Hawaiian Language History

The Hawaiian language (or ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i ) is one of the oldest languages in the world.  It is a Polynesian language, similar to Samoan and Tahitian.  It was first recorded and named in English, in 1778, by Captain James Cook, after the largest island, Hawai’i.  However, they spelled it “Ohwhyee”.

Missionaries later came in 1820 and created the Hawaiian alphabet, so they could translate their Bibles teachings.

After Hawaii was added as a territory to the United States, the Hawaiian language was banned from schools and from the government.  This caused a rapid decline in the usage of the language and nearly caused it to become extinct.

However, since 1949, the Hawaiian language is no longer a dying language, and has seen a resurgence.  The state of Hawaii now officially recognizes both Hawaiian and English as state languages.  Immersion schools began in the early 1980s and continue to help promote the language.

Captain James Cook

Hawaiian Language Basics

The Hawaiian alphabet consists of 13 letters: 5 vowels and 8 consonants, one of which is the okina ( ‘ )



  • a: pronounced “ah”
  • e: pronounced “ay”
  • i: pronounced “ee”
  • o: pronounced “oh”
  • u: pronounced “oo”
  • h
  • k
  • l
  • m
  • n
  • p
  • w
  • ‘ (this is the okina)
  • Every consonant is followed by a vowel, so every Hawaiian word ends in a vowel.
  • To describe singular nouns, use the articles, “ka” and “ke”.  “ke” comes before any noun beginning with “a”, “e”, “o”, or “k”, and “ka” comes before any other word.
  • To describe plural nouns, use the article “nā”.  For example, “nā honu” means “the turtles”.
  • If a “w” is preceded by a vowel, such as “aw”, “ew”, “ow”, the “w” is pronounced as a “v”, so “Hawaii” is pronounced “Ha-va-ee”

Hawaiian Language References