During our memorable Hawaii island-hopping adventure, we were thrilled to see how Hawaiian culture is still celebrated on a daily basis. Before our trip to Hawaii, we expected it to be rather commercially motivated but we were wrong. Hawaiian culture is still very much alive and that gives visitors to the islands the opportunity to travel deeper by finding out more about the Hawaiian language, the local rituals and fascinating spiritual world.
We intensively explored the Big Island, from the beaches to the waterfalls near Hilo and beyond, and found it to be the best Hawaiian island to experience that culture. There’s no better way to connect with locals than by showing an interest in their heritage. And since Hawaiians are very proud of their culture, making the effort to include some Hawaiian words and phrases in your conversations with locals really pays off.
We started integrating some of these words as soon as we arrived on Maui with the kids. First, at the West-Maui resort we were staying at and in the direct vicinity of Ka’anapali beach. Later during the Maui activities we engaged in and in the towns we visited. It sometimes enabled us to learn more about the people we came across. These personal connections and insights sure added an extra dimension to our Hawaiian family trip and made us love Hawaii even more.
“Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” is a travel quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that captures the importance of learning a language to connect with locals.
Before we dive into the Hawaiian words and their English translations, let’s have a look at how the Hawaiian language is organized and pronounced.
Quick facts about Hawaiian language
Here are some linguistic facts about Hawaii:
- Hawaii is the only US state to have two official languages: English and Hawaiian. A third language, Hawaii Creole English or Pidgin, is an informal language, originating from the communication between native Hawaiians, plantation owners and immigrant laborers. Hawaiian Pidgin is a diverse mix of Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Portuguese words.
- The Hawaiian alphabet consists of only 12 letters: the vowels A, E, I, O, U and the consonants H, K, L, M, N, P, W.
- All Hawaiian words end in a vowel because every consonant is to be followed by a vowel.
- There’s no “s” added to plural forms. The word luau, for example, is used for both the singular as well as for the plural form.
- Hawaiian language used to be oral only. The missionaries that came to Hawaii translated it into a written language so that foreigners could learn it and better interact with the Hawaiian people.
Pronunciation of Hawaiian words and phrases
Here are some pronunciation tips for Hawaiian words:
- Vowels are pronounced differently than in English: A as in lava, E as in day, I as in tree, O as in hop (but with a slightly British accent) and U as in zoo.
- The ‘okina (apostrophe) indicates a sound break
- The macron (straight bar) on the vowels indicates a long vowel.
- The W may sometimes be pronounced as a V but not necessarily.
- Tip: break Hawaiian words down in syllables for an easier pronunciation.
Hawaiian words and phrases for travelers
We’re sure you know at least one word for saying hello and goodbye in Hawaiian but there are so many other useful words that are just as easy to remember. We list several common Hawaiian words and meanings to enrich your trip to the Hawaiian islands. All words are divided into categories for your convenience.
Hawaiian greeting (these are often Hawaiian words for love)
Hello, goodbye, love
The meaning of Aloha actually entails more than just these few words. It’s a state of mind, a lifestyle, an energetic presence of harmony, affection, respect and kindness.
Aloha nui loa
A hui hou
E komo mai
Shaka (not pronounced)
Very much love, All my love
Until we meet again
Welcome, come in
Typical ‘hang loose’ hand gesture
Mahalo nui loa
‘A’ ole palikir
Thank you very much
You’re welcome, no problem
Grindz (Pidgin word)
Delicious, also a type of fish
Traditional Hawaiian dish, usually with cubed tuna
People in Hawaii
Hawaiian resident, regardless of racial background
Foreigner, caucasian foreigner
Hawaiian directions and guidelines
Windward (English word but often used)
Leeward (English word but often used)
Towards the ocean
Towards the mountain
Keep out, forbidden, no trespassing
Assistance, help, support
Free of charge
Balcony, porch, patio
Side facing the wind, prone to rain, lush
Side facing away from the wind, sunnier and drier
Other Hawaiian words and phrases
Aloha au ia ‘oe
Hawaiian feast, named after taro leaf
I love you
Hawaiian green sea turtle, often found basking in the sun on the black sand beaches of Maui and Big Island
Catch-all Pidgin word for when you can’t remember a specific word, whether it’s a place, person, thing or concept
Celebrations in Hawaii
Hau’oli La Hanau
Hau’oli Makahiki Hou
Happy New Year
Hawaiian tongue-twisters (long Hawaiian words)
Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau
State fish, triggerfish found in the coral reefs
National Hisoric Park, Place of Refuge on the Big Island of Hawaii
Hawaiian to English and English to Hawaiian translation tools
We can strongly recommend the Hawaiian Words – Translations and Dictionary app by Bassm Boles for your English to Hawaiian translations. The free version is limited but the packs cost just 1 USD each. It’s not a professional translation app but perfect for travelers like you and us. Only available in the Apple Store, though.
This user-friendly website is the best resource for translations from Hawaiian to English. Creating an account even enables you to make flashcards with the words of your choice.
Apart from these commercial apps, the Hawaiian Department of Business and Economic Development is also working on an official Hawaiian translation app. It won’t just offer Hawaiian to English translations but also translation into dozens of other languages. It’s not really geared towards tourists but rather towards the non-native English speaking communities on Hawaii so that important communication, about for example natural disasters, no longer gets lost in translation. But it might be just as accessible to tourists in the translation of Hawaiian words and phrases.
Which basic Hawaiian words will you learn before heading to Oahu, Maui, Kauai or the Big Island? Let us know in the comments (and tell us all about your Hawaii travel adventures while you’re at in). Have a great time in Hawaii!