Visiting the islands of Hawaii is like visiting a foreign country. Hawaii became a territory of the United States in 1898, and became the fiftieth state in 1959, but has managed to maintain its charming language and unique character.
The Hawaiian language is recognized as the second official state language of the State of Hawaii. It is impossible to fully appreciate a visit to the Hawaiian islands without learning some of the Hawaiian language.
Here are the fifteen Hawaiian words or phrases which will help you most appreciate your visit to Hawaii.
Everyone who has watched Disney’s Lilo and Stitch has heard the word ohana, which means family. In Hawaiian culture, family is everything.
Last fall, my beau and I spent two weeks on Kauai, the Garden Isle. While we were shopping at The Koa Store in Old Koloa Town, Jon and I struck up a conversation with the clerk, a friendly Hawaiian woman in her fifties. She and Jon recognized each other’s faces, but couldn’t figure out why. Small town life is the same all over the world, and it turns out she worked at the Kuk (pronounced “kook”) or the Kukui’ula Market, the local grocery/convenience story twenty years ago when Jon lived on Kauai.
We spent an hour talking about family, from her sister, who had moved to the mainland and longed to return to her ohana, to Jon and his sister, who were back on the island for the first time in over fifteen years.
“It’s not good to stay away from the island,” she told us. “Family is everything, and Kauai is family.”
Aloha is probably the most commonly used, but least understood, Hawaiian word. It is used to say hello and goodbye, but its message goes much deeper than that.
Aloha encompasses love, peace and affection. Aloha is a way of life. To do something with aloha means to do it with your whole heart and soul.
As our Auntie Aloha explained it to us, ha is the breath of life, and Aloha means I give to you the breath of life.
‘Aina (pronounced “eye-nah”) is the land or literally, that which feeds us. Hawaiians live outside, whether they are farming or surfing, fishing or hiking. For most Hawaiians, there is little differentiation between themselves and the land. The love of land, or aloha ‘aina, is a driving force in the Hawaiian culture. Hawaiians believe that you must treat the ‘aina with respect and dignity, because it sustains you.
Kama’aina refers to a long-time resident or native of Hawaii, and is seen most often in the context of the kama’aina discount given to locals. As a visitor, you don’t qualify for the kama’aina discount unless, like us, you have an Auntie Aloha on the island with you.
5. Mahalo (Mahalo Nui Loa)
Mahalo is a word you will here everywhere in Hawaii. It means thank you, and everyone from the desk clerk at your hotel, to your server at the many yummy restaurants you will eat in, to the crew on the helicopter or catamaran tour end conversations with mahalo. Mahalo nui loa means thank you very much, and is a phrase you will want to use often as the Hawaiians treat you with aloha love.
6. E Como Mai
E como mai means welcome, or come on in. It is used to invite visitors to come into your home or business. Most businesses have a sign over their doors telling you e como mai.
7. Pau Hana
Pau hana means done working. You will see pau hana specials in many of the restaurants and bars you visit on the islands to celebrate happy hours. It’s also what the locals say when they are done working for the day.
8 & 9. Mauka and Makai
Mauka is the mountain and makai is the ocean, and both are equally majestic and equally dangerous. Any direction you look in Hawaii will be dominated by the mauka or the makai. Directions are often given by referring to either the mauka or the makai.
10. No Ka ‘Oi
No ka ‘oi means nothing finer or the best. Or as my beau would say, “Nothing bettah, brah.” On the islands, you most often see this in phrases like “Maui no ka ‘oi” or “Kauai no ka ‘oi.”
Menehune are a legendary race of small people who are believed to have worked during the night building roads, fish ponds and temples. The Menehune Fish Pond in Kauai is believed to have been built by the Menehunes thousands of years ago to act as a dam and to catch fish to feed the royal family.
12 & 13. Kapu and Heiau
Kapu means sacred or to be revered. It is most often seen in burial grounds and sacred places. If an area is marked kapu, you should stay out unless you have permission to enter.
A heiau (pronounced “hey-ow”) is a shrine or place of worship, or a sacred place. Heiaus are all over the islands, and sometimes the signs are old and hard to read. If you come across a heiau in your wanderings, please assume it is kapu and stay out of it.
Pono refers to righteousness. Living a life of pono means making correct, self-less choices every day.
The concept of pono is so important to Hawaiians that it has been incorporated into the State motto: Ua Mau Ea o ka ‘Ana I ka Pono which means that the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.
Jon was raised on the island of Kauai. The way he explains it to me, if people make the right choices, pono, about the land, the ‘aina, then the righteousness of land will be perpetuated by the righteousness of the people to insure its protection for future generations.
The Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, or Braddah Iz, sang about pono in the song Hawaii 78. Iz sang about the Hawaiian ancesters, and imagining what they would think about the changes to the ‘aina. It’s a hauntingly beautiful song that encourages everyone to treat the land of Hawaii with pono.
15. A Hui Hou
A hui hou means until we meet again, and so a hui hou, keep your minds and hearts,