by on January 23, 2016

Hawai’i today is best known as the 50th U.S. state: an island paradise popular with tourists and famous for its warm climate and sandy beaches. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s The American Community Survey, approximately 75% of the Hawaiian population now speak only English at home; however, this island state also has a native language—Hawaiian (or ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i)—that continues to add to its unique linguistic and cultural heritage.

Hawaiian on the language family tree

Hawaiian is a member of the Austronesian language family: a group whose geographic boundaries stretch from Madagascar to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). This language family is one of the largest and most well-established on Earth; some of its more widely-spoken members include Javanese, Malay/Indonesian, and Tagalog.

Like any other large language family, the Austronesian family can be broken down into various branches and sub-branches—each of which contains an increasingly specific language or group of languages. Hawaiian, to put it simply, can be classified as belonging to the Polynesian sub-branch of the Oceanic sub-branch of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian family. In other words, just as English is considered a Germanic, and French a Romance language, Hawaiian is a Polynesian language and is most similar to other Polynesian languages such as Samoan, Tongan, Māori, and Tahitian.

Hawaiian loanwords into English

Although most English speakers may not realise it, several native Hawaiian words have actually made their way into the lexicon of casual English. Some of the most notable include:

Aloha – a word that literally means ‘love’ but that can also be used as ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’

Kahuna – In surfing culture, “big kahuna” is slang for a very skilled surfer. Originally, however, this is a Hawaiian word that means ‘doctor,’ ‘priest,’ or ‘sorcerer.’

Luau – A luau is a traditional Hawaiian feast, although its meaning is often extended in English usage to ‘party’ or something of the like.

Ohana – Meaning ‘family,’ this word was popularised by the movie Lilo & Stitch.

In addition, certain English words and phrases have made their way into Hawaiian and subsequently been adapted to better fit the phonological rules of that language. For example, the Hawaiian phrase Mele Kalikimaka (derived from “Merry Christmas”) has replaced the English /r/ sound with /l/: the closest phonetic approximant in Hawaiian. Similarly, it has inserted vowels in between the English consonant clusters since the rules of Hawaiian phonology do not permit consonant clusters (like ‘chr’ in “Christmas”) to occur.

Hawaiian-based pidgins and creoles

A “pidgin” is a grammatically-simplified type of language that lacks native speakers; rather, pidgins are created when two groups of people need to communicate but do not share a common language. A “creole”, on the other hand, has native speakers and results when the second-generation speakers of a pidgin develop it further and begin to use it as their first language. Hawaiian has historically been the basis for one pidgin language, and it continues to be a part of a creole language today.

Pidgin Hawaiian – Hawai’i’s status as a sovereign kingdom from 1810­–1893 corresponds roughly to the existence of Pidgin Hawaiian—a pidgin language that used Hawaiian as its superstrate (meaning that it had more in common with Hawaiian than with any other language and that Hawaiian served as the language’s lexifier, or primary contributor of vocabulary). It was spoken mainly by immigrants to Hawai’i from East and Southeast Asia. In the late 1800’s, however, the monarchy of Hawai’i was overthrown by English-speaking American forces—a shift in power that eventually led to the demise of Pidgin Hawaiian and to the development of Hawaiian Creole English.

Hawaiian Creole English – Also sometimes called Hawaiian Pidgin English or Hawaiian Pidgin (although these are technically misnomers), Hawaiian Creole English is unrelated to Pidgin Hawaiian and has English rather than Hawaiian as its superstrate. This creole language is spoken by more native Hawaiians today than the Hawaiian language; it also includes elements of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Puerto Rican Spanish—as speakers of these languages immigrated to Hawai’i in the 19th century to work in the sugar cane, pineapple, and whaling industries. Hawaiian’s most notable contribution to Hawaiian Creole English is lexical—the two languages have many words in common. Some examples of this are the Hawaiian words puka (‘hole’) and akamai (‘smart’ or ‘clever’)—both of which are common in Hawaiian Creole English. The falling intonation at the end of questions in Hawaiian Creole English is also a feature of Hawaiian, as well as of certain other Oceanic languages. English questions, of course, end with rising intonation by contrast.

Hawaiian Creole English has traditionally been thought of by some as simply a sub-standard dialect of English, but it is in fact considered by linguists to be a separate language entirely. The reason behind this distinction stems in part from the fact that Standard English and Hawaiian Creole English use two very different systems for expressing the tense, aspect, and mood of verbs. To illustrate this, here are two sentences in Standard English followed by their Hawaiian Creole English translations:

The cat is not in the house.

Da kaet no stei in da haus.


They painted his skin.

Dey wen pein hiz skin.

Revitalisation and preservation efforts

Hawaiian is often thought of as an endangered language due to its gradual replacement by Standard English and—to some extent—by Hawaiian Creole English as the primary languages now spoken in Hawai’i. Since the 1950’s, however, significant efforts have been made to revitalise and preserve the language for future generations. In 1984, for example, the first Hawaiian immersion preschool was founded by the Pūnana Leo (‘language nest’ or ‘nest of voices’) programme—an initiative that has since established several more such schools across the state of Hawai’i and successfully introduced thousands of children to the Hawaiian language. The state’s Board of Education has advanced the mission of the Pūnana Leo programme in recent years by strengthening its commitment to Hawaiian language instruction, and the University of Hawai’i now offers multiple degrees in the Hawaiian language and in Hawaiian Language and Culture Revitalisation.


“A Timeline of Revitalization.” ‘Aha Pūnana Leo. Web.

Hargrove, Ermile, Kent Sakoda, and Jeff Siegel. “Hawai’i Creole.” Language Varieties. University of Hawai’i Web.

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