You do not need to know Hawaiian to travel to Hawaii, but knowing a few keywords can make your trip much more enjoyable and cause less confusion. While everyone speaks English in Hawaii, place names and local restaurants or shops will sporadically use Hawaiian words. Knowing the basics for pronunciation and how to respond to “hello” and “thank you” will make interacting with the local community an enriching experience.
Although I do not speak Hawaiian my family used Hawaiian words in everyday speech. I never knew those words were separate from English until later in life when we moved to the mainland. I remember in grade school, over at a friend’s house, I proposed we go play out on the lanai. She looked at me with confusion, and I pointed out at the patio. I used lanai in place of patio for years! It might seem like a random word to instill in the daily English speaker’s vocabulary, but in Hawaii, everyone spends time on the lanai. The word is now used commonly among the local population.
In 1778, a British explorer by the name of Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii and for the first time, the Hawaiian language was recorded. Before Cook’s arrival, the Hawaiian language had no system for writing or reading, it was an oral language only. As more people came to Hawaii the language adopted an alphabet. Up until the annexation of Hawaii as a territory of the United States in 1898, the native language flourishes throughout the islands. However, once the ruling last ruling queen was overthrown a law passed banning the Hawaiian language to be taught. Since then the number of native Hawaiian speakers went from some 400,000 – 800,000 to roughly 1,000 with an additional 8,000 other people who can fluently speak the language. Hawaiian is classified as an endangered language and only one of two states with an official language other than English (the other state is Alaska). The government has taken steps in preserving the language, changing the several landmark names back to their official Hawaiian spelling. In the 1980s immersion schools were established, many of the children growing up to speak fluent Hawaiian.
The Hawaiian alphabet is made up of 12 characters; 7 consonants and 5 vowels.
p k l h m n – same pronunciation as in English
w – either pronounced as a w or v depending on what vowel it proceeds. If there is an i or e before w it will sound like v. if there is an o or u before w it will usually sound like w. If a w follows Fa it could be either.
The ‘okina is a glottal stop indicated by an apostrophe the pronunciation is similar to how you would say “uh-oh”. The use of ‘okina can change the word completely. Remember the word lanai? The same spelling but with the ‘okina, Lana’i is one of the Hawaiian islands.
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