One of the first things you hear at any Hawaiian luau is the iconic aloha greeting. Just the word has come to define the welcoming and kind-hearted nature of the Hawaiian people.
In fact, it’s become synonymous with the islands. Hearing aloha conjures images of idyllic beaches and warm sands. The sound makes you feel a gentle sea breeze through palm trees, evoking a tropical paradise.
That’s how powerful a simple greeting can be. It also represents the beauty of the Hawaiian language. When you say aloha, you take your first step toward an ancient dialect.
More than a synonym for hello or goodbye, aloha is an invitation for cultural exchange. It also helped this beautiful language live on when it was almost lost less than a century ago.
Aloha is just the start. Picking up some Hawaiian language basics can make your trip to the islands even more enriching. It opens doors to exciting and unique conversations.
It also allows you to play a small role in preserving a beautiful language. A language with a history that stretches back over a thousand years.
Hawaiian is a language defined by its geography and history. It is a part of the Polynesian language group, which is part of the Austronesian language family.
People from the Marquesas islands first settled in Hawaii over 1,500 years ago. These first settlers were joined by explorers and traders from Tahiti and Samoa.
Over time, trade between these islands slowed down, and the first settlers were left alone. At that point, the different cultures of the islands came together. Eventually, they evolved into the Hawaiian language and culture.
Europeans arrived in Hawaii in 1778. At that time, over half a million people lived on the islands. Most spoke the language they referred to as Olelo Hawai'i. However, when the Westerners arrived, they brought change to the Hawaiian language.
In the early 1800s, Calvinist missionaries transcribed the Hawaiian language. To do so, they assigned Latin characters as a means of easier translation.
As a result, Hawaiian contains eight consonants and five vowels. That makes a total of thirteen letters. As you might notice, that’s half of the English alphabet. However, special symbols and contextual signifiers make Hawaiian’s written language as expressive as any other.
Through the 1800s, native Hawaiians adopted English words into their vocabulary. Words like book, January, and telephone became puke, Ianuali, and kelepona. However, many Westerners wanted English to be the only language and sought to control the islands. Language was one method of doing so.
In 1893, the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown with the support of the United States. In 1896, the new leaders banned the education of Hawaiian language. English became the official language of schools and the government, causing the Hawaiian language to nearly be lost.
Hawaiian language fell out of use after the 1896 decision. US immigration, intermarriage, and the teaching of English in schools all made it difficult to preserve the Hawaiian language. All that could not eliminate the native Hawaiian language from common vernacular.
Hawaiian tradition and culture are as resilient as they are beautiful. A new dialect of English, called Hawaiian Pidgin, soon developed in Hawaii. Although it was based on English, it was entirely unique. It used native Hawaiian words and words from Chinese and Japanese traders.
Although it is called Hawaiian Pidgin, this variety of English is Creole. The line between Pidgin and Creole can seem quite blurry.
Creole language is spoken natively rather than as a second language. The status of Hawaiian Pidgin as a Creole language was further cemented in 2015. The U.S. Census Bureau added Hawaiian Pidgin as an official language in the State of Hawaii.
Thankfully, the Native Hawaiian language is being more commonly used today. In the 1970s, the Hawaiian Renaissance saw a revival of traditional Hawaiian culture and language. In 1978, the Hawaiian state government officially made Hawaiian a language. Once more, Hawaiian was taught in schools, and today, this language enjoys a warm resurgence in the everyday life of Hawaiians.
The Hawaiian language hasn’t replaced English across the islands. However, its use by the local culture grows each day. Before your next trip, it can be fun to practice a few Hawaiian words and phrases. This will help you engage with the culture and get to know the locals.
With that, here are some basic Hawaiian words and phrases:
The traditional hello and goodbye of Hawaii. This word also shows kindness, positive intentions, and respect. Not to mention, it’s the perfect luau greeting!
Aloha kakahiaka: (a-lo-ha kah-kah-hee-yah-kah)
Aloha 'auinalā: (a-loh-ha ah-wee-na-lah)
Aloha ahiahi: (a-loh-ha a-hee-yah-hee)
Mahalo: Pronounced (mah-hah-loh)
This means thank you. To express added gratitude, you can say mahalo nui loa (pronounced mah-hah-loh noo-ee). This is roughly the equivalent of ‘’thank you very much.’’
'A'ole pilikia: (ah-oh-leh pee-lee-kee-yah)
Means “no problem” and used as a form of “you’re welcome” in Hawaiian. A certain Disney representation of Hawaiian culture will be happy you learn this one!
This is a contender for the most well-known Hawaiian word after Aloha. A luau, or a traditional Hawaiian party/feast, is among the greatest modern representations of Hawaiian culture. A Hawaiian luau should be at the top of your activity list if you plan to visit any Hawaiian Islands.
A hui hou: (ah-hoo-wee-ho-oo-uu)
This phrase roughly translates to, ‘’until we meet again.” It is commonly used as ‘’see you soon.”
A 'o ia!: (ah-oy-yah)
This phrase is similar to ‘’there you have it’’ in English. It’s a great way to cheer on a friend doing something exciting or successful. An example could be catching a choice wave surfing or joining a hula.
E kala mai: (eh kah-lah mah-yee)
A phrase that roughly translates to “excuse me.” Bump into somebody at the grocery store or trip over somebody on the dance floor? This is a very traditional way to express “pardon me.”
The best way to practice your Hawaiian language is at an authentic Maui luau. That’s why we invite you to experience firsthand the Old Lāhainā Lūʻau. We offer the ultimate Maui-style entertainment and onolicious cuisine. We also pride ourselves on keeping a strong focus on Hawaiian history and culture.
At Old Lāhainā Lūʻau, our luaus are held daily during sunset hours. This makes for a stunning show, breathtaking photo opportunities, and food cooked to perfection in traditional imu pits. We welcome you to the next one! If you’d like more information, check out our information page here.