• Anne

‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i

‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i ‘oe?

Hawaiian is a simple, logical, and beautiful language to learn. I have had a fascination with it for some time, but as I’ve learned more about it, I’ve learned to love it even more, as it is straightforward to learn and has a lovely mindset alongside it.

Introduction to the Hawaiian language

This video is a great introduction to the Hawaiian language by the LangFocus channel. Hawaiian is in the Austronesian language family and is similar to other Polynesian languages.

Hawaiian has 13 letters:

A,a - ‘ā

E,e - ‘ē

I,i - ‘ī

O,o - ‘ō

U,u - ‘ū

H,h - hē

K,k - kē

L,l - lā

M,m - mū

N,n - nū

P,p - pī

W,w - wē (this can be pronounced as a w or a v)

‘ - ‘okina (glottal stop - yes, this is a letter)

Hawaiian words always end in a vowel and while there are many diphthongs, there are no consonant clusters.

(I apologize that the Kahakō (the macron) is making the letters bold; I can't figure out how to fix that formatting.)

Word order

In Hawaiian, the general word order is Verb-Subject-Object, as opposed to our standard English Subject-Verb-Object. In English, we might say, “I see the cat,” but in Hawaiian, they’d say, “See I the cat,” or “‘Ike au i ka pōpoki.”

I like how this creates a mindset of focus on the action rather than the person making the action. It’s not as much about me seeing the cat as it is about seeing the cat. There is less emphasis on self here.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I would imagine this might help ever so slightly with placing blame. Instead of saying, “He broke the chair,” the emphasis is pointed to the breaking, “Broke he the chair.” It's not about who is right or wrong, but what is right or wrong.

Comparison to Toki Pona

When I started studying Hawaiian, I regularly confused it with Toki Pona, because the words and sounds are very similar. At the same time, studying Toki Pona helped because there are a lot of similarities with Hawaiian and Toki Pona. The Hawaiian language has a significantly smaller vocabulary than most languages, so many “words” in Hawaiian are clusters of words describing the desired concept, just like in Toki Pona.

For instance, the word for bathroom (though many people call it “lua”) is ka lumi ho‘opaupilikia. This directly translates as such: ka - the, lumi - place/room, ho‘opau - end, pilikia - trouble/problem, meaning the place where you end your troubles.

Hawaiian also puts the modifier after the noun/verb, like Toki Pona. The exception is when we’re using a possessive. If I wanted to say, “my handsome husband,” I would order it as “my husband handsome”. (I think that’s how French does it too.)

Meaning of words

I love the meaning of Hawaiian words. They use very powerful words in everyday conversation. For instance, everyone knows the word Aloha means Hello, but did you know it also means goodbye, longing, love, missing someone, and more? The word aloha is more than a greeting: it’s an experience. Aloha is all the feelings you have when you meet and when you part. When you are excited to see someone or you miss them, you feel Aloha. You can hear Ekela explain it in this video. It's quite beautiful.

Another word I love in Hawaiian is Mahalo, which is mostly known for meaning Thank you, but it also means admiration. I really like that as a way of saying thank you. If someone does something amazing for you, it’s a neat idea to say, “I admire you” in response.

Yet another interesting word is ‘ike, (my Toki Ponans will understand why this word was confusing for me) which means seeing and knowledge. This basically equates the ideas of seeing and knowing, as if you know it, you’ve seen it - it’s the “to see is to know” principle. (Disclaimer for my fellow Christians: from a faith standpoint, I feel like when you really know your faith, you don’t have to have seen it to know, but you might as well have seen it because you’re that certain it’s true.)

A very personable language

Hawaiian has inclusive and exclusive first person pronouns. Please note that 1st person exclusive implies that the person being spoken to is excluded, 1st person inclusive includes both the speaker and the listener, 2nd person exclusive excludes the speaker, and 3rd person exclusive excludes both the speaker and listener.

The nice thing about this is there is much less ambiguity as to who is being talked about. Have you ever been slightly frustrated by the ambiguity of the word “we”? I know I have. When a friend says, “We’re going to the movies,” are they including you or not? Hawaiian takes that ambiguity out of the picture! If I say that māua are going to the store, you know that you aren’t invited. If I say a secret for kāua, you know it’s just for you and me. And I can also say, “Aloha kākou!” to mean that everyone (including me and you) is sharing in the feeling of aloha.

I also like that there are specific pronouns for two people, as so many things involve only two people. In Hawaiian you can specify that.

Hawaiian also has a sort of genitive affectionate case, but I know nothing about that, so I won't speak on it.

Hawaiian is also more in tune with the relationship between the speaker and the listener. For instance, in English, we have the words this and that, indicating how close the object is to the speaker, but in Hawaiian, you can tell where an object is with respect to both the listener and the speaker.

Here are the three forms of this/that: kēia - this (near the speaker), kēnā - that (near the listener), kēlā - that (away from both of you). So if I said, “What is kēnā?” you could say, “Kēia is my watch.” If we were both looking at something, I could say, “What is kēlā?” and you could say, “Kēlā is a bird.”

No cases and conjugations!

As a Russian fanatic, the Russian case system has been my number one pain in the tail learning that language. Fortunately though, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i doesn’t have those! ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i has direct object markers (like in Toki Pona!), plural markers, past markers, and place markers, so once you figure that structure out, you can basically just plug the dictionary word directly into the sentence. Which makes it easy to try speaking a little ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i, because you can have the structure down and throw in the English word if you don’t know the ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i word and look it up later. Yay for logic! (Not saying case systems aren’t logical - they are, but they are way harder.) You’ll actually notice that most people from Hawaii will talk like this, where they randomly throw Hawaiian ʻōlelo into their speech.

Learning resources

Unfortunately there are not many Hawaiian language learning resources. You can’t even trust Google Translate (not even for basic sentences). You’d also be hard-pressed to find a person who speaks Hawaiian (problems with learning an endangered language). It stinks.

The best resource I’ve found so far is Kulāiwi. I’m on lesson 12 right now and I’ve learned so much from it! I highly recommend it. OiwiTV also has a string of lessons called Ka Leo ʻŌiwi, which made more sense to me when I started watching Kulāiwi. The channel OiwiTV has a lot of great Hawaiian videos in general.

You can also study the 1000 most common words (which I can’t bring myself to do, but I know a lot of language learners like this). There is also a Duolingo course, which didn’t make any sense to me until I started Kulāiwi. You can also boost vocabulary on Drops.


Listen to this video to get familiar with the sound of the ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i. If you like it, maybe you can try learning it. I’d love to chat about it, if you do! Feel free to contact me.


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