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Hawaii conjures images of beautiful beaches, lush forests, and a laid-back island lifestyle. But beyond the postcard-perfect scenes, Hawaii has a rich culture and history. An important part of that culture is the Hawaiian language. So if you’re visiting Hawaii, you may be wondering: how do Hawaiians say Hawaii?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: in the Hawaiian language, the state is called Hawaiʻi, pronounced “hah-VY-ee.”

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll dive into the history and pronunciation of the Hawaiian language, examine how the state came to be called “Hawaii,” and provide tips for visitors on showing respect by using proper Hawaiian terminology.

The History and Revival of the Hawaiian Language

Origins of the Language

The Hawaiian language, known as ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, is an Austronesian language that originated from the Polynesian settlers who arrived in the Hawaiian Islands around 1,500 years ago. These early settlers brought with them their unique language and culture, which became the foundation of the Hawaiian civilization. The language was primarily an oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation through storytelling, chants, and songs.

Suppression During Colonization

During the 19th century, the Hawaiian Islands were colonized by Western powers, particularly the United States. As a result of colonization, the Hawaiian language faced suppression and decline. Western influence led to the implementation of English as the primary language of education and governance, causing a decline in the usage and teaching of the Hawaiian language. Schools actively discouraged the use of Hawaiian, and speaking the language was often seen as a sign of backwardness.

This suppression resulted in a drastic decline in the number of native Hawaiian speakers. By the early 20th century, the Hawaiian language was on the verge of extinction, with only a few elderly native speakers remaining.

Cultural Renaissance and Language Revival

In the latter half of the 20th century, there was a significant cultural renaissance in Hawaii, driven by a growing awareness and pride in Hawaiian heritage. This resurgence led to a renewed interest in the Hawaiian language and a push for its revitalization.

Efforts were made to revive the language through the establishment of Hawaiian language immersion schools, where students are taught all subjects in Hawaiian. These schools have played a crucial role in revitalizing the language and ensuring its transmission to younger generations. Today, the number of Hawaiian language speakers is steadily increasing, and there is a growing recognition of the importance of preserving and promoting the language.

The revival of the Hawaiian language has been supported by various organizations and initiatives, such as the ʻAha Pūnana Leo and the Hawaiian Language College at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. These organizations provide resources, materials, and support for individuals interested in learning and teaching the Hawaiian language.

The revitalization of the Hawaiian language is not only important for preserving the cultural heritage of the Hawaiian people but also for reclaiming their identity and strengthening their sense of pride and belonging. It serves as a powerful reminder of the resilience and determination of the Hawaiian people to preserve their language and culture in the face of historical challenges.

For more information on the Hawaiian language and its revival, you can visit the official website of the Hawaiian Language College at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo:

Pronunciation of Hawaiʻi

Vowels and Consonants

When it comes to pronouncing “Hawaiʻi,” one of the first things to note is the unique ʻokina (glottal stop) symbol, represented by the ʻokina (a backwards apostrophe). This symbol indicates a brief pause in speech. In the case of “Hawaiʻi,” the ʻokina is placed between the two “i” vowels, creating a distinct sound. It is important to include the ʻokina when saying the name of the state or any other Hawaiian word.

In addition to the ʻokina, Hawaiians have a distinct way of pronouncing vowels and consonants. For instance, the “a” is pronounced like the “a” in “father,” while the “i” is pronounced like the “ee” in “see.” The “ʻi” is pronounced as a combination of the “ee” and “ih” sounds. Consonants are usually pronounced in a similar manner to English, with a few exceptions. For example, the letter “w” is pronounced as a “v” sound, and the letter “k” is pronounced as a softer “k” sound.

Stress and Elision

The stress in Hawaiian words generally falls on the second-to-last syllable. So, in the case of “Hawaiʻi,” the stress is on the “i.” However, it’s important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, as stress patterns can vary depending on the specific word.

Elision is another aspect of Hawaiian pronunciation to be aware of. Elision occurs when certain sounds or syllables are omitted or merged together in speech. In Hawaiian, elision often happens with vowel sounds. For example, the word “Hawaiʻi” is sometimes pronounced as “Hawai” in casual conversation, with the final “i” being elided. It’s important to listen to native speakers and pay attention to their pronunciation to truly grasp the intricacies of Hawaiian language and culture.

Other Common Hawaiian Words and Phrases

Aside from “Hawaiʻi,” there are several other common Hawaiian words and phrases that are worth knowing. Here are a few examples:

  • Aloha: This popular Hawaiian word is used as a greeting, farewell, and expression of love and affection.
  • Mahalo: Meaning “thank you,” this word is an essential part of the Hawaiian vocabulary.
  • Pau hana: This phrase is used to refer to the end of the workday or the completion of a task.
  • Hale: Translating to “house” or “home,” this word is commonly used in Hawaiian place names.

Exploring the pronunciation and meanings of these words can provide a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Hawaiian culture and language.

The Origin of “Hawaii”

Have you ever wondered how Hawaiians refer to their own beloved state? Well, the answer may surprise you. The name “Hawaii” actually originates from the Polynesian language, specifically the Hawaiian language. It is a word that holds great cultural significance and is deeply rooted in the history and identity of the Hawaiian people.

Captain Cook and Early Western Contact

The first recorded contact between Western explorers and the Hawaiian Islands was made by Captain James Cook in 1778. When Cook and his crew arrived in Hawaii, they encountered the native people who referred to their homeland as “Hawaii.” Cook and his crew documented this name and it gradually became the standard English term for the islands.

However, it is important to note that the native Hawaiians did not have a written language prior to Western contact. The name “Hawaii” was passed down through oral tradition and was likely pronounced differently by the native people.

Adoption by the United States

After the annexation of Hawaii by the United States in 1898, the name “Hawaii” became even more widely used and recognized. As the islands became a U.S. territory and later a state, the name “Hawaii” was officially adopted and used in official documents and communications.

Today, “Hawaii” is the name most commonly used by both residents and visitors alike when referring to the state. It has become ingrained in popular culture and is recognized worldwide as a tropical paradise.

The Continued Use of “Hawaii”

Despite the historical and cultural significance of the name “Hawaii,” it is worth noting that the native Hawaiian language is still very much alive and spoken by many today. In the Hawaiian language, the state is referred to as “Hawai’i,” with an ‘okina (glottal stop) between the two ‘i’s.

While the English name “Hawaii” is widely used, there has been a growing movement to honor and preserve the Hawaiian language by using the native name “Hawai’i” whenever possible. This is seen in the official Hawaiian state motto, “Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka ‘Āina I Ka Pono,” which translates to “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”

So, the next time you visit the beautiful islands of Hawaii, remember the rich history and cultural significance behind the name. Whether you say “Hawaii” or “Hawai’i,” one thing is for certain – you are in for an incredible experience in paradise!

Showing Respect by Using Proper Hawaiian

When it comes to pronouncing “Hawaii,” it’s important to understand and respect the Hawaiian language. Native Hawaiians pronounce the word “Hawaii” as “Hawaiʻi” (huh-WAH-ee), with a glottal stop represented by the ʻokina symbol. This symbol indicates a brief pause between the two syllables, giving the word its unique sound. By using the proper Hawaiian pronunciation, you not only show respect for the culture and language but also contribute to preserving and honoring the rich heritage of the Hawaiian people.

Using “Hawaiʻi” vs “Hawaii”

While “Hawaii” is the anglicized version of the word, using “Hawaiʻi” in your speech and writing demonstrates a genuine effort to embrace the local culture. It shows that you recognize and value the significance of the Hawaiian language. Incorporating the ʻokina symbol may take some practice, but it is a small yet meaningful step towards acknowledging and appreciating the indigenous roots of the Hawaiian Islands.

Other Efforts to Honor Hawaiian

Respecting the Hawaiian language goes beyond correctly pronouncing “Hawaiʻi.” It involves adopting other aspects of the language and culture as well. For instance, using Hawaiian words and phrases in everyday conversation, such as “aloha” (hello/goodbye) or “mahalo” (thank you), can help create a more inclusive and culturally aware environment. Additionally, supporting local businesses that prioritize Hawaiian language and culture, and participating in traditional ceremonies and events, are great ways to show your respect and appreciation.

Overcoming Common Mistakes and Mispronunciations

It’s common for non-native speakers to struggle with pronouncing Hawaiian words, but don’t let that discourage you from making an effort. Learning the basic pronunciation rules and practicing with native speakers or language resources can help you overcome these challenges. Some common mispronunciations include emphasizing the wrong syllable or omitting the glottal stop. Remember, it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you approach the language with humility and a genuine desire to learn and improve.

To further enhance your understanding of Hawaiian pronunciation, you can explore online language resources like or These platforms offer pronunciation guides, audio recordings, and interactive lessons to help you develop a deeper appreciation for the Hawaiian language.


The Hawaiian language holds an important place in native Hawaiian culture. By learning about its history and proper pronunciation, visitors can show their respect. Using “Hawaiʻi” rather than “Hawaii” is one way to recognize the rightful name of the islands in their original language. As Hawaiian continues to undergo a revival, making an effort to appreciate its roots is hugely meaningful. The islands’ natural wonders may lure travelers, but the richness of Hawaiian heritage is what makes Hawaii a truly special destination.

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