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Hawaiian Pronunciation Guide

Hawaiian Pronunciation Guide

Hawaiian language belongs to the Polynesian language family. The Hawaiian alphabet consists of only 13 letters: 5 vowels and 8 consonants. This Hawaiian Pronunciation Guide is a simplified overview for English speakers with recorded examples kindly provided by Hawaiian language specialist Kamalani Johnson.

Our Use of Transcription

Words in square brackets [ ] show the pronunciation of Hawaiian words. Such notation is called transcription in linguistics. For the purposes of this article, we use our own very simple transcription system, not the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The letters within the square brackets represent the actual sounds. The words are broken in syllables by dashes, and there is an apostrophe in front of the stressed syllable.

Example: aloha [a-’lo-ha]. The second syllable is stressed.

Disclaimer: our transcription is simplified for easy reading and doesn’t cover all aspects of the Hawaiian pronunciation.

Pronunciation of Hawaiian Consonants

7 consonants in Hawaiian language – H, K, L, M, N, P, W – are pronounced very similar to their English counterparts. W is pronounced both as English [w] (after vowels O and U) and as English [v] (after vowels E and I). When W starts a word or follows A vowel, it is pronounced either [w] or [v].

The 8th consonant is called a glottal stop (ʻokina in Hawaiian) and is represented in writing by an apostrophe. It means a complete stop before a vowel, in front of which it is placed; similar to the stop in between the syllables of “oh-oh”. When Hawaiian names and words are used in English texts, the ‘okina is often omitted. For example, while the names of most Hawaiian islands contain the ‘okina, the anglicized version don’t: Hawaiʻi, Kauaʻi and Oʻahu become written as Hawaii, Kauai and Oahu.

We don’t show the ‘okina in our transcription to avoid the conflict with the apostrophe that indicates the stressed syllable. Besides, one clearly sees the ‘okina in the word itself.

Example: Hawaiʻi [ha-’vai-i].

Pronunciation of Hawaiian Vowels

The 5 Hawaiian vowels – A, E, I, O, U – sound unlike their English counterparts in similar positions. There are no silent vowels in Hawaiian language.

[a] makes a short “ah” sound like in the word “but”
[e] makes a short “eh” sound like in the word “let”
[i] makes an “ee” sound, but short like in the word “tip”
[o] makes a short “oh” sound like in the word “top”
[u] makes an “oo” sound, but short like in the word “put”

All vowels can be short or long. To indicate a long vowel, Hawaiian uses a diacritical mark, called macron (kahakō in Hawaiian). Kahakō is represented by a horizontal line, that is placed above the vowel that has a long sound. In our transcription, the long vowels are indicated by placing a colon after the vowel.

Example: Haleakalā [ha-le-a-ka-’la:]. Last [a:] sound is long and stressed.

[a:] makes a long “ah” sound, about twice as long as in the word “but”
[e:] makes a long “eh” sound, about twice as long as in the word “let”
[i:] makes a long “ee” sound like in the word “feel”
[o:] makes a long “oh” sound like in the word “raw”
[u:] makes a long “oo” sound like in the word “moon”

In the transcription, most syllables have one vowel sound. But some pairs of vowels in Hawaiian are called diphthongs and can be placed in one syllable, since they somewhat blend their sounds. Please note that both vowels in Hawaiian diphthongs must be pronounced very clearly. The first vowel in a diphthong is more stressed.

Example: kai [kai]. The vowel pair ai is a diphthong.

Hawaiian short diphthongs: ae, ai, ao, au, ei, eu, iu, oi, ou
Hawaiian long diphthongs: a:e, a:i, a:o, a:u, e:i, o:u

Examples of Hawaiian Pronunciation

In Hawaiian, each noun is preceded by a marker, which is similar to the English article. In the audio recordings below, each Hawaiian word is pronounced together with its marker. Ke and ka are markers for singular nouns, used with all nouns except proper nouns. With proper nouns, such as place names, ‘o marker is used.

Pronunciation of Hawaiian A

[a] makes a short “ah” sound like in the word “but”
[a:] makes a long “ah” sound, about twice as long as in the word “but”

ke aloha [ke a-’lo-ha] — love, kindness, salutation, etc.
ka hale [ka ’ha-le] — house
ke kāne [ke ’ka:-ne] — man, husband

Pronunciation of Hawaiian E

[e] makes a short “eh” sound like in the word “let”
[e:] makes a long “eh” sound, about twice as long as in the word “let”

ke keiki [ke ’kei-ki] — child
ka menehune [ka me-ne-’hu-ne] — legendary race of Hawaiian small people
ka melia [ka me-’li-a] — plumeria
ka hēʻī [ka ’he:-’i:] — papaya

Pronunciation of Hawaiian I

[i] makes an “ee” sound, but short like in the word “tip”
[i:] makes a long “ee” sound like in the word “feel”

ka ihona [ka i-’ho-na] — descent, slope
ka ʻīlio [ka i-’li-o] — dog
ka hēʻī [ka ’he:-’i:] — papaya

Pronunciation of Hawaiian O

[o] makes a short “oh” sound like in the word “top”
[o:] makes a long “oh” sound like in the word “raw”

ke koa [ke ’ko-a] — courage, warrior, hero
ke poʻo [ke ’po-o] — head, end, summit, executive
ka pō [ka ’po:] — night, darkness

Pronunciation of Hawaiian U


[u] makes an “oo” sound, but short like in the word “put”
[u:] makes a long “oo” sound like in the word “moon”

ke kua [ke ’ku-a] — back, rear
ka ulana [ka u-’la-na] — braid, weave
ke kūlana [ke ku-’la-na] — rank, status, position

Pronunciation of Hawaiian ‘Okina

ka liʻuliʻu [ka ’li-u-’li-u] — long time
‘o Hawaiʻi [o ha-vai-’i] — Hawaii
ka ‘ōlelo [ka o-’le-lo] — language, speech, word

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