How to Pronounce Hawaiian Words in 15 Minutes

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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?

A great resource is the University Of Hawaii’s online dictionary.

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 said “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 an elongated 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!

  1. Aloha! Could you help me with the correct pronunciation of the word ‘oia’i’o please, meaning truth. Even with your excellent brakdown the first bit is confusing me. Many thanks!

  2. Alyssa Vela says:

    How do you say waiu. I know it means milk, but I am unsure of how to pronounce it.

  3. Thank you so much for this reference. My husband and his siblings are Honolulu born and raised, but have pronounciation disputes all the time with Hawaiian words, as they were taught English in the home. We are expecting our first born in December and have decided to name her Makaleka (my grandmother’s name, Margaret, but in Hawaiian). According to your guide, we should be pronouncing the “le” portion as it sounds in the word “let”, but we have been pronouncing it like the word “lay”.. what is the proper pronunciation of the name Makaleka? Thank you again for this useful resource!

  4. Reigna says:

    Kia ora what is the correct pronunciation for Keilana? Is the ei pronounced as ay? Or is it e? Ngaa mihi

  5. The easiest way to remember is that a majority of hawaiian word’s vowels use the short sound. Ke’e Beach on Kauai is not pronounced Key. It’s Keh’ eh. Like the road in Pee Rd in Poipu is not pee, lol, it’s Peh’eh.

  6. When there are multiple vowels in a row and no ‘okina, how do you know which are pronounced individually (like the “ia” in Pa’ia) and which are elided (like the “ai” in kai)? I’m moving to Hawai’i and will be living on a street called “Mauna.” One realtor said it’s pronounced “maun-a” but another said “ma-oo-na” and both are long-term locals!

  7. Jennifer Swearingen says:

    I always thought ai was pronounced long I as in Hawaii Kai but my friend’s son’s name is Nainoa and it’s pronounced ay as in lay. How do you know how to pronounce the ai?


    • It is ai as in kai not ay. Unfortunately your friend has been pronouncing his child’s name wrong this whole time.

    • Mark says:

      I’ve never heard it pronounced with a V sound – this is a main road name in Kahului, so it is heard pronounced often. That said, I’m not a Hawaiian language expert by any stretch of the imagination – so take that for what it’s worth!

    • 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

  8. in rule 5, your description of the pronunciation of “a with macron” obnubilated your intent when you used the term ” …tells us this is a long a.” This confuses since English “long a” pronounces as -ay. A more precise choice of terms might include elongated, lengthened or expanded, eliminating any back-and-forth, which I experienced. As for obnubilated, Merriam and Webster, my good buddies, threw that one on my windshield on my ride here. ha ha. None the less, I must agree with the general consensus that your guide here is succinct and a pleasure to follow and learn by. I have been adding classic Hawaiian lyrics to my repertoire and of course the Hawai’i state fish has been netted in the classic lyric of the 1933 July 4 Kona canoe races ditty Little Grass Shack.

    • Thank you Claire for sharing your technical understanding, it is appreciated and I have taken your advice 🙂 Aloha!

  9. jackie says:

    I understand the pronunciation system, which by the way is very helpful! I do agree with Jerry and his observation of “ah” as in above (“uh”).
    What is the rule for inflection/accent. I’ve been going to a very nice park/beach Kanaha. I’ve been pronouncing it kaNAha (???)

  10. Very helpful. Even one of our tour guides on Maui didn’t know about the macrons. I think pronunciation of Hawaiian is easier for someone that is familiar with Spanish as the vowels are pronounced the same. Just one criticism: “ah as in above” seems wrong. Most Americans say uh-bove, not ah-bove. Ah as in watch seems more accurate.

  11. Abby Carnes says:

    I can finally understand the road sighns and find my way around on vacation! It was EXTREAMLY helpful!

  12. Brook says:

    Great reference and nice o have it easily broken down. I also learned why some call it haWaii and some haVaii.
    I would like more sound bits so I can hear it. Being more of an auditory learner and all.

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