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Hawaiian Phrases and Words to Learn Before You Go

From The
Blog

Updated: September 1, 2023

Before you dip your toes in the warm island sand and are lulled into a state of bliss by fragrant ocean breezes, learn a few Hawaiian phrases and words to enrich your travel experience before you visit Hawaii. You will be glad you did.

In this article, you will:

  • Discover essential Hawaiian words phrases that every traveler needs to know.
  • Learn how to pronounce beautiful Hawaiian words like a local Hawaiian resident.
  • Gain an understanding of the Hawaiian culture and a history of our language.
  • Explore a few phrases that will help you understand why ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian) is a lesson in how to live a balanced life.

Basic Hawaiian Words Every Traveller Should Know

Let’s begin our journey into the native Hawaiian language with the two words you will likely hear over and over again when you visit Hawaii: Aloha and Mahalo.

Embedded in both words are two values that Hawaiians hold dear: love and gratitude.

Aloha: a Hawaiian Word for Love

When you first land in Hawaii, you will hear the word aloha in some form of Hawaiian greeting.

Aloha means hello and goodbye but also carries deeper lessons about how to treat one another.

Hospitality is our cultural cornerstone, passed down through the generations and embedded in phrases like, aloha e komo mai (pronounced ah-LOH-hah eh KOH-moh my)—a way we express love and respect to visitors.

Embedded in Hawaiian words and phrases are lessons for a respectful life.

Mahalo Nui Loa: A Lesson in Gratitude

Mahalo is the Hawaiian word for thank you. Mahalo nui loa (pronounced mah-HAH-loh new-ee loh-ah) is a Hawaiian phrase that means thank you very much.

The literal translation of mahalo is “in breath” or “life essence.” It means to live in constant gratitude. Sharing mahalo reminds us of our mutual respect—a way of living in a community.

Mahalo is an important word, like aloha, that transmits values from generation to generation.

A common response to Mahalo is a’ole pilikia, which means “no problem”.

A Historical Context for Reclaiming the Hawaiian Language

]Learning a Hawaiian word or two means a lot to the Hawaiian people who fought hard to reclaim their language and heritage.

Nearly lost, speaking our native language was suppressed during colonization and American annexation of the kingdom. Laws banned the speaking and teaching of Hawaiian after the islands were siezed.

It was not until the 1970s that resistance to the decline of language and cultural traditions gained momentum, resulting in a policy making Hawaiian an official language.

However, only the elders could still speak Hawaiian. In fact, by the 1980s fewer than 50 children were able to speak in their native tongue.

It is only recently that laws banning the teaching of Hawaiian were overturned so that school children can once again learn the language passed down from their native Hawaiian ancestry. Hawaii is experiencing a resurgence of native speakers.

Today, speaking in our native language is a form of resistance and renewal as we reclaim our rich heritage and revive the knowledge of our ancestors.

Common Hawaiian Words to Know

You do not need to speak Ōlelo Hawai‘i to enjoy your time in Hawaii (English, along with Hawaiian, are the official languages). However, if you want to learn more about Polynesian culture and build a relationship with locals, learning a few words is essential.

Here are a few we think will be helpful for visitors:

Mauka (pronounced MOW-kah) is a directional term meaning toward the mountains or inland.

Makai, (pronounced mah-KYE) means toward the ocean.

Kapu (pronounced KAH-poo) means taboo. If you see it on a sign, it means “keep out” or “no trespassing.”

Lua (pronounced LOO-ah) means “hole” and is another word for bathroom. 

Wahine (pronounced wah-HEE-neh) means woman. You will often see this on the door for a woman’s bathroom.

Kane (pronounced KAH-neh) means male and is posted on the door of a menʻs bathroom.

Haole (pronouncedhow-leh)traditionally means “foreigner” but most commonly refers to a white person

Kama‘aina (pronounced kah-mah-IE-nah)means the “people of the land” or native Hawaiians, but also a word for locals. A kamaʻaina discount means that residents of Hawaii, who show ID. qualify for a discounted price.

Ohana (pronounced oh-HAH-nah) means family or community and is an important concept of interconnectedness—an cherished value in Hawaiian society.

Kōkua(pronounced koh-KOO-ah) means “to help” or “assistance.”

Honu (pronounced HOH-noo) is the green sea turtle, which has spiritual significance as a guardian spirit. In surf culture, you will often see depictions of the turtle on boards and clothing.

ʻOno (pronounced OH-noh) means delicious food. Try a malasada (deep fried Portuguese donut) when you visit and taste the meaning of ʻono.

Poke (pronounced poh-kay) is a dish made of raw seafood, usually a diced fish, such as tuna, that melts in your mouth.

Poi (pronounced poy) is a traditional food made of pounded taro. It is healthy and ʻonolicious.

Spam Musubi is a delicious snack made of crispy spam on a bed of sushi rice wrapped in seaweed.

A Pronunciation Guide for Hawaiian Words

The Hawaiian alphabet (ka pīʻāpā Hawaiʻi) has some similarities to English, especially since it was Western missionaries who helped developed a spelling system. Hawaiian was not a written language; it was historically a spoken language transmitted through stories, chants, and oral traditions.

Hawaiian Vowels

The vowels in the Hawaiian look familiar but have slightly different pronunciations. The line over the top of the vowel is called a kahakō and indicates that the speaker should lengthen the sound.

  • A, pronounced ʻā (ah), or like the ah sound in father.
  • E, pronounced ʻē (eh), or like the ay sound in way.
  • I, pronounced ʻī (ee), or like the ee sound in bee.
  • O, pronounced ʻō (oh), or like the oa sound in boat.
  • U, pronounced ʻū (oo), or like the ue sound in blue.

Hawaiian Consonants

There are 8 constants, seven of which you will recognize. The ʻokina, or symbol for the glottal stop, will be new to most English speakers.

  • H, pronounced hē, or sounds like hay.
  • K, pronounced kē, or sounds like kay.
  • L, pronounced lā, or sounds like lah.
  • M, pronounced mū, or sounds like moo.
  • N, pronounced nū, or sounds like new.
  • P, pronounced pī, or sounds like pea.
  • W, pronounced wē, or sounds like vay.
  • ʻ (ʻokina), a sound that separates the vowels—a stop in the back of the throat like you get when saying “uh-oh.”

The combination of vowels and the ʻokina gaps create a musical language that brings to mind the rhythms of the ocean—the ebb and flow of waves with calm moments in between.

Hawaiian Pidgin and Slang

When visiting Hawaii, you will likely hear the sing-song of a unique language that sounds a little like English but has many influences, including Hawaiian, English, Portuguese, Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese.

Called pidgin, it is a form of creole developed in the 1800’s as a way for indentured laborers and overseers to communicate on sugarcane plantations. Most locals still use pidgin today, especially outside of Oʻahu.

One example of a Hawaiian pidgin English word you may be familiar with is da kine, meaning “whatchamacallit.” It can refer to just about anything in general.

For example:

“Da kine went beach the oddah day” (The person you were talking about, let’s say David, went to the beach the other day).

Read our article on Hawaiian slang phrases to learn more.

Helpful Hawaiian Phrases to Know

In addition to the list of words above, you might hear some of the following common Hawaiian phrases while in Hawaii.

Ke aloha mai (keh ah-LOH-hah my) means “with love” and is often used as an invitation to come in.

Aloha kakahiaka (pronounced ah-LOH-ha kah-kah-hee-AH-kah) means good morning.

Aloha ahiahi (pronounced ah-LOH-ha ah-hee-AH-hee) means good evening.

E ʻoluʻolu ʻoe (pronounced eh oh-loo-oh-loo oh-eh) is an expression that means “please” or “you are welcome” in Hawaiian.

Hana hou (pronounced HAH-nah HOH) means “encore,” or to do something one more time.

He mea iki (pronounced heh MEH-ah EE-kee) means that something is “no big deal.” It can be used as a way to say “you are welcome.”

Pau hana (pronounced POW HAH-nah) means the end of the workday or “after work.” You will often see dinner specials referred to as “pau hana specials.”

A hui hou (pronounced ah hoo-ee hoh) means “until we meet again” or “see you later.” It conveys a hope that you will meet again in the future.

Hawaiian Proverbs, Mary Pukui, and Preserving Lessons for a Good Life

Much aloha for our ability to revive our heritage is thanks to the kupuna (elders) who preserved it.

One such kumu (teacher/source) is Mary Kawena Pukui, the author of ʻŌlelo Noʻeaua book of proverbs.

The Hawaiian sayings Pukui recorded are poetic and full of lessons passed down from the ancestors on how to live a good life and find harmony with yourself, your ohana (community), and nature.

We encourage you to explore the book on your own, but here are a few selected sayings.

View the World With Love

The phrase ʻAʻohe loa i ka hana a ke aloha (No task is too big when done with love) conveys to knowledge the right outlook for everyday life is one that is centered in aloha spirit or love.

Hawaiiʻs reputation as the Aloha State—easygoing, happy, and hospitable— developed because we put such a high value on love as a way to perceive the world. It is through aloha that we can live a positive and respectful life.

Live in Harmony with Nature

ʻAʻohe i hāʻawi mai i ka lehua ʻaʻe kekahi, which translated says, “no one can claim the lehua blossom for oneself alone.”

This phrase conveys the value of living in harmony with the natural world, not as owners, but as stewards.

Love of the land, aloha ʻāina, is central to the way we think in Hawaii. Our songs, chants, and hula (traditional Hawaiian dance) often tell stories about the importance unity.

We are Stronger Together

Reciprocity was vital to survival as our ancestors colonized the islands. 

ʻAʻohe hana nui ke alu ʻia(No task is too great when undertaken together), reminds us that we can accomplish anything when we help one another.

Island life, both today and in the past, operates on our belief that we have a responsibility to our community.

Long Live the Hawaiian Language

Learning a few words or phrases in Hawaiian will not only enrich your experience of our islands, but you honor our resilience and the lessons of our heritage.

The lessons embedded in the words of phrases of Hawaii remind us that together, we can create a brighter future rooted in respect, love, and the interconnectedness — a future we share as one human ohana.

E ola mau ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi! (Long live the Hawaiian language).