanilehua: chattering rain, also a word for gossip
  • Kuāu: a small shower without wind
    • Kau: Summer
  • Lilinoe: Fine mountain mist, the name of a mist goddess
  • Makai: Ocean mist
  • Mauka: Mountain mist
  • Nahua: Hard, cold rain
  • Nāulu: Sudden shower
  • ʻOhu: Smoke, fog, light mountain clouds
  • Ua kualau: Sea rain
  • Ua Noe: Plains rain or mist
  • Wai: fresh water.
    • Waiwai: wealth

Final Thoughts

While still critically endangered, Hawaiian and other Polynesian languages have gained increased interest over the last few years, and more and more efforts are being made to preserve them. Between Hawaiian immersion schools and increased worldwide interest in maintaining languages, Hawaiian may yet experience its own well-deserved rebirth.

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