Hawaiʻi: Only US State With 2 Official Languages

About the Hawaiian languageAs I was preparing to visit Hawaiʻi early this month, I did some research on the geography, history and language of the islands. My youngest son and his wife moved there recently, and I was eager to see them and their new surroundings.

With my interest in grammar, I was especially fascinated by the Hawiian language. A glimpse of the state’s history provides a background for understanding Hawaiian.

Geography and History

Five islands — Hawaiʻi (often called the Big Island), Maui, Molokaʻi, Oʻahu and Kauaʻi — make up the official state of Hawaiʻi. The islands are part of the Hawaiian Archipelago, the oldest and longest chain of islands in the world. From Hawaiʻi, the chain — mostly underwater — extends northward 1,500 miles.

The cluster of five islands became the fiftieth U.S. state on August 21, 1959. Honolulu, the capital, is on Oʻahu, which is home to renowned crescent Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbor World War II memorials.


When Hawaiʻi as a territory was annexed by the United States in 1899, the Hawaiian language was banned from being taught in schools. In 1978 — 19 years after statehood and nearly 80 years from when teaching Hawaiian had been banned — members of the state’s constitutional convention declared Hawaiian and English the official dual languages of Hawaiʻi. It is the only U.S. state to have two official languages, and some students now take classes taught in Hawaiian.

English explorer Captain James Cook is credited as the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands (1778). At that time, there was no written Hawaiian language. Western missionaries who arrived in 1820 created and standardized a written version based on English letters.

Hawaiian is closely related to Polynesian languages: Samoan, Marquesan, Tahitian, Māori, Rapa Nui (the language of Easter Island) and Tongan.

Hawaiian alphabet has only 12 letters

Of great surprise to me, Hawaiian has an alphabet of only 12 letters and two characters key to pronunciation.


7 consonants: h, k, l, m, n, p, w
All but the letter w are pronounced just as they are in English:

w is spoken as a w when it follows an o or a u
w is spoken as a v when it follows an i or an e
w is spoken as a w or a v at the start of a word or after an a

5 vowels: a, e, i, o, u

a sounds like ah in aloha
e sounds like eh in bet (also can sound like ay as in say)
i sounds like ee as in bee
o sounds like oh as in open
u sounds like oo as in boo

Here are five written tips for pronouncing Hawaiian words.

CHARACTERS (punctuation marks)

  • ʻokina
    When typeset in Hawaiian, an ʻokina appears as an opening single quotation mark (the typesetter version curled like a c), and it indicates a pronounced pause (called a glottal stop) in a word: Hawaiʻi (Ha vi ʻ ee)
  • kahakō
    The kahakō is a line over a letter that signals holding the sound of that letter a bit longer than normal. It is sometimes called a macron.

If you’re interested in being able to create these two key Hawaiian characters on your laptop, follow these instructions:

  • How to Type in Hawaiian on your Mac:  (Ōkina & Kahakō)
  • How to Activate the Hawaiian Language Keyboard in Windows 10

Common Words

This list of common Hawaiian words can be helpful to any traveler. As with English, some have multiple meanings, and not every source agrees on the exact meaning. Use the vowel guide above to pronounce them.

aloha: hello, goodbye, love, kindness

e komo mai: welcome

mahalo: thank you

wahine: lady, female (watch for on restroom doors)

kāne: man, male (watch for on restroom doors)

keiki: child or children

ohana: family

hale: house

haole: Caucasian or foreigner

ono: two meanings: fish, but also delicious

pau hana: end of the work day; term may apply to what are known as happy hour specials on the mainland

honu: Hawaiian green sea turtle; do not approach in water or on beach

kapu: forbidden and/or keep out

makai: in giving directions, the ocean side of the road

mauka: in giving directions, the mountain side of the road

pali: hill

wiki wiki: fast (There is a Wiki Wiki Shuttle at the Honolulu Airport.)

Wherever you travel, the locals usually appreciate any effort to communicate with them in their native language, even if they also speak English. Hawiian is challenging, but your attempts will be welcomed — and likely will generate friendly (and perhaps amused) smiles.

I love the unique beauty of Hawaiʻi, which offers stunning contrasts at every turn: vistas of lush vegetation, huge lava tubes resembling cave openings, endless blue skies, and a vast ocean with both serene sandy beaches and giant white sprays exploding as waves crash into black volcanic rock shorelines. I look forward to my next visit and expect to take with me a better understanding of how to communicate with its residents.

(The photo is a view from the grounds of the Onomea Tea Company in Papaikou, where we enjoyed an informative tour and tasting.)

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on Hawaiʻi or the Hawaiian language. For those who are, I welcome your corrections or clarifications.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)