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The Meaning of Aloha Through Hawaiian Language and History

The Meaning of Aloha Through Hawaiian Language and History

Derived from an enchantingly beautiful language with only 13 characters, aloha is one of the most famous words in the world. Through the magic of movies, television, and music most people on Earth have had at least a small glimpse of Hawai’i. But to understand the meaning of the word aloha, let’s try to slow down to the beat of the local rhythm and follow the roots of the authentic Hawaiian culture — as opposed to its commercial tourist form.

Over 1500 years ago, settlers from Polynesia reached the uninhabited archipelago in the center of The Pacific Ocean and brought their religion, language, customs, crafts, and skills with them. For hundreds of years they lived in complete isolation from other civilizations, developing knowledge and skills to survive on these islands with limited resources. The land and its surroundings became an integral part of Hawaiian identity and crucial to their well-being. All Hawaiian art and craft forms express this connection, this love for the land, and they do it with the hospitable and generous spirit of aloha.

Panoramic view of Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii - Aloha State
Hanalei, Kauai – Panorama by FlyBoyNight image & design

The word aloha is commonly used as a greeting, translated as “hello” or “goodbye.” However, too much casual use has diffused its real significance. Aloha is more than just a greeting, it’s a concept and a way of living — the very foundation of Hawaiian values. Its multiple meanings include love, affection, generosity, speaking from the heart, patience, and listening. “alo” means sharing, in the present. “ha” means breath, life energy. Furthermore, each letter has its own meaning as well.

Believing that love is a natural state of being, Hawaiians do everything with aloha. It’s an exchange of positive energy, and as an exchange it must be returned. The best way to participate in this exchange is to feel the heartfelt intent every time you say the word. Furthermore, their idea of love is completely free of any negative feelings like envy or fear. An example of this love is in the meticulous way they maintain their parks, gardens, and beaches. The Hawaiians are very proud of their paradise and because they have such a connection to the land, the beach or park they have gone to every day for many years is as much their home as their own backyard. In the same way you might compliment a friend on their lawn, telling a local that they have a very beautiful beach, thank you for sharing, is a great form of aloha.

While traveling to other countries and continents shapes our perception of the world and gives us insight into how life is different elsewhere, most Hawaiians have not traveled outside of the islands. Their connection to the land and the ocean is a microcosm far different from the perception more “connected” nations might have of the world. Hawaiians are aware that the allure of their paradise draws people from around the world, but they don’t objectify it in the way that many folks who “want their own piece of paradise” do. To them, it is simply home and all they’ve ever known! The land is connected to their complete life experience, family, and the generations before them.

Full moon over the ocean in Kauai, Hawaii - Aloha State
Full moon in Kauai – Photo by FlyBoyNight image & design

And while it may be hard to live amongst those who don’t have the same connection to their land, the economy of these small paradise islands largely depends on tourism for survival. The local people of the slow-paced islands have welcomed an immense multitude of visitors that come and go at quite another pace. Nowadays, with various communication methods and instant news updates, it feels as though the world is shrinking. We are becoming more aware of others, and our society is promoting an increased empathy for our neighbors, whether separated by an ocean or a fence. This is most definitely a good thing, but the Hawaiian language has suffered because of it. With English as an official language (not to mention the international standard by many) Hawaiian is rarely spoken and is threatened into extinction.

Historically, the Hawaiian language was an oral tradition — its alphabet was written by missionaries only in the 19th century, and much of the Hawaiian history was passed verbally from generation to generation. While some may question the importance of this little-spoken language, it is vital to keeping the Hawaiian heritage alive. It connects Hawaiians to their Polynesian predecessors and is integral to their identity as a race. The language has to be taught and spoken to stay alive! Fortunately, in recent times there has been a resurgence of interest in teaching and practicing Hawaiian. There are many words in English to express different aspects of aloha, and yet not one English word can replace it.

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