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The ukulele is synonymous with Hawaiian culture and music. Its sweet, cheerful sound immediately transports listeners to sunny Hawaiian beaches. But for those learning to play the uke, properly pronouncing its Hawaiian name can be intimidating.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: the Hawaiian pronunciation of ukulele sounds like “OO-koo-leh-leh”. The emphasis is on the first and third syllables, with the ‘U’ sounding more like ‘OO’.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to correctly pronounce ‘ukulele’ in Hawaiian, including:

– The origins and meaning behind the word ‘ukulele’ in Hawaiian

– A breakdown of the word into syllables with proper vowel sounds

– Audio clips with native Hawaiian speakers pronouncing ‘ukulele’

– Tips for practicing the pronunciation yourself

Tracing the Origins and Meaning of ‘Ukulele’

The Literal Translation and Parts of the Word

The word ‘ukulele’ comes from the Hawaiian language and is made up of two parts. ‘Uku’ means ‘flea’ and ‘lele’ means ‘to jump’. So quite literally, ukulele means ‘jumping fleas’. This odd name likely comes from the quick finger movements required to play the small guitar-like instrument.

The small size of the ukulele also led to the comparison with jumping fleas.

According to, an authoritative website on Hawaiian culture, there are a few myths about the origins of the name ‘ukulele’. One story says it comes from Honolulu around 1879 when an English sailor named Edward Purvis was playing a small Portuguese machete (a type of guitar).

Locals saw how his fingers moved quickly over the strings like fleas jumping and said it was an ‘ukulele’.

Another story credits a nobleman named Kaʻiʻini Kamakaʻeha, who saw a foreigner playing a similar instrument. The nobleman commented that the fingers looked like fleas jumping on the instrument. Yet another myth attributes the naming to Queen Kapiʻolani in the 1883 Jubilee celebration when she saw Portuguese immigrants playing machete instruments in an odd way that resembled jumping fleas.

How ‘Ukulele’ Came to Refer to the Musical Instrument

While the exact origin is uncertain, what is clear is that the name ‘ukulele’ originally referred to a small guitar-like instrument brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants in the late 19th century.

According to Ukulele Tricks, Portuguese cabinet makers settled in Hawaii in the 1880s and brought a small version of the machete instruments.

The instrument then became popular and was crafted from native koa wood by Hawaiian luthiers Kamaka Ukulele and Koa Ukulele established in 1916 and 2002 respectively. The ukulele developed its distinctive Hawaiian sound different from the Portuguese machete.

According to sales statistics tracked by Statista, over 5 million ukuleles were sold in the U.S. alone by 2020, showing the mainstream popularity of the originally humble folk instrument.

A Syllable-by-Syllable Pronunciation Guide

The Importance of Vowel Sounds

When pronouncing “ukulele” in Hawaiian, the vowel sounds are key. Native Hawaiian has only 5 vowel sounds – “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” and “u.” Mastering these pure vowel sounds is crucial for an authentic ukulele pronunciation.

The first syllable “u” is pronounced “oo,” like the “oo” in “boot.” Be careful not to let it become the “u” sound in “but.” Keep your lips rounded. The second syllable “ku” rhymes with the English word “who.” The “u” retains its pure “oo” sound from the first syllable.

For the third syllable “le,” lift the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth while saying the “l” to produce the Hawaiian “e” sound. Finally, the “le” syllable ends on the same long “e” sound.

Breaking Down the Syllables with Audio Examples

Listening to native Hawaiian speakers pronounce “ukulele” is tremendously helpful as well. Here is a breakdown syllable-by-syllable:

  • oo as in “boot” – “u”
  • rhymes with “who” – “ku”
  • le as in “lay” – “le”
  • long A sound – “le”

You can listen to native pronunciations on sites like or YouTube channels like Live Ukulele. Immersing your ears in the proper vowel sounds trains the muscles in your mouth to emulate those same sounds.

Syllable Pronunciation Tips Audio Example
u Lips rounded, “oo”
ku Pure “oo”, rhymes with “who”
le Tongue to roof of mouth, “le” as in “lay”
le Long “a” vowel sound

Memorize the feeling in your mouth as you pronounce each Hawaiian vowel. With daily practice, the muscle memory takes over and you will be playing the ukulele like a native Hawaiian in no time! You can do it!

Hearing ‘Ukulele’ Pronounced By Native Speakers

Audio Clips from Hawaiian Locals

To get an authentic pronunciation of ‘ukulele’, it’s best to hear it directly from native Hawaiian speakers. Several audio clips are available online to listen to locals saying the word.

On YouTube, the Kaʻahele Hawaiʻi channel has an informative video with Hawaiian elders pronouncing ‘ukulele’. Their clip provides a clear example of the smooth, soft way native speakers say the word.

The blog Hawaiʻi Magazine also has an interesting article breaking down the pronunciation, including an audio clip from kumu hula Mapuana de Silva with the accurate enunciation.

Common Mistakes English Speakers Make

English speakers often struggle with parts of the Hawaiian language that don’t directly translate. When trying to say ‘ukulele’, some frequent issues that come up are:

  • Putting too much emphasis on the middle syllables instead of the beginning and end:
  • Not softening the middle vowel sounds enough:
  • Stressing the wrong syllable – in Hawaiian, the emphasis is on the first and last syllables.
English Pronunciation Hawaiian Pronunciation
oo-koo-LAY-lee OO-koo-leh-LEH
By listening carefully to native audio samples, English speakers can train their ear to replicate the smooth, lilting pronunciation of ‘ukulele’ in true Hawaiian style. With the right guidance, we can honor the language and culture of this iconic Hawaiian instrument.

Tips for Practicing the Pronunciation

Mastering the pronunciation of ukulele can take some practice, but with a few helpful tips, you’ll be strumming along in no time. Here are some suggestions for getting the pronunciation just right:

Listen to Native Speakers

One of the best ways to learn pronunciation is to listen to native Hawaiian speakers saying the word “ukulele.” Seek out recordings, videos, or even befriend some local musicians. Pay close attention to the vowel sounds and try mimicking what you hear out loud.

Listening first helps establish an auditory template you can then work to match.

Break Down the Syllables

The word “ukulele” has three syllables: u-ku-le-le. Try saying each syllable separately, emphasizing the vowel sounds, then smoothly connecting them. Going syllable by syllable may help you identify which part is tripping you up.

Watch Your Vowels

In Hawaiian, vowel sounds are very important. Take care that you pronounce the “u” as “oo,” not “uh,” and make sure both “e” sounds are short and crisp. Over-exaggerating the vowel sounds at first and really enunciating can help establish the right mouth formations.

Practice Makes Perfect

You’ll need to drill the word many times before it starts to feel natural. Try saying it slowly first. As you become more comfortable, pick up the pace. Test yourself by reading ukulele lyrics or subtitles out loud.

The more your mouth gets used to forming those new word patterns, the easier it will become.

Record Yourself

Sometimes it’s helpful to record your pronunciation attempts to compare against native speakers. Are you falling short on certain vowels or mushy on the consonants? Listening back may reveal areas for improvement. Don’t get discouraged.

With consistent practice, soon you’ll be proudly strumming your uke and sounding like an authentic islander.


Mastering the Hawaiian pronunciation of ‘ukulele’ allows you to pay respect to the instrument’s origins while more authentically embracing the culture. By learning the intended vowel sounds, hearing examples from native Hawaiian speakers, and practicing the syllables, you’ll be playing the ‘oo-koo-leh-leh’ in no time.

Understanding the meaning behind the word also deepens your appreciation of Hawaii’s language and history. So next time you pick up your uke, strum it with confidence by accurately pronouncing its Hawaiian name.

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