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The Hawaiian alphabet, known as the ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, contains just 12 letters. This limited number of letters may seem peculiar given that English has 26 letters. So why does Hawaiian have so few letters? The brief answer is that the Hawaiian language historically did not need more letters to represent all the sounds used in spoken Hawaiian. Keep reading to learn all about the origin and evolution of the Hawaiian alphabet and writing system.

If you’re short on time, here’s the quick answer: The Hawaiian language originally had only 12 distinct sounds, so its alphabet only needed 12 letters to represent those sounds. Over time, the alphabet expanded to include 13 letters as new consonant sounds were adopted from other languages.

The Origins of the Hawaiian Alphabet

The Hawaiian language is unique and fascinating, and one interesting aspect of it is its alphabet. Unlike many other languages, the Hawaiian alphabet consists of only 12 letters. This may prompt the question: why are there only 12 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet? To understand its origins, we need to delve into the history of the Hawaiian language and the influences that shaped its alphabet.

The Hawaiian Language Originally Had 12 Sounds

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Hawaiian language had a phonetic system that consisted of only 12 distinct sounds or phonemes. These sounds were represented by symbols known as okina (a glottal stop) and kahakō (a macron). The early Hawaiians did not have a written language, but their oral tradition was rich and vibrant. They communicated their knowledge and history through chanting, storytelling, and songs.

Captain Cook’s Arrival Led to Creation of an Alphabet

It was not until the late 18th century, with the arrival of Captain James Cook and other European explorers, that the need for a written form of the Hawaiian language became apparent. These explorers brought with them their own writing systems, which they used to record their observations and interactions with the Hawaiians. However, these systems did not accurately represent the unique sounds of the Hawaiian language.

The Hawaiians themselves recognized the need for a written form of their language and began to adopt elements of the alphabets brought by the Europeans. They improvised by using the Latin alphabet as a basis and added diacritical marks to represent the unique sounds of their language. This early adaptation laid the foundation for the development of the modern Hawaiian alphabet.

Missionaries Developed the Modern 12-Letter Alphabet

In the early 19th century, Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii with the intention of spreading their faith and educating the Hawaiian people. They recognized the importance of a written language in achieving their goals and took on the task of developing a standardized alphabet for the Hawaiian language.

The missionaries simplified the Hawaiian alphabet by eliminating some of the diacritical marks used previously. They settled on a 12-letter alphabet that consisted of five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and seven consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p, w). This modern alphabet allowed for the accurate representation of the unique sounds of the Hawaiian language and paved the way for the written works and literature that followed.

Today, the 12-letter Hawaiian alphabet is still in use, and it continues to be an integral part of the Hawaiian culture and identity. It serves as a reminder of the rich history and heritage of the Hawaiian people, and their ongoing efforts to preserve and celebrate their language.

The 12 Original Letters of the Hawaiian Alphabet

The Hawaiian language is known for its unique alphabet, which consists of only 12 letters. This may seem surprising to those familiar with other alphabets that have a larger number of letters. However, each letter in the Hawaiian alphabet has a specific purpose and represents distinct sounds in the language.

The Vowels: A E I O U

The Hawaiian alphabet includes five vowels: A, E, I, O, and U. These vowels are pronounced differently compared to English vowels. For example, the “A” is pronounced “ah,” like the “a” in “father,” while the “E” is pronounced “eh,” like the “e” in “bed.” The “I” is pronounced “ee,” like the “ee” in “see,” and the “O” is pronounced “oh,” like the “o” in “go.” Finally, the “U” is pronounced “oo,” similar to the “oo” in “moon.”

The Consonants: H K L M N P W

Alongside the five vowels, the Hawaiian alphabet includes seven consonants: H, K, L, M, N, P, and W. These consonants are pronounced similarly to how they are in English, with a few slight differences. For instance, the “H” is pronounced as a soft breath, rather than a hard “h” sound. The “K” is pronounced like the “k” in “key,” while the “L” is pronounced like the “l” in “love.” The “M” and “N” are pronounced the same as in English. The “P” is pronounced like the “p” in “pen,” and the “W” is pronounced like the “w” in “water.”

This simplified alphabet was developed by early Hawaiian speakers to accurately represent the sounds of their language. Each letter was carefully chosen to reflect the unique phonetics and pronunciation of Hawaiian words. While the Hawaiian alphabet may have fewer letters than other alphabets, it effectively captures the essence of the language.

If you are interested in learning more about the Hawaiian language and its alphabet, you can visit for additional resources and information.

Later Additions to the Alphabet

While the Hawaiian alphabet consists of only 12 letters, it is important to note that there are additional symbols that have been incorporated to accurately represent the Hawaiian language. These additions were made to ensure that the unique sounds and pronunciation of the language were properly conveyed.

ʻOkina Represents Glottal Stop

One of the later additions to the Hawaiian alphabet is the symbol called the ʻokina. This symbol, often mistaken for an apostrophe, represents the glottal stop – a brief pause or catch in the throat when pronouncing certain words. The ʻokina is vital for distinguishing between words that may appear similar but have different meanings. For example, the word “moa” without the ʻokina means “chicken,” whereas “mōa” with the ʻokina means “dry.”

The inclusion of the ʻokina in the Hawaiian alphabet is crucial for accurate pronunciation and understanding of the language. Without it, words can lose their intended meanings and lead to confusion.

Kahakō Indicates Vowel Length

Another addition to the alphabet is the kahakō, which is used to indicate vowel length. In the Hawaiian language, the length of a vowel can change the meaning of a word. For example, “mālama” means “to care for,” while “malama” without the kahakō means “month.”

The kahakō is represented by a macron (a line placed above a vowel) and is used to extend the pronunciation of the vowel. This addition allows for accurate representation of the Hawaiian language and ensures that the correct meaning is conveyed.

By incorporating the ʻokina and kahakō into the alphabet, the Hawaiian language preserves its unique sounds and meanings. These additions are necessary for accurately representing the language and ensuring that its rich cultural heritage is maintained.

For more information on the Hawaiian language and its alphabet, you can visit the official website of the ʻŌlelo Online program, which offers resources for learning and understanding the Hawaiian language.

Attempts to Expand the Alphabet

The Hawaiian alphabet consists of only 12 letters, which may seem limited compared to the 26 letters in the English alphabet. However, throughout history, there have been attempts to expand the Hawaiian alphabet to better represent the unique sounds of the Hawaiian language.

New Consonant Sounds Adopted from English

One attempt to expand the Hawaiian alphabet was to adopt new consonant sounds from the English language. This was done to accommodate the introduction of foreign words and names into the Hawaiian language. For example, the letter “h” was added to represent the “h” sound in English words such as “Hawaii” and “Honolulu.” Similarly, the letter “k” was used to represent the “k” sound in English words like “kite” and “kangaroo.” These additions helped bridge the gap between the Hawaiian and English languages.

Diacritics Proposed to Represent New Sounds

In another attempt to expand the Hawaiian alphabet, diacritics were proposed to represent new sounds that were not present in the original 12 letters. Diacritics are accents or marks placed above or below a letter to indicate a specific pronunciation. For example, the “okina,” represented by the symbol ‘ , is used to indicate a glottal stop, a sound commonly found in the Hawaiian language. The diacritic known as the macron, represented by a horizontal line above a vowel, is used to indicate a long vowel sound. These diacritics help to accurately represent the unique sounds of the Hawaiian language.

Spelling Reforms Never Officially Adopted

Over the years, there have been spelling reforms proposed to simplify the Hawaiian alphabet and make it more phonetic. These reforms aimed to create a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters, making the language easier to learn and read. However, these spelling reforms were never officially adopted and the original 12-letter Hawaiian alphabet remains in use today. Despite the limited number of letters, the Hawaiian language continues to thrive and adapt to modern times.

Preserving the 12-Letter Alphabet

The Hawaiian language is unique and beautiful, and one of the most fascinating aspects of it is its 12-letter alphabet. While many other languages have more letters in their alphabets, the Hawaiian language has managed to preserve its cultural heritage and linguistic integrity with just 12 letters. This article explores the reasons behind this interesting characteristic and the importance of preserving this alphabet.

Importance for Cultural Heritage

The 12-letter alphabet in the Hawaiian language holds great significance for the cultural heritage of the Hawaiian people. Each letter represents a distinct sound and carries with it a rich history and tradition. By preserving this alphabet, the Hawaiian people are able to maintain a strong connection to their ancestors and their unique identity. It serves as a symbol of pride and a testament to the resilience and strength of the Hawaiian culture.

The preservation of the 12-letter alphabet also allows for the continued use of traditional Hawaiian names, words, and phrases. These linguistic treasures are passed down from generation to generation, ensuring that the language and its associated customs remain alive and thriving. Without this preservation, the Hawaiian language and its deep cultural roots could be at risk of being lost or diluted.

Ease of Literacy

Having just 12 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet makes it easier for both native speakers and learners to become literate in the language. With a smaller set of letters to learn and remember, individuals can focus on mastering the pronunciation and grammar of the language. This simplicity also aids in the development of educational resources, such as textbooks and language learning materials, making it more accessible for people to study and understand Hawaiian.

The ease of literacy provided by the 12-letter alphabet encourages more people to engage with the Hawaiian language and culture. It opens doors for individuals to connect with the traditions, stories, and history of Hawaii, fostering a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Hawaiian way of life.

Suitability for the Hawaiian Language

The 12-letter alphabet is not just a random selection of letters; it is specifically tailored to the unique sounds and phonetics of the Hawaiian language. Each letter has a distinct purpose and represents a sound that is essential for accurately speaking and writing in Hawaiian.

This tailored alphabet allows for precise communication and expression in the Hawaiian language. It ensures that the richness and intricacies of the language are preserved, allowing for the nuanced meanings and emotions that can be conveyed through words.


The Hawaiian alphabet has remained limited to 12 letters for good reason. With just 12 letters, all the core sounds of the Hawaiian language can be written. Expanding the alphabet risks complicating Hawaiian orthography unnecessarily. The 12-letter system preserves an important part of Hawaiian linguistic and cultural heritage. It also promotes literacy by avoiding the introduction of too many new characters and spellings rules. For these reasons, the Hawaiian alphabet has resiliently stuck close to its 12-letter roots.

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