Hey there! 😊
The Hawaiian language is melodious, soft and soothing. Unfortunately, it is threatened by extinction, as are many endemic Hawaiian plant and animal species. As a tourist, you can make a difference! And it is really simple: learn the meaning and pronunciation of some of the most important words and phrases and use them while you're vacationing in Hawai'i.
Did you know there is free 1.5 hours online course about Hawai'i with an entire module dedicated to the Hawaiian language? Learn more here.
Listen to the podcast episode right here or read the transcript below
The Hawaiian Language sounds incredibly pleasant and if I had to describe how it feels listening to it I would say: it feels like cutting a block of soft butter or taking a warm, steamy, soothing bath after an exhausting day or like a nice long, warm hug. The words are drenched in meaning, symbolism, grace and unconditional love.
It expresses the Hawaiian people’s identity, culture and traditions and keeps memories alive. In this blog article, you’re going to read some of the most important words and phrases and their meanings.
I took all of these translations from the Hawaiian Dictionary by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert from 1986.
Here are 9 Hawaiian Words and Phrases that you should know about when travelling to Hawai’i.
Surely, this is not an exhaustive list and there are a thousand more words that could be added here or replacing another word. If you have any suggestions please add them to the comments! I'd be happy to hear which words are important to you!
Let’s start with “mahalo”. Mahalo means “thanks, gratitude; to thank.” but also stands for admiration, praise and appreciation. When visiting Hawai’i, you can use mahalo to say thank you in any situation you receive something (a gift, service, an item, your food at a restaurant, you name it!).
The next word often used in Hawaiian is “'ohana”. Translated into English, 'ohana means family, relative of kin group or as an adjective it means related. However, 'ohana includes all the people you love and care about, regardless of blood relationship. In the Disney movie “Lilo& Stitch” Stitch learns from Lilo what 'ohana means when telling him about the accident that killed her parents. And he later consoles Lilo’s sister Nani by saying: “ 'Ohana. 'Ohana means family. And family means nobody gets left behind. Or forgotten.”
The next word that is used often, is “kama'āina”. The word is set up of two smaller words: First, kama which means child, and second “ 'āina” which means land. Kama’'āina means child of the land. In today’s language, kama’'āina referes to all Hawaiian residents, regardless of their ancestry.
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When referring to a person of native Hawaiian descent, the word kanaka is used. In a broader sense it means human being, man, person or individual.
When you go to Hawai’i, you are a haole. Translated it means a white person, American, Englishman or of Caucasian descent, a foreigner or is used to describe something that was introduced.
Mana describes a supernatural or divine power, a miraculous power. It is referred to energy, not physical force and is assigned to object, plants, animals, people, bones and other things. It is believed that mana is inside of every person or object. Even some places are ascribed mana power, for example the rim of Haleakalā crater and the entire island of Moloka’i.
Mālama means “to take care of, tend, attend, care for, preserve, protect, beware, save, maintain”.
There are other expressions commonly found in Hawai’i such as
- Mālama 'āina – which means: “Respect the land.”
- Mālama i ke kai – which means: “Respect the ocean.”
- Mālama i ke kai, a mālama ke kai ia 'oe! – which means: ”Care for the ocean and the ocean will care for you!”
It is a beautiful word which represents the fundamental quality in Hawaiian culture to care for each other and extends this caring attitude towards the land, ocean and animals.
8. Ua Mau, ke Ea o ka 'Āina i ka Pono
The first phrase you will learn is “Ua Mau, ke Ea o ka 'Āina i ka Pono” and was coined by Kamehameha III in 1843. It later became the motto of the State of Hawai’i. The translation of some Hawaiian phrases is not that easy to be done, as the words can have many different meanings depending on the context (oftentimes oral context), which is hard to decipher for people who did not live with the Hawaiian. However, a translation commonly used for this phrase is: “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”
In the beautiful song “Hawai’i 78” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole you can hear the phrase being sung. The song is about the changes that have been made to Hawai’i after 1778, the year in which Captain James Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands. Maybe you know at least two other songs by him as well “Over the rainbow” and “What a wonderful world”.
You'll love this, too:
And finally, the las word you’ll learn about in this lesson is the world-famous “aloha”. Aloha has plenty of meanings which go well beyond “hello” and “goodbye”.
In the Hawaiian Dictionary by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert. from 1986, aloha is translated to English as follows:
Love, affection, compassion, mercy, sympathy, grace; greeting; to love, be fond of; to show kindness; Hello! Goodbye! Farewell!
There actually is a law in Hawai’i which essentially says that you have to treat yourself and others with respect and love. It is called the “Aloha Spirit Law” and is found in chapter 5, sections §5-7.5 in the Hawai’i Revised Statutes” since 1986.
I’m just going to paste it here, as summarizing it would not do it justice.
Here we go:
“ "Aloha Spirit" is the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others. In the contemplation and presence of the life force, "Aloha", the following unuhi laula loa may be used:
"Akahai", meaning kindness to be expressed with tenderness;
"Lokahi", meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony;
"Oluolu", meaning agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness;
"Haahaa", meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty;
"Ahonui", meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance
These are traits of character that express the charm, warmth and sincerity of Hawai’i's people. It was the working philosophy of native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawai’i. "Aloha" is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation. "Aloha" means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return. "Aloha" is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence. "Aloha" means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.”
You don’t have to see the Hawaiian Spirit law as a mandate, but rather as a way of living. We all should be striving to show and live Aloha in everything we do. Whether it is at home, at work, while on the road. Not only when we are physically in Hawai’i, but also when we return home from our vacation. Showing respect and love for every person: the people we love as well as strangers, the homeless and even people we don’t like.
Imagine if the entire world lived by the Aloha Spirit law. Wouldn’t it be a much better, more friendly, respecting world? A world in which everybody took care of each other, without expecting anything in return.
During my personal Hawai'i stay, I experienced the Aloha Spirit first hand. Here's the story:
One day, while I visited Kaua’i, I went to the Northshore and spent the day in Hanalei. To get there, I took the bus and also planned to take the bus back to my hostel in Kapa’a. When taking the bus, you have to pay a fare of 2$ (I believe) in cash and drop it into a little box by the driver. You have to pay the exact amount, as there is no change. However, before hopping on the bus after I spent the day in Hanalei, I noticed I only had a larger bill in my pocket and could not pay the exact amount required. I walked up to a clothing store nearby and asked a young woman working there if she could help me out and make my dollar bill change, so I could take the bus home. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any smaller bills in her registry. Then she took out her wallet, said “Here, take these 2$ out of my own wallet.” I was stunned. She made me feel so warm and supported. This gesture was incredibly kind and loving. She just gave a stranger money from her own wallet to catch the bus, without hesitating. I thanked her a thousand times and left the store.
But this is not the end of the story.
The bus was quite late, but I didn’t mind, as I was on vacation and I knew that time ticks differently on islands. Plus, on Hawai’i, you learn very fast to just be happy and content and enjoy the moment. Eventually, the bus arrived, and I hopped on. I paid the fare, then the driver stopped me from walking on. He asked me where I was headed, and I replied. Then he said: “This is not a public anymore. Today, the busses run on a different schedule. The last bus to Kapa’a left a few hours ago. I am on my way to pick up a football team. But I will take you with me and you can exit in Kapa’a.” Again, I was stunned. I did not believe what happened to me in the last 2 hours. First, a kind woman gave me money and now, this friendly bus driver stopped the bus at the stop sign, where a young woman was standing with her backpack, waiting for her bus home. It was magic. I experienced the Aloha Spirit in person.
To be truthful, these weren’t the only times I was supported by the local community.
After the end of a lū’au I attended, all the people poured towards the exit and left the premises either by bus or cars. Myself, I came per bike. The organizers of the lū'au noticed that I walked up to my bike and realized that I would ride the bike back home. They said to me “Are you here by bike? It is dark already, and we don’t want you to drive on the dark streets all by yourself. We’ve arranged that this driver (and he was pointing to a friendly looking Hawaiian man) will take you to Kapa’a, and your bike will be put into the trunk. Come on.” As you can imagine, I was, again, enthralled and deeply grateful. Needless to say that I did not have to pay anything in return.
There are many more magical, wonderful things that happened to me and all had to do with other people and their love, but that’s it for story time. 😊
You can see: In Hawai’i, people take care of each other. Of family, friends or strangers. Because all are 'ohana.
I hope that you, too, will experience aloha during your stay. And more so I hope that you will give. Give more than you take. Give WAY more than you take. Give attention, give respect, give appreciation for their culture, people, animals, plants and land. Give ALOHA as often and as much as you can. And at the end of your stay, take that feeling home with you and cherish it. Put up a sign in your home to remember to live ALOHA.
I'll see you there! 😊
Be kind and love nature,
About the author
Daniela is convinced that by gaining deep insights into planet Earth and travel destinations you’ll create meaningful, grounding and memorable life and travel experiences. She explains fundamental geological processes that form and shape landscapes and combines these insights with philosophical and philanthropical views in her online courses, articles, podcast and newsletter. She holds two bachelor's degrees in geosciences (B.Sc.) and business administration with tourism (B.A.). She is the owner and founder of EarthyMe, EarthyUniversity and the Science of Travel blog and podcast and the STORIES OF EARTH newsletter.
Image credit: Kalaupapa and North Pali of Molokai, photo by Phillip Ziegler at Pixabay