by Frank Burgess
When people come to Hawai’i, especially for the first time, they notice that most of the locations, towns and street names are in a language they are unfamiliar with. It looks strange and sounds even stranger. But Hawaiian isn’t very difficult to pronounce once you know a few basic ideas and rules.
Alphabet: The Hawaiian alphabet has five vowels and seven consonants; a total of 12 letters altogether. Several vowels may be used in a row, but consonants are never placed together. Some words have no consonants at all and Hawaiian words always end with a vowel. There are many subtle nuances to the language as well, but for now let’s just hit the basics.
Vowels: The vowel sounds in Hawaiian are always pronounced the same and are similar to Spanish or Latin. This chart might visually help as we progress through the sounds using “b” at the beginning and “t” at the end of each vowel sound:
A…pronounced as a soft “u” as in but. (not “aw”)
E…pronounced as a soft “e” as in bet. (not “ay”)
I…pronounced as a hard “e” as in beet.
O…pronounced as a hard “o” as in boat.
U…pronounced as a hard “u” as in boot.
These are the most common vowel sounds. There are some exceptions, such as words with a macron. The macron extends the vowel sound to twice the normal value. (Not all road signs and maps include the macron.)
Ā = Bought…pronounced as “aw” and extends the sound.
Ē = Bet…and extends the sound.
Ī = Beet…and extends the sound.
Ō = Boat…and extends the sound.
Ū = Boot…and extends the sound.
Hokina: The hokina looks like a comma and is added to Hawaiian words to change the meaning or to replace consonants that have been dropped over time. It creates a glottal stop (a slight hesitation with an “uh”, like starting a new word). The hokina will always occur between vowels, especially the same vowel repeated (a’a, i’i, etc). Because of it’s significance, in 2004 the hokina was officially added as the 13th letter in the Hawaiian language.
As you explore Hawai’i, you can now begin to pronounce the words correctly. Have fun and aloha.
Copyright 2009 by Frank Burgess.