Similar Words Between Languages

Pronunciation Guide

Common Mistakes

Watch How You Phrase It

Further Study

When I was in the military, one of the standing jokes was that someone should organize an airlift to transport the excess vowels in Hawai’i and drop them over the Balkans and in turn, transport loads of consonants from the Balkans back to Hawai’i.  If only life were that simple!

Hawaiian belongs to the Polynesian family of languages found over a large triangular expanse of the Pacific Ocean bounded by Easter Island to the east, Hawai’i to the north, and New Zealand to the southwest.  From among this Polynesian family, the closest languages (not in the geographical sense but rather with respect to time) to Hawaiian are Maori, Marquesan and Tahitian, while more distant are Samoan and Tongan.  Hawaiian is even more distantly related to Malay, Indonesian, Malagasy and the indigenous languages of the Philippines and Taiwan.

The Marquesans came to Hawai’i in the 300 AD timeframe and were followed by a second wave of Tahitian settlers about 700 years later.  A combination of their languages was to become the Hawaiian language.

If one “pulls the string” relating to these languages back far enough, Hawaiian can be shown to be related to the “proto-Austroasian language spoken on Taiwan, which anthropologists believe was settled approximately 6,000 years ago.

The way that scientists determine the relationship(s) between languages is fascinating.  The science is called “lexicostatistics” and it is a way to quantify the extent to which any two languages are related..  The basis of the concept is to determine the number of cognates (genetically shared words) that languages have in common from a fixed set of words that are common to all languages (words such as those for “eye,” “hair,” “blood,” “water” and “and.”)   There are about 200 words in this “basic vocabulary” and the measurement of genetic relationship is expressed in the percentage of words that are common.

For example, English and Hawaiian have no cognates in the master vocabulary, so the languages are 0 % genetically related. On the other hand, Hawaiian and Tahitian have roughly 150 cognates so they are estimated as being 75% genetically related, according to this method.

<Back To Top

Some examples of the similarity of words between the languages:
Word Hawaiian Tahitian Maori
One kahi tahi tahi
Two lua piti rua
Three kolu toru toru
Bird manu manu manu
Moon malama marama marama
Sea moana moana moana
Turtle honu honu honu

Hawaiian was described by the early European discoverers as songlike, musical, fluid and melodious. Every syllable of Hawaiian ends in a vowel and there is no “s” sound in the language.

Prior to the European “discovery” of Hawai’i (ever wonder why Europeans are credited with “discovering” a land that was already occupied?), there was no written component to Hawaiian, with the possible exception of the petroglyphs carved into stone throughout the Islands.

<Back To Top

A guide to pronunciation.


a As in father

e As in bait

i As in beet

o As in boat

u As in boot


p As in spatter            (with relatively little emphasis)

k As in skunk            (with relatively little emphasis)

h As in home

m As in money

n As in not

l As in log

w As in wear or very

While these guidelines are pretty good, the pronunciation of some vowels depends on whether they are accented or not, and what sounds accompany them.

“Long vowels,” five of them, are the first of two unwritten sounds to be discussed.  These unwritten sounds are a group of sounds, in actuality. In this sense “long” refers to the length of time it takes to pronounce them, not the “long” or “short” of pronunciation as in “late” or “lather,” respectively, that mainlanders are used to.  The use of long vowels can totally change the meaning of a word.  For examples, `aina (first a not long) means “meal” while `āina (first a long), means “land”, and kane (first a not long) means “skin disease” while `kāne (first a long) means “male.”

The second unwritten consonant  is the “glottal stop.”  The mark that many people think is an apostrophe in Hawaiian words is anything but.  It is the glottal stop (`okina in Hawaiian) and is itself a consonant just as much as any other.  The problem is that it is so unlike anything we have in English that many people have a hard time realizing what it is, and that make it hard to describe.  Some describe it as what you do and hear between the syllables of the expression “uh-oh.” The sound of the glottal stop is not made by the lips and/or tongue, but rather by the vocal chords and the back of the throat, and represents a distinct but brief separation of the syllables.

Accent in Hawaiian

Hawaiian words are accented, just like English.  Accent patterns are predictable:

1. The next to last vowel is accented if all vowels are short:  ma’ka (eye) or kana’ka (person).

2. Long vowels are accented:  Ka`ū (a place name) or mano’ (shark).

Don’t be a “Gomer” —  pronounce it correctly!

If you visit these beautiful islands, you should go to the trouble of pronouncing as many of the language’s words correctly as you can.  Does it bother you to hear people call Atlanta “Uh-lanta,” Washington “Worshington”, “Greenwich” as “Green-witch.” or “Worcester”  “War-chester?  If it doesn’t, it should!

There are many common mispronunciations that separate the “Gomers” from those who want to take the time to do it right and show respect for the Hawaiian people and their language.

<Back To Top

Some of the more common (and easy to avoid!) mistakes include:

In General:

  • Not pronouncing the glottal stop.
  • Pronouncing unaccented vowels as uh.  Permissible for the letter a, but not other vowels.
  • Not pronouncing h in an unaccented syllable.  It is ka-me-ha-me-ha, not “kuh-may-uh-may-uh.”
  • Pronouncing the letter a as in “cat,” a sound that does not exist in the Hawaiian language.  It is “Kahpi’o-lani,” not “cappy-o-lanny.”

Island Names:

  • Kau-a`i, not “Cow-eye” or the always popular “kah-why-ee.”
  • O-ah-hu, not “O-wha-hoo
  • Mo-lo-ka`i not “Mo-luh-kye-ee”
  • Ni’i.hau, not “Nee-how”
  • Hawai’i not “Ha-wye” or “Ha-why-ah”

<Back To Top

Watch How You Phrase it!

Another very interesting aspect of Hawaiian is its “kaona,” or “hidden meanings.”  “Kaona,” as used in Hawaiian poetry, for example is a concealed reference to a person, place or thing, words that have double meanings that might bring good or bad fortune.  The experts tell us that it is difficult to always know what is meant by an otherwise seemingly innocent word or phrase.  For example, a Honolulu street sign (and also the name of a local hotel) was “Hale Le`a (“joyous house”) but the phrase also means orgasm!  Be careful out there when naming streets, schools, organizations and the like!

For further study.

The Hawaiian language is a fascinating subject.  For further education, I suggest the reader delve into the works of Mary Kawena Pukui (1895-1986).  A true Hawaiian language expert, Ms. Pukui spent her life studying and chronicling the Hawaiian language and published more than 50 scholarly works relating to it.  Some of the most notable include Place Names of Hawai’i, The Echo of Our Song and `Olelo No `eau, which contains almost 3,000 Hawaiian proverbs and poetic sayings.

She and Samuel Elbert published an authoritative dictionary of Hawaiian in 1986, but even after many years of research she lamented that “…in spite of years of dedicated work, it is impossible to record any language completely.  How true this is for Hawaiian, with its rich and varied background, it many idioms heretofore undescribed, and it ingenious and sophisticated use of figurative language.”

<Back To Top