To visitors, the unfamiliar letter combinations can be daunting, and the longer words can appear downright incomprehensible! But I have a secret for you – that is just the surface. If you can invest fifteen minutes to understand these basic rules, you’ll be confidently rattling off words like humuhumunukunukuāpua’a without a second thought.
The Hawaiian language in written form was created just two centuries ago with the aim of making it easy for Westerners to learn. Pronunciation rules have few exceptions, and the alphabet was developed to have only one symbol for each sound. In fact, Hawaiian uses only 12 letters, and they’re from the same alphabet you already know.
Rule 1. Break the word up.
Just like teaching a youngster to read, breaking larger words into smaller component pieces will speed up pronouncing a word. Hawaiian makes wide use of compound words, so some of these words can get long in a hurry. Break them up, and you’ll find that most of these intimidating looking words are really a string of much simpler repeated sounds you already know how to say.
Interested in learning some Hawaiian words?
Rule 2. The glottol stop ( ‘ ) is your friend.
Called the ‘okina in Hawaiian, this is simply the symbol of a short sound break in the word. Example: A’a, a type of lava, is siad “Ah-Ah.” The stop also breaks the words up for you.
Note: the ‘okina can be, and often is, omitted. Make a note when you see a word that contains one, it will help you later when you see it again without.
Rule 3. Vowels are pronounced the same way every time.
a makes a short “ah” sound like the a in “above”
e makes an “eh” sound like the e in “let”
i makes an “e” sound like the e in “easy”
o makes a short “oh” sound like the o in “pole”
u makes an “oo” sound like the oo in “moo”
Note: A macron ( ¯ ) over a vowel extends the sound. (The macron is also very frequently omitted.)
Rule 4. All consonents, (with some W exceptions below) are as in English.
If that’s too easy, here’s a nuance: p and k typically have a softer sound with less aspiration.
Rule 5. Inside of words, W can sound like V.
This is the only tricky rule that requires experience to get it right. Here are some loose guidelines:
First letter of the word: a w sound
After i or e: usually a “v” sound
After u or o: most frequently like “w.”
After a: either
Fake it ’till you make it: When in doubt, you can split it down the middle and use a softer “w” sound somewhere between the two.
An often mispronounced town name that is a great example because it shows all the above rules (except W) is Pā’ia. Most visitors say “Pie A ah.” Wrong. Let’s break it down, because if you can do this one, you’re well on your way to doing the rest:
- First notice the ‘ stop. It tells us this is two sounds stuck together.
- Next, the macron over ā tells us this is a long a.
- So “Pā” is said just like it is spelled, and “ia” is said like “e-ah.” Slip a short stop in between, and you have it: [listen]
So there you have it – remember these five simple rules and you’ll be saying place names like you’ve lived in Hawaii for years!