A couple of friends have remarked to me about the intimidating appearance of a lot of Hawaiian words, so I thought I’d add a postscript about the language. Two words: don’t panic.
Hawaiian is actually very easy to pronounce if you know a couple of the most important rules. So here they are:
- The alphabet comprises only the five vowels (no Y) and these seven consonants: H, K, L, M, N, P, W
- There are no consonant blends at all (e.g. kl), i.e. there is always a vowel in between two. That alone makes pronunciation easy: you just break things down syllable by syllable. So you start pronouncing the title of this blog post — which is the name of the state fish of Hawaii — like this: hu-mu-hu-mu-nu-ku… etc.
- Every letter is spoken, except for a couple of important diphthongs (vowel blends):
- au (rhymes with “pow”)
- ai (sounds like “eye”)
- ei (rhymes with “pay”)
- The vowels are very consistent in their pronunciation:
- a is soft, as in “father”
- e is like the French é, about halfway between “ay” and “eh”
- i sounds like “ee”
- o is always hard, as in “mote”
- u sounds like “oo”
…and that’s mostly it. Other than the three dipthongs, if you see multiple vowels together you just follow the “pronounce every letter” rule and say them all in a row, one at a time. So for example, if you see oo, you would say “oh-oh”. Resist the temptation to pronounce the words in English; it can lead you astray. For example, there is a street near here called “Likelike” and if you’re a native English speaker you want to say the word “like” twice. But that’s not it: follow the rules above and you’ll come out with lee-kay-lee-kay, which is correct. The island of Niihau is pronounced nee-ee-how. Et cetera.
It’s a little more complicated than that, because there are glottal stops — pauses that are indicated with an apostrophe between letters — and there actually a few more vowel rules. But if you go by the set I laid out here, you’ll be spot-on 98% of the time. In fact, I once got a discount at a teeshirt store for correctly pronouncing the fish name at the top of this post. Which fish, by the way, is a cute little thing about 9″ that looks like this.