10 Hawaiian words you’re probably saying wrong

It’s fun to pick up words of ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i (Hawaiian Language) when visiting the islands or enjoying Hawaiian food on the Mainland. Some words are fun to roll off the tongue, like the name of the state fish humuhumunukunukuapua’a, while the pronunciation of others are the source of scholarly debate. However, it’s important to pronounce Hawaiian words correctly, to show due reverence to the culture and to a language that was once banned to the point where school children were punished for speaking Hawaiian in class.

Here’s a list of commonly mispronounced words:

  1. Poke. I mean the fish dish, not the defunct Facebook feature. Two syllables: Poh-Keh.  Incorrect: Poh-kay, Poh-kee.
Poke

Limu Poke from Pā’ina Cafe in Honolulu.

2. Honolulu. The capital of the State of Hawai’i. I usually hear this with flat Midwestern vowels. Hah-Nah-Lew-Lew. It’s important to remember that vowels in Hawaiian are always the same. “O” is always pronounced “oh” (unless you see a macron over it (ō). Hoh-Noh-Loo-Loo .

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Honolulu, as soon on climb out.

3. Aloha. Yes, your tour guide is being cheesy with that long, drawn out AlooooooooooooHAAAAAAAA. It’s three syllables, evenly stressed, with the same vowel length on each. A-Loh-Ha.

4. King Kamehameha. The “H” is not silent. Repeat after me: The “H” is not silent. Kah-Meh-Ha-Meh-Ha. 

kamehameha-statue

The King Kamehameha Statue in front of Ali’iolani Hale in Honolulu.

5. Lei. This one isn’t commonly mispronounced unless it’s pluralized in the English style by adding an “s” at the end. Keep in mind that in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i the article, not the word, changes to denote plural (Ka Lei – singular; Na Lei – plural). There has been some debate whether it’s necessary to adhere to Hawaiian grammar rules when using Hawaiian words, but it’s worth noting that some English words also don’t change form when pluralized (e.g. fish). How many lei do yo need? I need three lei, please.

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Pua melia lei.

6. Hawai’i. Whether you use a “w” or “v” sound (both are technically correct), remember it’s a three syllable word. Ha-Vye-Ee or Ha-Wye-Ee, not Huh-Wye or Hwai.

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This Hawaiian Airlines plane is named ‘Ewa’Ewa.

7. Kalākaua. Typically mangled because it’s a main thoroughfare in the tourist district of Waikīkī. Ah, yes, the macron. In case you were wondering what it’s for, it lengthens the vowel it sits on top of. Ka-LAAH-kauw-ah, not Ka-lah-KAUW-ah.

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Kalakāua also built ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu.

8. Likelike. This one gets rough treatment from GPS apps with computerized voices, who haven’t learned Hawaiian pronunciation rules. Remember our vowel rules? Lee-Keh-Lee-Keh, not the (still available) Facebook response said twice.

9. Haleakalā. It’s a National Park with over one million visitors every year. Our inner Hermione wants to remind everybody that’s it’s Hah-leh-ah-kah-LAH, not Hah-leh-AH-ka-lah.

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The approach into Maui. Haleakalā is on the other side of the airplane.

10. ‘Ewa. ‘Ewa Beach is a community on East O’ahu, and the ‘Ewa Concourse is a concourse at Honolulu International Airport (on the “‘Ewa side” of the airfield). Remembering our Hawaiian vowels, it’s EH-vah, not EE-vah, or EE-wah (“w” typically makes a “v” sound after “i” and “e’)

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The ‘Ewa Concourse at Honolulu International Airport.

What Hawaiian words have you commonly heard mispronounced? Leave a comment below!

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