Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Introduction to Hawai'i: Language

Although the Hawaiian language is an official language of the state of Hawai'i, its native speakers account for less than 0.1% of the state's population. Still, most people living in Hawai'i know a few key Hawaiian words and can also passably pronounce the countless Hawaiian place names (islands, valleys, streets, etc.) that one comes across on the islands. I will go through the essentials of pronunciation and then list a few Hawaiian words that locals use on a daily basis. This post is a long one; I'm a bit of a nerdy linguistics lover.

Hawaiian pronunciation is very different from English and the finer points of it are complicated. Since true speakers of the language are rare even among locals, most people in Hawai'i don't use proper pronunciation. So what I will describe should help you pronounce Hawaiian words as most locals pronounce them, not as a native speaker would. Furthermore, there are common words that locals don't even pronounce correctly according to the rules that I will describe, whether it's because of convenience or ignorance. Some things you just have to pick up on a case-by-case basis.

The written Hawaiian language uses 12 letters: the vowels a (as in father), e (as in bet), i (ee as in bee), o (as in both), u (as in rule); and the consonants h, k, l, m, n, p, and w. W is generally pronounced similar to the English "w", but in some cases it takes on the sound of a "v". An example would be in the word Hawai'i itself; a native Hawaiian would pronounce it as "Havai'i"! But most locals still pronounce it with a "w"; only people being very proper would say it with a "v". Some examples where the common local pronunciation actually does turn the "w" to a "v" are in the town names "Haleiwa" and "Ewa", and in the island name "Kaho'olawe".
Diphthongs in Hawaiian include any combination of two vowels in which the second vowel is i or u, as well as the vowel combination ae. Otherwise the vowels should be pronounced separately.

Two types of marks may appear in Hawaiian words. One is a line over a vowel which I can't produce on this blog; Manoa (the area where the university I attend is located) is properly written with a line over the first "a". This means that the vowel should be lengthened. The other marking properly looks like an upside-down apostrophe. I type it merely as an apostrophe, as in "Hawai'i". This indicates a glottal stop, as one would pronounce if saying "uh-oh." Unfortunately, both of these marks are often omitted for convenience (I'm not going to do the line over the vowel mark at all); street signs, for instance, frequently omit them. But if two of the same vowel appear next to each other in a word, you can count on there being a glottal stop between them, plus it's more likely that the common, lazy local pronunciation includes the glottal stop (for instance, as far as island names go, you will always hear locals put the glottal stop in Hawai'i, Ni'ihau, and Kaho'olawe, but you may hear people omit them in O'ahu, Kaua'i, Moloka'i, and Lana'i).

Stress in Hawaiian words is placed on syllables with a long vowel if there is one (Manoa which I mentioned should have a line over the first "a" would be pronounced "MAAH-no-a"). If there isn't a long vowel, then stress a diphthong. If there isn't one of those, then stress the second to last syllable. If a Hawaiian word seems to be composed of multiple parts, then go for the second to last syllable of each part ("Haleiwa" would be "HA le EE va"). I don't think you need any detail beyond that.

Here are some essential words that locals like to use:
aloha - The tour groups will surely use this one, too. It is most commonly used as a greeting ("hello"), but it also means "love" and is used as "goodbye". You might also hear the phrase "aloha spirit", which is just the caring, easy-going spirit that the people on Hawai'i are supposed to have.
mahalo - "thank you". You'll see and hear this one a LOT starting the second you touch down: "Mahalo for flying ____ Airlines". Signs all over and the trash cans in fast food restaurants say it. It's a good one to know.
wahine - "woman" or "women". You see this one on bathroom doors, though it's almost always accompanied by a picture so you know it's the ladies' room. Almost always (so learn this word, and the next one).
kane - "man" or "men". Don't go in the wrong bathroom!
[Edit 8/27/09--ack, how could I forget this one?]
keiki - "child" or "children". You might see signs for keiki activities, or find a keiki menu. This one is really used a lot, usually as a plural when referring to groups of children.
lanai - An outdoor balcony. You'll hear the word a lot in relation to hotel rooms, since many hotel rooms come with a lanai. Not to be confused with the island Lana'i, which has the glottal stop.
ohana - "family". This word was given wider reaching popularity with its prominent use in the Disney film "Lilo and Stitch" ("Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind"--aw, so cute).
mauka - This is frequently used by people giving obnoxious directions to get places, and means "towards the mountains".
makai - Like mauka above, this is used in directions and means "towards the sea".
haole - This is the Hawaiian term for white people, and it's usually mispronounced as "how-lee". There's no need to take offense at it, unless it's used in the phrase "damn haole" or something like that.
hapa - "half". You'll hear it in the phrase "hapa haole" (half white), though it is frequently used alone and in that context usually means half-Asian or Pacific Islander.
humuhumunukunukuapua'a - I am not pulling your leg. This is the Hawaiian state fish, in English called "reef triggerfish" (how boring!). You could call it "humuhumu" for short, but you should learn the whole word. It's not so hard if you break it down:
Its name means "triggerfish with a snout like a pig". Isn't that fun?
humuhumunukunukuapua'a (not my photo--I do have a photo of a humuhumu I took in an aquarium but it's pretty sucky)
honu - "sea turtle." The kind we get around here are green sea turtles, so it may specifically apply to that species.
lilikoi - "passion fruit".
poke - a Hawaiian raw fish dish.

The following Hawaiian words have actually been accepted into the English language; you can find them in an English dictionary ("aa" is a Scrabble favorite) and some of them you may hear outside of Hawai'i.
hula - traditional Hawaiian dance.
lei - a necklace usually made of flowers, it can also be made of shells, nuts, or other materials.
kukui - speaking of leis, this is a black (usually), brown or white nut that is frequently polished and made into leis.
a'a - rough lava.
pahoehoe - smooth lava.
poi - a purple paste made from taro root that was the staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet. Some people love it; I think it's gross, but if you ever come to Hawai'i you should try it.
laulau - a Hawaiian dish made by steaming fish or meat wrapped in taro and ti leaves.
ukulele - an instrument that's basically a small four-stringed guitar. Its name means "fleas-jumping"--I think it's rather nice imagery. If you've never seen Jake Shimabukuro play the ukulele, check him out. A (long) note on the pronunciation of this word: English speakers are prone to pronouncing "ukulele" as "you-kuh-lay-lee". This has a number of things wrong with it:
1) There should be no "y" pronounced at the beginning. The word should begin like the word "ooze", not like "unicorn".
2) Clearly the second syllable is "koo"; pronouncing it as "kuh" is just the tendency to turn unstressed vowels into the "schwa" sound. Best to avoid if possible.
3) There should be no "y" at the end of the third syllable (this is a problem English speakers have with languages other than Hawaiian as well). The vowel sound should just end with the "e". A related problem is putting a "w" on the end of "o"s as in "know". The sound should be cut off at the "o".
4) The fourth syllable should be pronounced like the third, not as an "ee".
So the word should be pronounced as "oo-koo-le-le".
nene - Hawaiian goose, evolved from the Canadian goose. Hawai'i's state bird.

Extra credit words, somewhat less known I think:
pali - "cliffs".
moana - "the sea".
lani - "heavenly", usually seen as a suffix.
nani - "pretty", usually seen as a suffix.
hale - "house"; seen in place names, as in "Haleakala" (house of the sun).
wikiwiki - "quick". The airport shuttle carries this word in its name, but did you know that "Wikipedia" (along with all wikis) gets its name from this Hawaiian word?

Phew, that was a lot to get through. I didn't realize my mind was buzzing with that much Hawaiian. I hope you enjoyed it, but if you fell asleep, I understand.


Hezabelle said...

Oooh cool I definitely did not know that Wiki was from a Hawaiian word.

The "w" pronounced as "v" happens in Latin too, but as a rule not an exception.

I love that fish name. I said it outloud as I read it. Brilliant.

Anonymous said...

I read it all, I promise...that's not to say that any of it stayed in my brain...because that's doubtful!

Sebastian said...

So few letters! And you say the language was formalised recently too?

I wonder why they used so few letters... curious. Apparently some Asian languages also have the case where the same simple word can mean 50 different things, depending on inflection or accents -- crazy!

(Well, we have 'ran'... but that's only 25 definitions, right?)

I will wow my Yuke-playing friend with my new-fangled pronunciation!

Did you see any of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain stuff on Youtube? Look it up if you haven't; they're awesome :)

Eleni said...

Hez - Hawaiian may be an endangered language, but it lives on in various ways.

I thought Latin was the opposite, with the "v" pronounced as "w". But I never did study Latin, so I could be mistaken.

I put a photo of the fish in the post, since it definitely calls for it. As they say, the name is longer than the fish!

Pink - Well congrats on making it through, at least. If you ever end up traveling all the way over here, you can do a quick refresher :)

Seb - Well, the Hawaiians didn't have their own written language, I think, until the missionaries came over and figured out how best to use our letters for the Hawaiian language. This is a mostly uninformed hypothesis, but I would say that the way Hawaiians got by using so few letters was by making really long words! (see humuhumu...)

Your uke-playing friend! And it's not so new-fangled if it's the original pronunciation. Just checked out the UOGB, and they are pretty awesome. But who's that guy on the guitar? Lame.

simple furniture said...

hawai like bali,its beautyfull

Sebastian said...

I guess they realised that some songs needed more than a base-yuke or a treble-yuke... and so they threw in a guitar.

But who cares. It's all about the dorky acting! And 7 people playing a uke simultaneously!

So you think, in the case of humuhumu, a single humu might be 'frog', but a double humu becomes 'reef'?

I guess that's one way of doing it... Thank God they drew the line at two, eh?

Eleni said...

Hi s.f.! (Er, what do I call you? Simple? Furniture? R Jaya Jm? In any case, welcome!)
I'd love to go to Bali some day. My new housemate lived for years on Lombok and has lots of family there, so maybe some day I could visit with him. Bali's just a short hop from there.

Seb - You're right, the ukes are great, and the act is hilarious. I'll forgive them one guitar.

I have noticed that Hawaiian very often repeats sounds (as in humuhumu and nukunuku, also wikiwiki). I don't know the reason behind it. When I look up "humuhumu" in the Hawaiian to English translator, it says
1) Redup. of humu, to sew
2) triggerfish
The first definition makes it almost sound like certain words can be reduplicated without change in meaning... but this is definitely beyond my linguistic understanding of Hawaiian. Interesting, though.