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What to expect from Hawaiian

I am super excited that the Hawaiian course has come out and I hope it expands into a full-fledged course from these humble beginnings, however in the meantime, he's a few cool features found in Hawaiian which aspiring learners should probably be aware of (note: I am not a Hawaiian speaker, this is from my own research which I have conducted in anticipation of the course).

1) A Geographical Direction System - in English we have the option between cardinal direction (North, East, etc.) and egocentric direction (to sb.'s right/left). In Hawaiian the primary directional system used is geographic, meaning it is relative to geographic features. 'Mauka' means "towards the mountains", where as 'Makai' means "towards the ocean". So if you were giving someone directions, you would use these terms for reference.

2) Different word order - Hawaiian has VSO order, like Irish

3) Tiny phoneme inventory - Hawaiian has 13 phonemes (a phoneme is a basic unit of sound needed to distinguish between two meanings in a language), with only 5 vowels and 8 consonants. Only Rotokas (Papua New Guinea) and Pirahã (Amazon basin) have fewer phonemes than this. Some common sounds which Hawaiian lacks are hissy fricatives (except 'h') and voiced consonants. Despite its tiny phoneme inventory, Hawaiian does have one sound which can't be found in English: the 'okina, a glottal stop like in 'uh-oh'.

4) Super simple syllable structure - Hawaiian has the simplest syllable structure found in the world's languages - (C)V. This means that syllables have no coda (consonant after the vowel), and can have no more than one consonant preceding the vowel.

As a result of its tiny phoneme inventory and simple syllable structure, Hawaiian has to be pretty creative with loan words. 'Mele Kalikimaka', believe it or not, is a direct loan from English meaning 'Merry Christmas'. Because Hawaiian does not allow two consonants next to each other, an 'a' is inserted between the 'k' and 'r' as well as an 'i' between the 's' and 'm', and because the sounds 'r' and 's' do not exist in Hawaiian, they are replaced with the closest sounds which do ('k' and 'l' respectively).

5) Free Variation - because of its minuscule phoneme inventory, Hawaiian can get by with a lot of free variation, this means that a specific phoneme can be pronounced many different ways without any change in meaning. Hawai'i, for instance, can be pronounced "Hawai'i", "Havai'i", "Hava'i" or "Hawa'i".

6) Inalienable Possession - Hawaiian has 2 words corresponding to the English preposition 'of': 'a' and 'o'. The first is 'alienable' and the latter is 'inalienable' and are used to distinguish between things that belong to the noun and things that are innately part of it. Example:

  • nā iwi a Pua = Pua's bones (e.g. the chicken bones he is eating)

  • nā iwi o Pua = Pua's bones (his own bones inside his own body)

These two prepositions can be used to make other distinctions such as:

  • ka lei a Pua = Pua's lei (which he intends to sell)

  • ka lei o Pua = Pua's lei (which he wears himself)

7) Three Imperatives - in most European languages you learn the Imperative grammatical mood, used to give orders or to encourage/discourage someone from doing something. In Hawaiian, the 'e' is used to mark the imperative where as 'mai' is used for the separate Negative Imperative (corresponding to 'Don't do x'). Hawaiian also has a Hortative mood (corresponding to the English 'Let's do x').

8) Dual - like Arabic and Slovenian, Hawaiian makes a distinction between singular, plural and dual (2 things).

9) Very little inflection - Hawaiian is an isolating language, similarly to Chinese, meaning that words don't inflect (change) much. Tense, number, gender, etc... have to be expressed with the use of adverbs and other helper words, as very little is baked into the grammar.

Hawaiian is a tad bit more inflectional than Chinese however, as is demonstrated by 'wahine = woman' vs. 'wāhine = women'.

I hope you all found this helpful!

Good luck!

October 5, 2018



Wow! thanks very much for the info, especially about the geographical directional system, I've lived in Hawaii my whole life, but I guess I never realized that they don't have words for left or right. Looking at this, I also realized that Makai I'm guessing is made up of towards (idk what the word is) and water (wai), and Mauka is made of towards and mountain (mauna).


Yes!! What an amazing language feature.

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Great information. that should be helpful to many! However, regarding your #2 and 9:

*The language is not always in VSO order- the grammar structure of Hawaiian doesn't translate easily to a standard format. It's Po'o-piko-'awe, (head, belly/center, "tentacle"-like thing) and it refers to the fact that the important words come first in a sentence. In some sentences, that's the verb ("Hele au"- I am going). In others, it's an adjective ("Nani ke ka'a" - the car is pretty) or a situational marker ("Aia ke keiki ma ke kula"- the child is at the school). Many sentences in Hawaiian don't even have what English speakers would consider a verb. So learners are often taught types of sentence structure, which depend on the meaning to be conveyed.

*There actually is a past tense marker- "ua". Placed before a verb, that denotes past tense. "Hele au"- I go. "Ua hele au" - I went.

I would also add (for clarity) that syllables in Hawaiian do not have to be CV- many are just V/VV. But the point is good that you will never see a word ending in a consonant, and you will never have two consonants next to one another (and an 'okina is a consonant, so that holds true for words with an 'okina). But you can have entire words (very long ones, at that) made up of only vowels.

Oh, and I'm not so sure I agree with your free-form contention. I have never heard anyone call Hawai'i "Hava'i/Hawa'i." Most of the speakers I know would contend that you pronounce every sound in a word. However, when sounds blend, they may sound a little different, just like with any language, and you may not hear every sound.. And the w can be pronounced /v/ or /w/- although that tends to be largely regional and also dependent on the specific word being spoken.


I can't think of a language which doesn't sometimes deviate from its standard word order (like questions in English), VSO is just the predominant word order. Almost Hawaiian seems to use adjectives as verbs like many other Austronesian languages so it's not incorrect to suggest that the sentence "Nani ke ka'a" still conforms to the word order VSO (although there is no object).

As for 'CV', that's just a standard way of denoting syllable patterns in world languages. It refers only to the most complicated possible pattern (so English is a CCCVCCCC (or C3VC4 for short) language, so it goes without saying that V syllables are possible in a CV language.

With regard to the past tense marker, that fact did seem a little dubious when I came across it, I've checked again and what they meant was that Hawaiian has no inflectional past tense, which makes sense seeing as it has very little inflection altogether. I'll adjust my post accordingly.

As for your last point, please consult the source which was this video by NativLang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfbceGBSSrY

Thanks for taking the time to read through, if there's anything else you would add seeing as you've clearly had more exposure to the language then do tell!

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I understand your point about V-S-O; I'm not a trained linguist and too many examples of non-verb-first sentences came to mind. Although I don't have much formal linguistic training, I am fluent in Hawaiian, so my comments come from my experience. Hawaiian is not typically taught as having any standard structure; that's considered somewhat of an outsider view. However, it's not something that translate easily, so I can see simplifying in a way that makes more sense for those unfamiliar with the language structure.

Hmm... even in that video by NativLang, I don't hear "Hawa'i" or "Hava'i"- I hear all the sounds (just a very shortened "I" sound). Hava'i would sound like "hah-vah-ee" and the sound I'm hearing on the video clearly has a rising "ee" at the end of the ah, short though it is. And the singing example- people do that all the time in any language (draw out some sounds to fit the music). I already commented on the /v/ /w/ differences.

Also similar to my experience with other languages, sometimes the vowels can sound a little different depending on the rest of the word. For example, "e" is /ay/, but in the middle of words, it sometimes sounds more like /eh/. That one drives me nuts, because it means people new to the Hawaiian language- who know just enough about the sounds but don't have a lot of experience with Hawaiian speakers- mispronounce my first name something fierce ;)

Something else that came to mind-- regarding the "ae/ai" sounds, which can be hard for some to discern. They don't sound the same, although many new to the language tend to say them the same. "Yes" ('ae= ah-ay blended together) and "eat" ('ai= ah-ee blended together) can be hard to distinguish to new listeners


Thanks for all this information! A lot of what you're describing I would call 'allophony' meaning that set rules determine how a sound is pronounced in certain situations. For instance in English the 's' plural suffix is pronounced 's' after unvoiced sounds (e.g. cats), but 'z' after voiced sounds (e.g. pads). Actual native speakers don't really notice any difference until it is pointed out to them because these rules are ingrained in the grammar of the language which one acquires as a toddler.

As far as I can tell with /w/ vs. /v/, the letter 'w' is pronounced /w/ after an /o/ or /u/, and /v/ after an /i/ or /e/. These are instances of allophony. After an /a/ however, it can be pronounced either way (this by no means suggests that there may not be preferences with certain words). That is an example of free variation.

Languages generally aren't taught as having structure because it is often more complicated to learn the rules of sentence structure by having them outlined then learning them as you along, however all languages do have it. I've done a little more research and here are some of the instances where VSO word order doesn't apply (hopefully you'll be able to recognise the patterns in your own speech, if not then I've probably made a mistake):

When the sentence has a negative mood and the subject is a pronoun, word order is SVO:

  • 'a'ole 'o ia e puka ana = He won't graduate ('a'ole is a negator, 'o ia = he, e marks the future tense, puka ana = graduate)

I've also noticed that sentences which translate as 'x is y' sometimes seem to contradict the VSO word order. Now I'm purely guessing here however I would predict that when the sentence means 'x = y', it doesn't really matter which way around the 'x' and the 'y' are. (again, correct me if I'm wrong)

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I agree with the sentences you've pointed out for not following VSO. Also- "e --- ana" actually marks the future tense, so in that sentence "graduate" is just "puka." "ke---nei" marks the present tense (words that you would normally put with "ing" in English. "Ke 'ai nei wau" - I'm eating; "'Ai au"- I eat. (Au and Wau are interchangeable).

I'd also add that (ime) it's more common to have the /v/ sound after /a/ as well.

You are also correct on the x=y sentences-- they can follow the commutative property ;), although I think it's more common to say them a certain way and more awkward to say them another way.

For adults learning the Hawaiian language in, say, college, they do teach it by going over each type of sentence structure. Each group of sentence structures has a name. Children learning in, say, a Hawaiian Immersion classroom learn by being immersed, without the formal structure being taught.


That clarifies a lot, thanks!


Very interesting and good to know but I couldn’t help noticing you forgot the i in “Aia ke keiki...”

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Thanks for pointing out my typo. It's from my computer constantly changing Hawaiian to English (autocorrect) and me having to go back and make corrections. Just missed that one!


i like to learn languages and you helped btw i gave you lingot


Thanks so much for the additional info on Hawaiian, AtomClark! This is fascinating! I've almost finished the course (it gets less repetitive as it goes on), so the additional info inspires me to study more on my own, and I'm also looking forward to it's expansion.


Modern pronunciation has few phonemes. The language used to have a bit more (ie: "why-tee-tee" for "waikiki) with some sounds being freely interchanged by different speaker or even the same speaker (like t, r and b for k, l and p). There is still a little of that ("why" vs. "vhy" for "wai") but most modern speakers now pronounce the words like they are spelled (with a little bit more "t"s in the niihau and kauai dialect).


The variations you are talking about are called allophones and the allophones are still considered one phoneme. So t and k are considered one phoneme in Hawaiian. And p and b are considered one phoneme in Hawaiian. The number of phonemes hasn't changed, but the number of allophones does seem to be decreasing.


I like to try new languages as they come into beta, I did some of the lessons and found them a little repetitive. However, it's always good to see smaller languages made available and the course will improve with time.


There are increasing numbers of Hawaiian immersion schools where students are learning only in Hawaiian. It is wonderful to hear them using Hawaiian out side of class too.


Thanks for this! Where did you find all this out?


Parlty researching the language and its grammar on Wikipedia, partly checking the World Atlas of Language Structures.

WALS is quite hard-hitting and requires some background knowledge of linguistics but it is a helpful tool to learn about features found in world languages.


I really like WALS too :)


It is amazing that this language is being revived


The absence of the 'r' sound is my favorite feature of Hawaiian :)


Don't tell King Runariho!


thanks for the hard work in wrieing this


Thank you so much!! One tiny correction though -- I think you meant Slovene has dual, not Serbo-Croatian. :)


I know Slovene does but I was under the impression Serbo-Croatian did too. Do correct me if I'm wrong.


I could also be wrong, but from my understanding, Serbo-Croatian's number system works the same way as Russian's, i.e. using singular genitive for 2-4 and plural for 5+, which some consider to technically be a third grammatical number but which is far from a "true" dual like that in Slovene.


Yep, that sounds right, I'll correct it now.


Also, the constraint on syllable structure is more correctly written (C)V. CV would mean that the onset is obligatory, which it is totally not in Hawaiian. And counting tons of complex nuclei (which can be shown tautosyllabic), you get (C)V(V).


I'll change it to (C)V to help with clarity, however (C)V(V) would just lead to confusion, I think its clear that V can include diphthongs and long vowels.

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