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Learn Basic Hawaiian Language: 101

Hawaiian Language class 1 written by a guy from Seattle.
(So please take this with a grain of salt)

So, you are here on Kauai relaxing in your vacation rental or hotel and it’s time to take a plunge into learning Hawaiian! RIGHT ON! Good on ya.

Hearing the locals speak native Hawaiian is a magical sound that brings warmth, strength, peace and fire into your heart. If you’ve never been to an event where a Kahu (Hawaiian Priest) gives a ‘pule’ (Hawaiian blessing or prayer) seek one out. It just might change your life.

Not sure exactly where to start so I guess let’s start from the beginning and break down the language starting at a granular level with the letters.

Letters: There are a dozen. It’s the shortest alphabet in the world so you’ll be hearing the same letters again and again but don’t let this fool you. I heard somewhere that there are 33 ways to indicate a cloud and over 200 ways to talk about Taro! Short in actual letters yea, but not in ways to announce, pronounce and express.

Hawaiian vowels are: A, E, I, O, U
Consonants: H, K, L, M, N, P, W

I won’t get in to too much of the pronunciation because it’s confusing to type and thus read but one of the most useful things to remember is to always break the words up into chunks.

Here’s a good example. Have you ever seen that tourist guy wearing the name of the fish that has 21 letters? It’s enough of a jumble to make your mind melt staring at it but when you break it down it’s much more manageable. Here’s the name of the little fish.


OMG. What the heck does that say?? Try Looking at it like this


Get it? Here’s a tip. The last part “pu” is pronounced like “poo” and say it slow with a little pause “po-o” and the last two letters a’a sound like “ah-ah”.

If you want to break this fish down into even smaller bite sized morsels, try this


What about that? Maybe that’ll roll off you tongue a little better ;). Hope so.

I’ve got good news. That’s probably the craziest Hawaiian word you’ll ever see and it’s very unlikely you’ll get quizzed while down at the Tahihi Nui in Hanalei having a beer with the locals, so no worries. Good job. Let’s move on.

Next let’s work on pronouncing with a little stress on some of the words with more than one syllable. Here’s a good one to start with that is the name of a really cool old town on Kauai.

Koloa koh-LOH-uh a Koloa is a wild duck

Now try these popular words used to give directions here in the islands. Keep your ears open for these two when you ask someone local how to get somewhere, they don’t use right and left all the time, they smartly just tell you if you go toward the water or toward the mountains.

Makai muh-KAH-ee toward the sea
Mauka MAH-oo-kuh inland toward mountains

Now we know a little bit about how this whole thing works, here’s your homework. Next time you head out to your favorite beach on Kauai (I suggest checking out Rock Quarry and Lumahai if you haven’t been to those two yet. And for extra credit try walk Anahola bay) use Mauka and Makai instead of left and right. It’s fun! Give it a try. Next article we can break into more fun Hawaiian words that you might useful here on the Garden Island.