hawaiian alphabet

The Hawaiian language, with its melodious rhythm and profound cultural significance, is encapsulated in its unique alphabet. This alphabet is not just a tool for writing; it is a living reflection of Hawaii’s rich heritage and a cornerstone of its cultural identity. Comprising a mere 12 or 13 letters, depending on the inclusion of the ‘okina, the Hawaiian alphabet stands out for its simplicity and efficiency in capturing the full range of sounds in the Hawaiian language. This linguistic feature underscores the deep connection between the Hawaiian people and their natural environment, where economy and harmony play pivotal roles.

The story of the Hawaiian alphabet is a window into the soul of the islands, offering insights into the ways in which language shapes our understanding of the world. It is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of Hawaiian culture, having withstood the challenges of colonialism and modernization to remain a vibrant force in the lives of Hawaiians today. The preservation and revitalization of the Hawaiian alphabet are central to ongoing efforts to maintain the vitality of Hawaiian language and culture, making it a subject of great interest not only to linguists and scholars but also to anyone who values the diversity of human cultural expression.

By delving into the Hawaiian alphabet, we embark on a fascinating exploration of how language can preserve history, convey cultural values, and foster a sense of identity among its speakers. It is a story that resonates with the universal themes of connection, tradition, and resilience, inviting us to appreciate the richness of Hawaiian culture and the beauty of its language.

The History and Evolution of the Hawaiian Alphabet

hawaiian language

The narrative of the Hawaiian alphabet is deeply intertwined with the islands’ history, reflecting a journey from oral traditions to a written linguistic system. Before the 1820s, Hawaiian knowledge and culture were transmitted orally, through mele (songs), oli (chants), and mo‘olelo (stories), ensuring the preservation of history, genealogy, and cultural practices across generations. This oral tradition fostered a rich linguistic environment where memory and auditory skills were highly valued.

The transformation began with the arrival of American and European missionaries in the early 19th century, who recognized the need for a written form of Hawaiian to aid in their evangelical efforts. By 1826, the missionaries had formalized the Hawaiian alphabet, adapting it to suit the language’s phonetic requirements. This adaptation was crucial, as it allowed for the transcription of Hawaiian words in a way that accurately represented their sounds, facilitating the translation of religious texts, the creation of dictionaries, and the establishment of Hawaii’s first newspaper in 1834.

This period marked a significant shift in Hawaiian culture, from one that revered oral tradition to one that also embraced literacy. The Hawaiian alphabet, consisting of just 12 letters (A, E, I, O, U, H, K, L, M, N, P, W) and the ‘okina, a symbol representing a glottal stop, was revolutionary in its simplicity and effectiveness. The ‘okina, often considered the thirteenth letter, is essential in differentiating meanings and pronunciations within the Hawaiian language, illustrating the alphabet’s precision and the linguistic acumen of its creators.

The establishment of the Hawaiian alphabet was more than a linguistic achievement; it was a cultural milestone that enabled Hawaiians to preserve their heritage in written form, facilitating the spread of knowledge and the education of future generations. Schools were established throughout the islands, promoting literacy and education in the Hawaiian language. By the mid-19th century, Hawaii boasted one of the highest literacy rates in the world, a testament to the successful integration of the Hawaiian alphabet into society.

However, the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a decline in the use of the Hawaiian language, as English became increasingly dominant in government, business, and education. This decline was further exacerbated by the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and subsequent annexation by the United States in 1898. Hawaiian was marginalized, and its use was discouraged in public spaces, leading to a significant decrease in native speakers.

The late 20th century, however, witnessed a resurgence of interest in Hawaiian culture and language, part of a broader Native Hawaiian renaissance. Efforts to revitalize the Hawaiian language have been successful, thanks in part to the establishment of language immersion schools and the promotion of Hawaiian language and culture in the media and public life. This revival is a testament to the enduring strength of Hawaiian identity and the central role of the Hawaiian alphabet in connecting past, present, and future generations of Hawaiians.

Understanding the Hawaiian Alphabet: Letters and Pronunciation

hawaiian letter

The beauty and simplicity of the Hawaiian alphabet lie in its compactness and clarity. With only 12 or 13 letters, depending on the inclusion of the ‘okina, it represents the entire range of sounds in the Hawaiian language. This section explores each letter, its pronunciation, and the unique linguistic features that distinguish Hawaiian from other languages.

The Vowels and Consonants

At the heart of the Hawaiian alphabet are its vowels: A, E, I, O, U. Each vowel can be pronounced with either a short or long sound, a distinction that can alter the meaning of a word. The consonants, H, K, L, M, N, P, W, and sometimes the ‘okina, work in harmony with the vowels to create the melodious and fluid sounds characteristic of Hawaiian speech.

The ‘Okina and the Kahakō

Two critical elements in Hawaiian pronunciation are the ‘okina and the kahakō. The ‘okina, recognized as a consonant, signifies a glottal stop, a brief pause in the flow of speech that is essential for distinguishing between words that would otherwise appear identical in writing. The kahakō, or macron, is used over vowels to indicate a longer vowel sound, adding another layer of nuance to the pronunciation and meaning of Hawaiian words.

Pronunciation Guide

  • A (ah) as in “father”
  • E (eh) as in “bet”
  • I (ee) as in “see”
  • O (oh) as in “so”
  • U (oo) as in “food”
  • H, K, L, M, N, P, W are pronounced similarly to their English counterparts, with the W sometimes sounding like a V, especially after an I or an E.
  • The ‘okina, as a glottal stop, is similar to the pause between the syllables of “oh-oh”.

Examples and Application

To illustrate, consider the word “Hawai‘i.” The ‘okina between the “i”s creates a distinct separation, emphasizing the breath that is so integral to Hawaiian life and culture. Another example is “lā” (sun) versus “la” (day), where the kahakō over the “ā” changes the meaning and pronunciation.

Why Only 12 or 13 Letters?

The reason behind the Hawaiian alphabet’s limited number of letters is its design to perfectly match the language’s phonetic needs. Hawaiian only uses the sounds represented by these letters, making it an efficient and effective system for capturing the spoken word. This efficiency is a reflection of the Hawaiian approach to life, emphasizing harmony, balance, and simplicity.

Cultural Significance of the Hawaiian Alphabet

 hawaiian alphabet letters

The Hawaiian alphabet is not merely a tool for communication; it embodies the cultural identity and values of the Hawaiian people. Each letter and pronunciation carries with it stories of the land, the people, and their history, making the language a living repository of Hawaiian culture. The preservation of the Hawaiian alphabet and language is, therefore, an act of cultural preservation, ensuring that future generations can access the wisdom, traditions, and beauty of their ancestors.

Understanding the Hawaiian alphabet and its pronunciation is more than a linguistic exercise; it’s a gateway to appreciating the depth and richness of Hawaiian culture. As learners and speakers of Hawaiian navigate the subtleties of its alphabet, they connect with the essence of Hawai‘i itself, fostering a deeper respect for its people and their heritage.

The Hawaiian alphabet does more than facilitate communication; it serves as a vibrant conduit of culture, embodying the spirit, values, and history of the Hawaiian people. This segment delves into the profound cultural significance of the Hawaiian alphabet, illustrating how it has shaped and preserved Hawaiian identity through time.

The Alphabet as a Cultural Pillar

The creation and preservation of the Hawaiian alphabet have been pivotal in maintaining the Hawaiian culture’s vibrancy. Each letter and word encapsulates a piece of the island’s soul, from its lush landscapes and oceanic expanses to the depth of its ancestral wisdom. The language, with its unique phonetic system, enables Hawaiians to express concepts and values that are inextricably linked to their natural environment and way of life.

Names and Naming Traditions

In Hawaiian culture, names (inoa) hold immense significance, believed to carry mana (spiritual power) and destiny. The Hawaiian alphabet, with its precise sounds, plays a crucial role in the formation of names that connect individuals to their lineage, the land, and their personal stories. This naming tradition underscores the language’s role in forging a deep sense of identity and belonging among Hawaiians, affirming the alphabet’s importance beyond its utility for communication.

Stories, Chants, and Songs

The Hawaiian alphabet has been instrumental in recording and disseminating the rich oral traditions of Hawaii. Through mele (songs), oli (chants), and mo‘olelo (stories), Hawaiians have passed down the wisdom of ancestors, tales of creation, and navigational knowledge across generations. The written form of these oral traditions has allowed for their preservation and continued relevance, offering insights into the Hawaiian worldview and its deep connection to the environment.

Cultural Revival and Preservation

The revitalization of the Hawaiian language and its alphabet in recent decades has been a cornerstone of the broader movement to reclaim and celebrate Hawaiian heritage. Language immersion schools, Hawaiian studies programs, and the proliferation of Hawaiian language media have fostered a renewed sense of pride in Hawaiian identity. This cultural renaissance has reinforced the alphabet’s role not only as a means of communication but as a symbol of resilience and renewal.

Modern Relevance and Adaptations

Today, the Hawaiian alphabet continues to influence modern Hawaiian culture, from the naming of places and businesses to its presence in contemporary music and art. The adaptation of traditional practices to the modern context demonstrates the alphabet’s flexibility and enduring relevance. It serves as a reminder of the Hawaiian people’s connection to their past and their commitment to carrying their cultural legacy into the future.

The Revival of the Hawaiian Language and Alphabet

The resurgence of the Hawaiian language and its alphabet marks a significant chapter in the story of Hawaiian cultural preservation. Driven by a determination to revive a language once on the brink of extinction, this movement highlights the profound connection between language, identity, and cultural continuity. Through education, community engagement, and legislative support, Hawaiians have made significant strides in reclaiming the Hawaiian alphabet’s place in society, ensuring it remains a living testament to the islands’ rich cultural heritage.

The cultural significance of the Hawaiian alphabet transcends its role as a linguistic tool, embodying the resilience, beauty, and depth of Hawaiian culture. Its preservation and promotion are acts of love and resistance, ensuring that the Hawaiian language continues to flourish, bridging generations and celebrating the unique identity of Hawai‘i and its people.

The late 20th century marked a turning point for the Hawaiian language and its alphabet, igniting a movement towards revitalization that has grown in strength and impact over the decades. This resurgence was born out of a collective realization of the critical state of the language, with native speakers dwindling and cultural identity at risk. The revival efforts represent a profound commitment to reclaiming and nurturing the linguistic heritage of Hawaii, ensuring its survival for future generations.

Early Efforts and Challenges

The initial steps towards revitalization faced numerous challenges, from the scarcity of resources and educational materials in Hawaiian to the need for trained teachers proficient in the language. Despite these obstacles, the passion and perseverance of language activists, educators, and community members laid the groundwork for a renaissance of the Hawaiian language.

Educational Initiatives

A cornerstone of the revival efforts has been the establishment of language immersion schools, starting with the Pūnana Leo preschools in the 1980s. These schools provide an immersive environment where children learn in Hawaiian, fostering fluency and cultural understanding from a young age. The success of these preschools led to the expansion of immersion education into primary and secondary levels, significantly increasing the number of Hawaiian language speakers.

Legislative Support and Recognition

The movement also gained momentum through legislative support, notably with Hawaiian being recognized as an official language of the state alongside English. This recognition has paved the way for increased funding, resources, and the integration of Hawaiian language into public life, from signage to official government documents.

Cultural Integration and Media

Beyond education, the Hawaiian language and alphabet have seen a resurgence in media, music, and cultural festivals, which play a crucial role in normalizing the language’s use in everyday life. Radio stations, television programming, and digital platforms offering content in Hawaiian have contributed to a broader awareness and appreciation of the language. Additionally, the inclusion of Hawaiian language courses in universities and the proliferation of Hawaiian language resources online have made learning more accessible to a wider audience.

Impact on Hawaiian Identity and Culture

The revival of the Hawaiian language and its alphabet has had a profound impact on Hawaiian identity and culture, fostering a sense of pride and connection among Hawaiians of all ages. It has become a powerful symbol of resilience and empowerment, highlighting the importance of language in maintaining cultural heritage. The success of these efforts has not only revitalized the language but has also inspired other indigenous and minority language communities worldwide to undertake similar initiatives.

Looking Forward

The journey towards full revitalization is ongoing, with challenges remaining in achieving widespread fluency and integration into all aspects of Hawaiian life. However, the progress made thus far offers hope and a blueprint for the preservation of linguistic and cultural identity. The Hawaiian language and alphabet, once at risk of being lost, now stand as a beacon of cultural pride and a testament to the enduring spirit of the Hawaiian people.

How to Learn the Hawaiian Alphabet: Resources and Tips

Learning the Hawaiian alphabet and language is a journey into the heart of Hawaii’s culture, offering insights into its rich history and traditions. For those looking to embark on this educational adventure, numerous resources and strategies can facilitate the process.

Resources for Learning

  1. Books: Start with foundational texts like “Ka Lei Ha‘aheo: Beginning Hawaiian” by Alberta Pualani Hopkins and “Nā Kai ‘Ewalu” by Kauanoe Kamanā and William H. Wilson, which are excellent for beginners.
  2. Websites: Websites such as ʻŌlelo Online offer free lessons, pronunciation guides, and cultural insights. The Ulukau Hawaiian Electronic Library is another invaluable resource for language learners, providing access to a wide range of Hawaiian literature and dictionaries.
  3. Apps: Duolingo recently added Hawaiian to its list of languages, offering a gamified learning experience that’s great for beginners. The ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i app is another tool designed to help learners expand their vocabulary and understanding of Hawaiian grammar.
  4. Language Schools and Programs: Immersion schools and community college courses throughout Hawaii provide opportunities for more structured learning. For those not in Hawaii, online courses and virtual language groups can offer similar benefits.

Tips for Beginners

  • Start with Pronunciation: Mastering the sounds of the Hawaiian alphabet is crucial. Practice with recordings to get accustomed to the nuances of vowel lengths and the ‘okina.
  • Learn Basic Phrases: Focus on simple greetings, farewells, and common expressions to build confidence and start using Hawaiian in daily life.
  • Use the Hawaiian Alphabet Song: This song is a fun and effective way to memorize the alphabet and its pronunciation. Many versions are available online and can serve as a catchy learning tool.
  • Engage with the Community: Join Hawaiian language forums, social media groups, or local clubs to practice and learn from others. Engagement with native speakers and fellow learners can significantly enhance your learning experience.

The Hawaiian Alphabet in Modern Times: Usage and Influence

The Hawaiian alphabet, once on the brink of being forgotten, now thrives across various domains, showcasing the resilience and vitality of the Hawaiian language in modern times.

Media and Technology

The digital age has seen a proliferation of Hawaiian language content, from news broadcasts and websites to social media platforms where users regularly post in Hawaiian. Technology has also facilitated the development of Hawaiian language software, including keyboard apps and text-to-speech programs, making it easier to type and communicate in Hawaiian online.


Hawaiian language courses have become increasingly integrated into educational systems at all levels, from preschools to universities. These programs not only teach the language but also immerse students in Hawaiian culture, history, and values. The University of Hawaii system, for example, offers extensive courses in Hawaiian Studies and promotes research in the language and its literature.

Place Names and Branding

Hawaiian place names, rich in history and meaning, have gained recognition and respect, with efforts to correctly pronounce and understand their significance. In branding, businesses and products often use Hawaiian names and phrases, reflecting a deep connection to the culture and appealing to both locals and visitors.

The Arts

The Hawaiian language has experienced a renaissance in the arts, with music, hula, and theater incorporating the language to convey the depth and breadth of Hawaiian experience and expression. This resurgence has played a crucial role in revitalizing the language, making it a vibrant part of Hawaii’s cultural expression.


The story of the Hawaiian alphabet is a testament to the resilience of the Hawaiian language and culture. Through centuries of change, it has remained a vital link to the past, a source of identity and pride, and a beacon for the future. The revival of the Hawaiian language and alphabet is not just a linguistic achievement; it is a cultural renaissance that reaffirms the importance of preserving and celebrating our diverse heritage.

As we look to the future, the continued growth and promotion of the Hawaiian language will depend on the collective efforts of the community, educators, and policymakers. It is an invitation to all who wish to learn and engage with Hawaiian culture to contribute to this living legacy. By doing so, we not only honor the ancestors who preserved the language under great adversity but also ensure that future generations can enjoy and enrich this cultural treasure.

The Hawaiian alphabet, with its rich history, cultural significance, and modern-day resurgence, symbolizes the enduring strength and beauty of the Hawaiian people and their language. It is a reminder that language is more than words and letters; it is the soul of a culture, a bridge connecting the past, present, and future.

FAQs Section

In this section, we address some of the most common questions about the Hawaiian alphabet, offering insights that deepen our understanding and appreciation of this unique linguistic system.

Q: Why does the Hawaiian alphabet have only 12 or 13 letters?
A: The Hawaiian alphabet is tailored to match the phonetic needs of the Hawaiian language, which is characterized by its distinct sounds. This streamlined approach ensures that each letter is used efficiently, reflecting the language’s simplicity and the cultural emphasis on harmony and balance. The inclusion of the ‘okina as a consonant is a recognition of its role in the language’s phonetic system, bringing the total to 13 by some counts.

Q: Is it difficult to learn the Hawaiian language?
A: Learning Hawaiian, like any language, presents its own set of challenges, particularly for speakers accustomed to languages with very different phonetic and grammatical structures. However, with its relatively small alphabet and consistent pronunciation rules, Hawaiian can be accessible to beginners. The key to mastery lies in regular practice, immersion in the language, and engagement with the community and culture.

Q: What are the 13 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet?
A: The Hawaiian alphabet consists of five vowels (A, E, I, O, U) and seven consonants (H, K, L, M, N, P, W), plus the ‘okina, a glottal stop, which is sometimes counted as a consonant, making it 13 letters in total.

Q: How can I start learning the Hawaiian language?
A: Beginning your Hawaiian language journey involves several steps: familiarizing yourself with the alphabet and sounds, using online resources and language apps, enrolling in courses or workshops, and immersing yourself in the language through music, media, and conversation with native speakers. Engaging with the community and participating in cultural events can also enhance your learning experience.

Q: Why are there long names in Hawaiian, and what do they signify?
A: Hawaiian names often reflect personal or familial stories, connections to the land, or desired qualities and destinies. The length of these names can signify the depth of their meaning, encompassing complex narratives or attributes. These names, rich in cultural significance, serve as a link to the individual’s heritage and identity.

Q: How has the Hawaiian alphabet changed over time?
A: Since its formalization in the 1820s, the Hawaiian alphabet has remained relatively stable. However, the ways in which it is taught, learned, and used have evolved, especially with the language’s revitalization. Innovations in education, technology, and media have facilitated a broader engagement with the language, ensuring its relevance in contemporary Hawaiian culture.

Q: Are there any unique sounds in the Hawaiian language that are difficult for non-natives to pronounce?
A: The ‘okina, or glottal stop, can be challenging for those not familiar with its use, as it requires a brief pause within a word that is uncommon in many other languages. Similarly, the nuanced pronunciation of vowels, especially when modified by the kahakō, may require practice for non-native speakers to master.

Final Thoughts

The Hawaiian alphabet, with its rich history and cultural significance, offers a fascinating glimpse into the Hawaiian language and the values of the Hawaiian people. Its revival and continued use underscore the importance of language preservation in maintaining cultural identity and heritage. Through learning and engaging with the Hawaiian alphabet and language, individuals can contribute to its ongoing legacy, ensuring that it remains a vibrant and living part of Hawaii’s cultural landscape.

This exploration into the Hawaiian alphabet and language invites readers to delve deeper into the study of Hawaiian culture, language, and history. By doing so, we not only honor the past but also contribute to a future where the Hawaiian language continues to thrive and inspire.

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