Do You Speak Hawaiian?

May 15, 2014 by

The answer to the title question is tricky as there are actually two Hawaiian tongues: one known as the Hawaiian language, as simply Hawaiian or (in Hawaiian)’Olelo Hawai’i, and the other called Hawaiian Pidgin. The former is a language of the Austronesian family, related most closely to languages of French Polynesia, while the latter is an English-based creole—rather than a pidgin, despite the name. The existence of the two Hawaiian languages is due to two waves of settlement on the islands: the original Polynesian colonization and the later arrival of American, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and other immigrant workers in the 19th and 20th centuries.


The Hawaiian language is a member of the Polynesian branch of the Austronesian family (see chart on the left, from Pereltsvaig 2012). Its closest relatives are languages of French Polynesia—the Marquesan languages, Austral, Tahitian, and Tuamotuan—as well as Māori (the language of New Zealand aborigines), Rarotongan (spoken on Cook Islands), and Rapa Nui (the language of Easter Island). The more distant relatives of Hawaiian include (in the order of decreasing relatedness) Samoan, Tongan, and Fijian. Distantly related Austronesian languages include Tagalog, Malay, and Malagasy. The relative degrees of affinity between Hawaiian and other Austronesian languages can be explained by, and are evidence of, Austronesian expansion from Southeast Asia into the Pacific, which is discussed in the following Languages of the World post. The particularly strong link between Hawaiian and the Marquesan languages is explained by the fact that the Marquesans colonized the Hawaiian archipelago around 300 CE (Schütz 1994: 334–336); the older form of Marquesan developed into the present-day  Hawaiian and the Marquesan languages. The close link to Tahitian is due to later voyaging between the Hawaiian archipelago and the Society Islands.


These different degrees of affinity among Austronesian languages are established by the so-called comparative method, which examines cognate words—that is words whose similarity of sound and meaning is due to common descent rather than, for example, lexical borrowing or sheer accident —across languages. A selection of Austronesian cognates is presented in the table on the left. This table reveals not only the close similarity of Hawaiian to other Austronesian, and especially Polynesian, languages but also some sound changes that distinguish Hawaiian from its relatives, as well as from the reconstructed ancestor of all Austronesian languages, called Proto-Austronesian, which must have been spoken around 4,000 BCE in coastal South China or in Taiwan. Three of these sound changes, all involving consonants, are worth mentioning. First is the loss of word-final consonants, illustrated by the words for ‘four’: only the Austronesian languages spoken in Southeast Asia such as Cebuano, Tagalog, and Bahasa Malaysia retain the word-final /t/, as in apat, upat, and empat, while in Polynesian languages these word-final consonants have dropped out. In Hawaiian in particular words (or more precisely, syllables) never end in a consonant; when a foreign word ending in a consonant is borrowed, a vowel is inserted at the end, as in pipi ‘beef’ or pele ‘bell’.*

The second change concerns the reconstructed Proto-Austronesian *p sound, which is retained in Tagalog and Cebuano, but shifted to /f/ in some Austronesian languages such as Tongan, and to /h/ in others, including Hawaiian. The words for ‘seven’ are a good illustration: in Tagalog and Cebuano it is pito, in Tongan fitu, and in Hawaiian hiku (the t-to-k change is discussed below). In Rarotongan this consonant disappeared altogether, resulting in itu. This sort of change is known also from more familiar Indo-European languages, for example, the Latin root for ‘to speak’, from which the noun fabula and the Modern English word fable derive, turned in Spanish into hablar: in earlier forms of the language the initial h was pronounced, while in Modern Spanish it is retained in spelling but not in pronunciation.

The third sound change concerns the reconstructed *t sound of Proto-Austronesian in word-initial and word-medial positions. Consider the words for ‘three’ or ‘seven’: even Hawaiian’s closest relatives—Maori, Rarotongan, and Rapanui—feature /t/ in the beginning of ‘three’ (pronounced toru in all three languages) and in the middle of ‘seven’ (pronounced whitu, itu, and hita, respectively). In contrast, in Hawaiian the corresponding sound is /k/, as in kolu ‘three’ and hiku ‘seven’. In fact, Hawaiian is typologically rare in not having a distinct /t/ phoneme. While it lacks this very common phoneme, Hawaiian does have a more rare phoneme called the “glottal stop” (or ’okina in Hawaiian), which is represented in Hawaiian orthography by an apostrophe, as in the name of the language: ’Olelo Hawai’i. To pronounce a glottal stop, the vocal cords are brought closed together, interrupting the air stream, which sounds like a pause. While it is not a productive phoneme of English, we pronounce a glottal stop in the middle of the exclamation uh‑oh! It is also heard instead of a [t] in the Cockney pronunciation of button or cat. Overall, Hawaiian has one of the smallest sound inventories among the world’s languages, with only eight consonants. Other Polynesian languages like Maori and Rapanui have 10 consonant phonemes each, but the real champion in this regard is a Papuan language, Rotokas, spoken by 4,320 speakers in the north of the Bougainville Island. According to Firchow and Firchow (1969), Rotokas has only 6 consonants.

When it comes to grammar, Hawaiian is an isolating language, meaning that it does not rely on inflectional morphology to express such notions as tense (on verbs) or plurality (on nouns). While this may seem as an example of grammatical simplification, Hawaiian exhibits grammatical complexity elsewhere. For example, its pronoun system is known for its intricacy: Hawaiian employs separate words for inclusive and exclusive ‘we’, and distinguishes not only singular, and plural, but also dual. For example, if ‘we’ refers to the speaker and one hearer, it is rendered as kāua (inclusive dual), and if there is more than one hearer included under ‘we’, the form is kākou (inclusive plural). If the hearer is not included under ‘we’, that is if ‘we’ means the speaker and somebody else, the corresponding forms are māua (exclusive dual) and mākou (exclusive plural). Another interesting feature of Hawaiian grammar is an extensive use of reduplication, that is repetition of morphemes to create new words. For example, the name of the state fish of Hawaii, reef triggerfish, is humuhumunukunukuapua’a, where humu humu means ‘to fit pieces together’ referring to its nest-building habit, and nukunuku means ‘nose like a pig’. The latter sequence also appears in the longest fish name in Hawaiian, lauwiliwilinukunuku’oi’oi which means ‘long-snouted fish shaped like a wili-wili leaf’.


Prior to Captain James Cook’s arrival to Hawaii in 1778, the Hawaiian language was largely isolated from contact with outsiders, as even the Polynesian voyages had ceased centuries earlier. During the next forty years, explorers and businessmen brought to Hawaii the sounds of Spanish (1789), Russian (1804), French (1816), and German (1816). Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, two parallel and related developments altered the status of the Hawaiian language. On the one hand, foreign travelers brought a number of diseases, including smallpox, influenza, and leprosy, which killed large numbers of native speakers of Hawaiian. For example, a leprosy colony in Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai housed as many as 1,200 men, women, and children at its peak. Meanwhile, the growth of pineapple and sugarcane plantations necessitated the recruitment of immigrant workers: Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos (most of whom spoke Ilokano), Portuguese (chiefly from the Azores), and later Puerto Ricans and Samoans. As a result of these twin developments, the actual number, as well as the percentage, of native speakers of Hawaiian in the local population decreased sharply. Gradually, English replaced Hawaiian as both the mother tongue of most ethnic Hawaiians and as a language of instruction in government-recognized schools. A 1896 law established English as “the medium and basis of instruction in all public and private schools”. Today, on six of the seven permanently inhabited islands, Hawaiian is largely displaced by English. The number of native speakers of Hawaiian is around 1,000, under 0.1% of the state-wide population. Most of these speakers are elderly. An additional 8,000 out of 220,000 members of the ethnic group can speak and understand Hawaiian but are not native speakers. The only island where the Hawaiian language continues to be used almost exclusively and to be passed on to children is Ni’ihau, located off the southwest coast of Kauai. The persistence of Hawaiian on Ni’ihau is due mostly to its isolated nature: for over 100 years it has been privately owned and visits from outsiders are only rarely allowed.

However, in recent decades the Hawaiian language has seen a revival of interest as well as a growth in the number of speakers. Crucial in this regard is the public Hawaiian-language immersion preschools called Pūnana Leo, which were started in 1984. Each year another school grade was added to the immersion schools, so that now grades one through twelve are taught in the Hawaiian language. The first students to begin immersion preschool have now graduated from college and many are fluent Hawaiian speakers. The University of Hawaii has also established a graduate program in Hawaiian Studies, which includes a concentration in the Hawaiian language. The promotion of Hawaiian as the state language has been recognized by the federal government; in 2000, the names of several national parks in Hawai’i were changed in accordance with the Hawaiian spelling. Linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann in his Times Higher Education article calls Hawaiian

“a fascinating case of both a severely endangered language (classical Hawaiian, fewer than 1,000 speakers) and a reclaimed language (neo-Hawaiian, approximately 3,000, still non-native, speakers). Hawaiian offers scholars a unique laboratory to explore the constraints of language revival. Genetically engineered neo-Hawaiian can indeed be systematically compared to the organically evolving classical Hawaiian, as the latter is still spoken by several hundred people, who are unfortunately not involved in the reclamation.”

Hawaiian is thus not unlike Hebrew, which has remained “dormant”, if not dead, for nearly two millennia but has been “revived” at the turn of the twentieth century. As has been pointed out by numerous scholars, Modern Hebrew is quite different linguistically from Biblical Hebrew, which continues to exist side-by-side with it as the language of prayer.

While the Hawaiian language and English are the co-official languages of the state of Hawaii, many if not most residents of the islands use Hawaiian Pidgin in everyday conversation. Recognized today as a creole language, it originated as a pidgin (hence the name), a form of communication used between English speakers and the numerous immigrants who worked on plantations and spoke other languages: Cantonese, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Ilocano, and others. Gradually, the Pidgin spilled outside the plantations, taken up by people from different ethnic groups and used in other contexts as well. Children learned Pidgin from their peers, and eventually it became the primary language of most people in Hawaii, making it a creole rather than a pidgin, though the name has been retained.


As far as its lexicon is concerned, Hawaiian Pidgin is English-based, meaning most of its vocabulary derives from English. However, it also has been influenced by other languages, such as Portuguese, Cantonese, (to lesser extent) Spanish, and of course the Hawaiian language. One of the words that penetrated from the Hawaiian language into the Hawaiian Pidgin is aloha, which means ‘Hello’, ‘Goodbye’, or ‘love’; note its use in the passage from Gospel of Mark 1: 9‑11 shown on the left. When it comes to grammar, Hawaiian Pidgin exhibits certain features common to pidgins and creoles around the world, regardless of their origin or the languages involved in its creation. First, relatively “exotic” sounds are replaced by those that are more common cross-linguistically; for example, the interdental “th” sounds are replaced by d or t, so that that becomes dat (as in the first word of the passage on the left), and think becomes tink. Also common to pidgins and creoles is the omission of the copula ‘to be’ or its replacement by verbs meaning ‘stop’, ‘stay’, ‘lie down’, or even ‘sleep’, when a temporary state or location is intended; note I stay good in the passage from Gospel of Mark (in the last full line). Many sources on Hawaiian Pidgin claim that this feature stems from the Portuguese (or Spanish) verb estar, which means ‘to be’ but is used only when referring to a temporary state or location, as in O Bob está parvo ‘Bob is being/acting silly’ in contrast with O Bob é parvo ‘Bob is foolish’. However, the use of similar verbs not in their original meaning of a state or physical position, but as a locative copula is found in such unrelated pidgins as Russenorsk, which arose as an intermediary language used by Russian merchants and Norwegian fishermen bartering fish, flour, and grain along the Arctic coast of northern Norway. For example, Kotsinas (1996: 133-134) cites examples like altsamma på salt ligge ne (literally, ‘everything on salt lie down’) and altsamma på salt slip-om (literally, ‘everything on salt sleep’) to mean ‘Everything [=the fish] is salted down’.

Yet another feature common to pidgins and creoles is the use of separate words to indicate tense, usually preceding the verb. In Hawaiian Pidgin, past tense is expressed by wen placed in front of the verb, as in John wen baptize him (line three of the passage above). This tense particle derives from the English went, illustrating another aspect of Hawaiian Pidgin phonology: consonant clusters are simplified by deleting one of the consonants (also in an for ‘and’, as in love an aloha, line 3 from the bottom of the passage). While this too has been seen as an influence of one of the languages that went into the mix, namely the Hawaiian language (which as noted above does not allow consonant clusters), such cluster simplification is observed in many non-standard dialects of English, ranging from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) to the native-English dialects spoken in the South Atlantic.



* The English word Christmas became Kalikimaka in Hawaiian, with the /r/-sound absent in Hawaiian being replaced by /l/, both /s/ and /t/ also absent in Hawaiian being replaced by /k/ and extra vowels inserted to break up consonant clusters and to avoid a word-final consonant.




Firchow, Irwin and Jacqueline Firchow (1969) An abbreviated phoneme inventory. Anthropological linguistics 11(9): 271-276.

Kotsinas, Ulla-Britt (1996) Aspect marking and grammaticalization in Rusenorsk compared with Immigrant Swedish. In: Jahr, Ernst Håkon and Ingvild Broch (eds.) Language Contact in the Arctic. Northern Pidgins and Contact Languages. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Pp. 123-154.

Pereltsvaig, Asya (2012) Languages of the World: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.

Schütz, Albert J. (1994). The Voices of Eden: A History of Hawaiian Language Studies. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. ISBN 0-8248-1637-4.



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