Basic Hawaiian Phrases: 50 Essential Words to Learn

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Your big trip to Hawaii is just around the corner. You’ve been pouring over travel guides and planned out one incredible itinerary. From the bustling Waikiki Beach to the otherworldly Volcanoes National Park, this will be an adventure for the memory books. The only thing missing, discovering the best Hawaii phrases.

However, by learning some essential Hawaiian words, you can take a step even deeper into the humble culture of Hawaii. You’ll be amazed at the welcoming nature of Hawaiians; their warmth and care reflected just as much in the beauty of their language as their care for the environment.

As one of the critically endangered languages of the world, you’re not only helping spread the word, you’re also learning more about important traditions along the way. If you’re ready to explore Hawaii like a local, start by learning these best Hawaii phrases.

What language is spoken in Hawaii?

Hawaiian language
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Hawaiian, or ʻŌlelo Hawaii for its full name, is a beautiful language. It’s as lovely to listen to as Hawaii’s nature is to explore, with brilliant describing words and a fluidity rarely found in language. Hawaiian is also closely linked with Hawaii’s Polynesian roots. Words and traditions are tied together tightly, creating a proud language full of character.

Yet, Hawaiian nearly became extinct. In 1896, a law was created that required English to be the language used at schools. While Hawaiian was still allowed to be spoken in homes, children caught speaking Hawaiian on playgrounds and outside their homes were often punished. Luckily, before the language was completely wiped out, the Hawaiian renaissance in the 1970s started encouraging the use of Hawaiian once again. Today, the culture and language are taught throughout schools and are used on TV programs, radios, and throughout everyday life.

Besides ʻŌlelo Hawaii, English and Hawaiian Pidgin English are spoken throughout the islands. Hawaiian Pidgin is actually an English-based creole language, which originated in the sugar cane plantation by immigrants and native Hawaiians doing their best to communicate. In this article, we’ll focus on Hawaiian with a few Hawaiian Pidgin English words mixed in.

The basics of pronouncing Hawaiian words

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Until 1826, Hawaiian was predominantly only a spoken language. It wasn’t until the missionaries arrived, intending to teach the messages of the bible to the Hawaiian people, that it was transformed into a written language. As the missionaries created a language that was relatively straightforward and easy to learn, the written language spread quickly throughout the islands.

In total, there are 13 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet: A, E, I, O, U, H, K, L, M, N, P, W

The vowels are similar to Spanish and will be pronounced the same way (nearly) every time.

  • a: ah
  • e: eh
  • i: ee
  • o: oh
  • u: oo

The letters are pronounced exactly as they are in English, except for the ‘w.’ This is a tricky one, as the sound depends on where in the word the ‘w’ is. If you’re pronouncing Hawaii, with the ‘w’ in the middle of the word, it’ll sound like ‘hah-Vai-ee.’ However, if the ‘w’ appears at the beginning of a word, it’s often pronounced the same as an English ‘w.’

It’s also important to recognize that every vowel is pronounced in Hawaiian words. Long words can look intimidating, but by breaking them down, you’ll come to find just how easy it is to start picking up on different words. Let’s start learning some best Hawaii words and phrases!

The most common and important phrases in Hawaiian

best hawaii phrases - mahalo
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The most common and recognized word of Hawaiian is Aloha. Pronounced a-lo-ha, it actually means ‘love.’ By saying aloha, you’re giving your best wishes for a positive and respectful life.

  • Aloha (a-lo-ha) – Hawaiian greeting

You’ll hear aloha from the moment you get off the plane, so impress your friends and locals by adding on the time of day:

  • Aloha kakahiaka (a-lo-ha kah-kah-hee-yah-kah) – Good morning
  • Aloha ‘auinalā (a-lo-ha ah-wee-na-la) – Good afternoon
  • Aloha ahiahi (a-lo-ha a-hee-yah-hee) – Good evening

Other words you’ll want to have on hand for everyday use:

  • Mahalo (mah-hah-loh) – Thank you. Or, if you’re extra appreciative, use Mahalo nui loa (ma-ha-lo new-ee lo-ah) for thank you very much.
  • ‘A’ ole palikia (ah-oh-leh pee-lee-kee-yah) – You’re welcome / no problem. A typical response to mahalo.
  • A hui hou (ah-hoo-wee-ho-oo-uu) – Until we meet again. Very common to hear this phrase and is the same as ‘see you soon’ in English.
  • Howzit?, meaning how are you and pronounced exactly as it looks, this is a great example of Hawaiian Pidgin.
  • ‘Ono grinds (oh-no grinds) – Delicious food
  • A ‘o ia! (ah-oy-yah) – There you have it! (a way to cheer on friends with excitement)

Best Hawaii phrases to sound like a local

shaka hand sign hawaiian
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The following phrases are a mix of Hawaiian and Hawaiian Pidgin. They’re often used as slang and can be heard nearly everywhere. Do keep in mind that some locals may not appreciate tourists using their slang, so try and use it only when appropriate. Even so, it’s good to know what’s being said.

  • Da kine – The word to use when you can’t think of the word you want to use
  • Pau hana (pow hana) – Happy hour
  • Grindz – Refers to getting food at a restaurant or take-out
  • Haole (how lee) – Refers to a non-native or foreign person. Usually white or caucasian.
  • Shaka (sha-kah) – Slang in surf culture, a friendly and relaxed greeting or way to show your approval
  • Shoots – Slang for okay
  • Kanak Attack When you need a nap as you’ve eaten too much food
  • Chee-hoo – An outburst of excitement, when you finally catch that wave in Oahu!

Cultural Hawaiian words to know

hawaiian hula, best hawaii phrases
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As you’ve probably picked up by now, Hawaiian words are deeply rooted in their culture. Throughout your visit to Hawaii, understanding the meaning of the following words will allow you to enjoy cultural shows and sacred areas with more knowledge and respect.

  • Hula (who-la) – Traditional Hawaiian dance
  • Lū’au (loo-ah-oo) – Meaning taro plant, also refers to a traditional party or feast, usually accompanied with a hula
  • Lei (lay) – Necklace of flowers symbolizing peace and friendship
  • Kama’aina (ka-ma eye-na) – Someone born in Hawaii or someone who has lived in Hawaii for a long time
  • Kuleana (koo-lay-ah-nah) – Responsibility, usually in regards to the land, sea, and natural resources of the earth
  • Ohana (oh-hah-nah) – Family
  • Keiki (kay-kee) – Children

Best Hawaii phrases to help you get around, travel, and sightsee

Moana regional park
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While nearly everyone you run into will speak English, and you likely won’t run into any problems getting directions, it’s always handy to know a few words. Locals may mix in Hawaiian without even realizing it, so by having the following words memorized, you can look like an expert rather than a confused tourist.

  • Ma uka (mah-oo-kah) – Upland. Used when giving directions, your hotel is ma uka.
  • Ma kai (mah-kie-yee) – Seaward. Also used when giving directions and is the opposite of ma uka. 
  • Lua ( loo-ah) – Toilet, or if you’d like to ask where is the toilet, say Aia i hea i ka lua, which translates to ‘where is the pit’
  • Moana (moe-ah-nah) – Ocean
  • Pali (pah-lee) – Cliff
  • Holoholo (hoe-low-hoe-low) – To ride or walk around for pleasure

Best Hawaii phrases for food

hawaiin food phrases
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Food is an integral part of Hawaiian culture. Lū’aus are a prime example of this, which combines live music, dancing, and of course, lots and lots of traditional food. However, food always plays a large part in local’s daily life. It’s common to share food with neighbors and friends, and there is a strong pride in the ability to cook traditional dishes.

By learning the names of common Hawaiian food, you’ll not only navigate menus easier, but you’ll also have a deeper appreciation for the food that’s on your plate.

  • Poke (poh-keh) – Literally means ‘to cut crosswise into pieces.’ However, we’re referring to the diced raw fish you’ll find on nearly every menu. Usually made with tuna marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil.
  • Waina (wy-nah) – Wine. A must-know for all wine lovers, as Hawaiian waina has beautiful fruitiness to it due to Hawaii’s volcanic soil and mountainous inland terrain. They even have pineapple waina!
  • Malasada (mah-lah-sah-dah) – Portuguese donut, deep-fried and sugar-dusted. Yum.
  • Pupu (poo-poo) – Appetizer. Examples may include ahi poke, grilled pineapple, and coconut shrimp. Pupu can also mean a snack.
  • Kālua (kah-loo-ah) – Baked in an underground oven, or an imu (ee-moo) in Hawaiian. Usually, you’ll find it referring to kālua pig.
  • Poi (poy) – Cooked and pounded taro root that’s been thinned out with water and turned into a paste – usually eating simultaneously with salty foods like lomi lomi salmon, kalua pig, and salted fish.
  • Kau Kau (kaw-kaw) – To eat
  • Limu (lee-moo) – Seaweed

Common Hawaiian signs and their meanings

Hawaiian sign
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Many signs throughout Hawaii will be written in both English and Hawaiian. Either way, it’s still good to be able to recognize these common signs.

  • Wahine (vah-hee-neh) – Women. You’ll usually see this outside the women’s bathroom.
  • Kāne (kah-neh) – Men. You’ll usually see this outside the men’s bathroom.
  • Kapu (kah-poo) – Taboo. This is the Hawaiian version of keep out, and they usually mean it.
  • Opala (oh-pah-lah) – Trash can / rubbish bin
  • Heiau (hi-owe) – Hawaiian temple. If you see a sign for a Heiau, be sure to show respect by not walking on sacred lands, speaking loudly, or leaving rubbish behind.
  • E komo mai (eh ko-mo my) – Welcome. You’ll see this displayed on many store and restaurant fronts. It can also be used as a greeting when you arrive somewhere new.
  • Honu (hoh-noo) – Green sea turtle. As green sea turtles are protected in Hawaii under the Endangered Species Act, it’s important to leave space between you and the turtle and never touch or feed them.

10 Other Great Hawaiian Translation Resources

study Hawaiian online
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If you’d like to go a step further in your learning of the Hawaiian language, there are many great online resources. One of our favorites is the Hawaii Tourism Authority web page, with lots of information about the Hawaiian language and other interesting cultural information.

If you head here: Go Hawaii Language Guide, you’ll see the translation of common phrases and hear the correct pronunciation. 

Another great resource is Duolingo. You’ll have access to many different free lesson plans, and as the lessons are taught game-like, it’s a fun way to start picking up more knowledge of the Hawaiian language. Plus, as it’s downloadable as an app, you can play and learn while you’re waiting for a coffee!

If you’re willing to spend a little money for a proper online course, Mango Languages is your go-to. Costing $7.99 per month (USD), you’ll have access to a range of resources, including grammar notes, memory-building exercises, cultural notes, and more. You can learn at your own pace and use the tools that work well for you.

There you have it. We hope this article allows you to start picking up on the Hawaiian language and makes your Hawaiian vacation that extra bit special!

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