Updated: September 1, 2023
Mahalo means thank you in the Hawaiian language —a common word of gratitude that should be familiar to every person who visits Hawaii.
In this article, we will:
- Explain the history of our language and tell you why Hawaiian words and phrases matter to us.
- Teach you the meaning, use, and origin of the Hawaiian word mahalo.
- Describe how our language is the gateway to understanding our culture, values, and rich history.
- Show you how a common phrase like mahalo nui loa can widen your perspective, grow compassion, and inspire your best self.
Mahalo for Choosing Hawaii
First, if you are planning a trip to one of our islands, Mahalo nui loa (thank you very much) for choosing to visit Hawaii and our ocean paradise.
Aloha e komo mai. It is an honor and privilege to invite people to Hawaii and welcome them with the aloha spirit of love and respect.
Use Language to Enrich Your Travel Experience
Seasoned travelers learn local phrases to show respect and build relationships with the people they meet. Not only does this simple practice enhance one’s sense of place, but it also enriches travel.
Visiting the Hawaiian Islands is no different.
Learn a few Hawaiian phrases before you come—or a word like mahalo—and you will already be practicing aloha.
Responding to someone with mahalo conveys good manners and respect for Hawaii and the Polynesian people. And good manners will go a long way in making your travel experience to the islands better.
Goodness always compounds.
We worked hard to preserve the language our ancestors left for us and it means a lot when visitors try to learn even a few words.
Hawaiian Language Renaissance
Although Hawaii is an English-speaking state, English is not our native tongue. Before our islands were colonized by Europeans, Hawaiian was the only language we spoke.
Our story as a people is wrapped inside the chant-like cadence of every precious word.
Speaking Hawaiian preserves our history and connects us to our native Hawaiian ancestry.
The Difference Between Hawaiian and Pidgin
Visitors often hear locals use a combination of Hawaiian, English, and other foreign words called pidgin. Hawaiian Pidgin has its roots in colonization and the plantation economy.
Before colonization, islanders spoke Hawaiian—a language that is still alive and thriving today.
Hawaiian Culture Resurgence
Over the past few decades, speaking Hawaiian has seen a resurgence. A child can learn their ancestral tongue in school, Speaking Hawaiian at home is also on the comeback.
English and Hawaiian are official languages on the islands, but only the latter speaks to who we are.
Our stories are embedded in Hawaiian words. The lessons left by our ancestors are weaved through Hawaiian phrases.
When we speak in our native tongue, we are reminded of our kuleana (responsibility) to protect the past and present.
When you use Hawaiian words like mahalo or aloha, you recognize that our heritage matters.
According to the Pukui and Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary, mahalo (pronounced mah hah loh) can express gratitude, appreciation, or praise.
Giving Thanks: Mahalo and Mahalo Nui Loa
Use the word mahalo in Hawaii whenever you would normally say thank you. For example, say mahalo if you are greeted at your hotel or resort with a flower lei—a typical welcome.
To express an even greater level of thanks, say the common Hawaiian phrase mahalo nui loa. The literal meaning is thank you big and wide. It is like saying thank you very much, instead of just thanks.
What is a Good Response to Mahalo?
Expressing gratitude is an important value in Polynesian cultures, but so is humility. A common response to mahalo is a’ole pilikia, which means “no problem”.
There is a deeper meaning behind each word—meanings that speak to how Hawaiians interact with nature and each other.
The Need for Reciprocity
The dual concepts of gratitude and humility foster reciprocal relationships—binding communities together.
When ancient wayfarers settled in Eastern Polynesia nearly 1,000 years ago, they relied on ohana (community) for their survival. They had to adapt to new island environments and teamwork was essential. No one can build a canoe alone.
As populations grew, resources traveled from mauka (mountain) to makai (ocean) and back again, creating intricate networks of reciprocity.
Pono is a Hawaiian Word that Builds Bridges
Words like mahalo and phrases like a’ole pilikia reinforce the spirit of teamwork.
Another Hawaiian word forged in reciprocity is pono, which means proper, moral, and to be upright, according to the Hawaiian dictionary.
It forms the base of another way to say, you’re welcome. Mālama pono literally means to take care.
When used in response to mahalo, mālama pono is another way to remind us of the kuleana between community members. Practicing pono creates social harmony.
Should I Say Aloha or Mahalo?
As we have noted, mahalo can replace thank you. Aloha can be trickier to understand.
In general, aloha means hello and goodbye and is a common greeting in Hawaii. However, in other contexts, it can mean love, peace, and an approach to life.
Aloha is a beautiful word and it is everywhere in Hawaii. Aloha is beauty, joy, and simplicity. It is the common air that we share.
Aloha, like pono, is an important word because reminds us what to value: land, sea, nature, and each other.
Hawaiian words like these set the foundation for harmony, goodness, and peace in the world around us.
More Hawaiian Words
Now that you understand the basics of how to greet someone in Hawaiian or say thank you very much, here are a few more words. Add them to your list to use on Oahu, Big Island, Maui, or any other island you visit.
Useful Hawaiian Phrases for Greeting in Hawaii
If you want to impress locals, learn these salutations.
- Aloha kakahiaka means good morning
- Aloha ‘auinalā means good afternoon
- Aloha ahiahi means good evening (used after sunset)
Other Words Hawaiians Use in Everyday Life
Learning common Hawaiian phrases will make visiting Hawaii a lot easier. Here are a few more or review our list of popular slang words.
- A hui hou means until we meet again
- ohana means family
- kama’aina means locals or residents of Hawaii
- kama’aina discount is a phrase that means locals are entitled to a discount when they show identification.
- Pau hana means the end of work
- Pau hana specials are dinner specials on a restaurant menu
Things Travel in Hawaii Teaches
The concept of reciprocity embedded in the Hawaiian language and culture is a constant reminder that we belong to one another and have a responsibility to create harmony in our world.
Become Your Best Self
Frequent travelers know that getting out of your comfort zone and embracing new perspectives will challenge assumptions, invigorate empathy for others, and is likely to cause a personal transformation.
Visiting Hawaii is no exception.
Nearly every phrase or word in the Hawaiian language reminds us of our interdependency and demands that we embrace our better selves. Learning them leads to change.
Gratitude is the Hawaiian Way
When you learn Hawaiian words, you learn about Hawaiian culture and then you can really experience the Hawaii way of being in the world
There is a delicate balancing act between humanity, nature, and the environment that is essential to living on an island.
When we dig a little deeper, Hawaiian words like mahalo and pono remind us that we are responsible for maintaining that harmony.
If every one of us could learn to not only say mahalo but to breathe gratitude and compassion into every syllable, imagine how the world might change.
Our voyaging ancestors made our native language a blueprint for living our best life. Discover what lessons might be there for you.
Aloha e komo mai. Hawaii is waiting for you.