With its beautiful beaches, lush rainforests, and vibrant culture, Hawaii is a paradise for many visitors. But beneath its beauty lies a fascinating linguistic history. The Hawaiian language uses an alphabet with just 18 symbols, far fewer than English. So how many bits of information are needed to represent these 18 Hawaiian symbols?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: 5 bits are needed to represent the 18 symbols in the Hawaiian alphabet.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover the history of the Hawaiian alphabet, explain how information theory allows us to calculate the minimum number of bits needed, walk through the step-by-step math, and discuss how ASCII encoding is used to store Hawaiian text digitally. We’ll also look at some examples of Hawaiian words encoded in binary.

A Brief History of the Hawaiian Alphabet

Origins of the Hawaiian Language

The Hawaiian language, also known as ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, has its roots in the Polynesian language family. It is believed that Polynesians migrated to the Hawaiian Islands from other Pacific islands around 1,500 years ago. The language developed and evolved over time through the interactions of the early Hawaiian people with their surroundings and each other.

For centuries, Hawaiian was primarily an oral language, passed down through generations through songs, chants, and stories. However, as contact with Western explorers and missionaries increased in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a need to develop a written system for the Hawaiian language.

Development of a Written System

The development of a written system for the Hawaiian language is attributed to Christian missionaries who arrived in Hawaiʻi in the early 19th century. They sought to spread their religious teachings and found it necessary to create a written form of the language. The missionaries devised a system that represented the sounds of the Hawaiian language using the Latin alphabet.

The Hawaiian alphabet, known as Ka Hōʻailona Pīʻāpā, originally consisted of 13 letters: A, E, I, O, U, H, K, L, M, N, P, W, and ʻokina (a glottal stop). These letters were chosen based on the sounds present in the Hawaiian language. Over time, additional letters were added to the alphabet to represent specific sounds, bringing the total number of symbols to 18.

The Modern Hawaiian Alphabet

In its current form, the Hawaiian alphabet consists of 18 symbols: A, E, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, U, W, ʻokina, KAHAKŌ, KAHAKŌ Ā, KAHAKŌ Ē, KAHAKŌ Ī, and KAHAKŌ Ō. The ʻokina is a glottal stop marker, while the KAHAKŌ are diacritical marks used to indicate long vowels.

The Hawaiian alphabet is unique and distinct from the English alphabet. It requires a different set of rules for pronunciation and usage. Learning the Hawaiian alphabet can be a fascinating journey into the language and culture of the Hawaiian people.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Hawaiian alphabet and the Hawaiian language, you can visit the ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi Program website, which offers resources and courses for both beginners and advanced learners.

Using Information Theory to Calculate the Minimum Bits

Introducing Information Theory:

Information theory is a branch of mathematics that deals with the quantification, storage, and communication of information. It provides us with a framework to analyze and optimize the efficiency of data representation. One of the key concepts in information theory is the notion of bits, which are the fundamental units of information. In simple terms, a bit can be thought of as a binary digit, representing either a 0 or a 1.

Calculating the Minimum Number of Bits for a Symbol Set:

When it comes to representing a set of symbols, such as the 18 symbols in the Hawaiian alphabet, information theory can help us determine the minimum number of bits needed to represent each symbol uniquely. The minimum number of bits required to represent a symbol set is determined by the formula:

minimum bits = log2(number of symbols)

Using this formula, we can calculate the minimum number of bits required to represent the 18 symbols in the Hawaiian alphabet:

minimum bits = log2(18) ≈ 4.17 bits

This means that, on average, each symbol in the Hawaiian alphabet can be represented using approximately 4.17 bits. However, since bits cannot be divided, we would need to round up to the nearest whole number. Therefore, in this case, we would need at least 5 bits to represent each symbol in the Hawaiian alphabet.

It’s important to note that this calculation assumes that each symbol in the Hawaiian alphabet is equally likely to occur. If certain symbols occur more frequently than others, a more advanced analysis taking into account the probabilities of each symbol would be needed to determine the optimal representation.

Step-by-Step Math for Calculating the Bits for Hawaiian

Listing the 18 Hawaiian Symbols

The Hawaiian alphabet, also known as the ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, consists of 18 symbols, including the vowels a, e, i, o, and u, and the consonants h, k, l, m, n, p, w, and the glottal stop symbol known as the ʻokina. These symbols are unique to the Hawaiian language and are used to represent the distinct sounds of the language. To calculate the number of bits needed to represent these symbols, we will use a mathematical formula.

Applying the Formula

To calculate the number of bits needed to represent a given number of symbols, we use the formula:

Number of bits = log2 (number of symbols)

Using this formula, we can determine the number of bits needed to represent the 18 symbols in the Hawaiian alphabet.

Converting to Binary

After calculating the number of bits needed, we can convert the symbols in the Hawaiian alphabet to binary. Binary is a base-2 numeral system that uses only 0s and 1s to represent numbers. Each symbol in the Hawaiian alphabet can be assigned a unique binary representation.

For example, let’s say we determine that we need 5 bits to represent the 18 symbols in the Hawaiian alphabet. We can assign each symbol a binary representation using 5 bits. The first symbol, “a,” can be represented as 00000, while the last symbol, the glottal stop symbol, can be represented as 10001.

By converting the symbols to binary, we can represent the Hawaiian alphabet using a binary code, which can be useful for various applications, such as computer programming or data storage.

For more information on the Hawaiian alphabet and its symbols, you can visit the ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi website, where you can learn more about the Hawaiian language and its unique writing system.

Encoding Hawaiian Text with ASCII

The American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) is a widely used character encoding standard that represents characters as numerical values. It was developed in the 1960s and uses 7 bits to represent a total of 128 characters, including the English alphabet, numbers, punctuation marks, and control characters.

ASCII Encoding Overview

The ASCII encoding standard assigns a unique numerical value to each character. For example, the letter ‘A’ is represented by the decimal value 65, ‘B’ by 66, and so on. These values are then converted into binary form for storage and transmission purposes. By using 7 bits, ASCII can represent 128 different characters.

Encoding Hawaiian Words in Binary

The Hawaiian alphabet consists of 18 symbols, including vowels and consonants. To encode Hawaiian text using ASCII, we need to map each symbol to a unique numerical value within the range of 0-127. However, since ASCII only supports 128 characters, we need to make some adjustments.

One approach is to use the remaining unused ASCII characters to represent the additional Hawaiian symbols. For example, we can assign the Hawaiian symbol ‘ā’ to the ASCII value 128, ‘ē’ to 129, and so on. This allows us to represent all 18 symbols of the Hawaiian alphabet using ASCII.

Real World Examples

Let’s take a look at some real-world examples of encoding Hawaiian text using ASCII. Suppose we want to encode the word ‘aloha’, which is a commonly used Hawaiian greeting. Using ASCII, we can represent each letter as its corresponding numerical value in binary form.

‘a’ is represented by 97 in decimal, which is 1100001 in binary. ‘l’ is represented by 108, which is 1101100 in binary. ‘o’ is represented by 111, which is 1101111 in binary. ‘h’ is represented by 104, which is 1101000 in binary.

By concatenating these binary values together, we get the binary representation of the word ‘aloha’ in ASCII: 1100001 1101100 1101111 1101000.

It’s important to note that while ASCII encoding can represent the Hawaiian alphabet, it may not reflect the unique linguistic characteristics and pronunciation nuances of the language. For a more accurate representation, specialized encoding standards like Unicode can be used.

For more information on ASCII encoding, you can visit the ASCII Table website.


In summary, representing the 18 symbols in the Hawaiian alphabet requires just 5 bits of information. While Hawaiian uses a small symbol set, information theory provides a systematic way to calculate the minimum number of bits for any symbol set. Understanding concepts like ASCII encoding also shows how Hawaiian text can be stored digitally. Mahalo for joining us on this journey through the math and linguistics behind Hawaiian’s efficient writing system!

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