Home » A Hawaiian phrasebook: 11 words that aren’t ‘aloha’

A Hawaiian phrasebook: 11 words that aren’t ‘aloha’

written by James Shackell March 1, 2015

The Hawaiian language is actually pretty cool. It was only written down in the early 19th century when missionaries tried to capture the native dialect on paper. And until the USA annexed Hawaii in 1899, Hawaiian thrived in schools, newspapers and novels.

After America took over, the language went into decline (as well as being officially banned in many cases), and by the 1980s there were only about 2,000 native speakers were left.

Hawaiian has five vowels (just like us) but only seven consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p and w), and they make up the entire Hawaiian alphabet. Every consonant has to be followed by a vowel, which means all Hawaiian words end in a vowel. Sounds simple right? Well it can quickly get complicated. Just ask the island’s native fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a (yep, really).

So if you’re planning your Hawaiian island getaway, and you want to impress a few locals along the way, here are a few handy phrases (that aren’t aloha).

  1. Mahalo – thank you. Some people think this means ‘trash’ as it’s written on most rubbish bins.
  2. Kōkua – help or support. Combine with ‘mahalo’ (as in ‘Mahalo for your kōkua’) and you’ve got yourself a useful little sentence.
  3. Mauka & makai – two of the most common directions given on the islands. Mauka means towards the mountains, Makai towards the sea.
  4. Poke – Pronounced POH-keh, this is a good one to order if you get sick of all-day pancakes. It’s cubes of raw fish (usually tuna) served on rice with onion.
  5. Pono – fair or proper. As in, ‘The judge’s decision was pono’.
  6. Vog – a portmanteau of volcanic smog. Usually associated with the active volcanoes on Big Island.
  7. Honu – green sea turtle. Just remember these are endangered in Hawaii, and touching one on the beach is a huge no-no.
  8. ʻOhana – technically family, but it’s also used as a catch-all to express love and commitment in general.
  9. Da kine – possibly our favourite Hawaiian phrase. It means something approaching ‘whatchamacallit’.
  10. Pau – Done or finished. Usually used in conjunction with happy hour.
  11. Shaka – a hand gesture where the thumb and pinkie finger are extended from a closed fist. Usually used as a thank you or to express gratitude or friendship.

Want to practise your Hawaiian skills in person? Check out our top Hawaiian adventures here

Image c/o Floyd Manzano, Flickr

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