English is the main spoken language. There are some subtle differences in usage (see below), but standard English is universally understood in Hawaii.
Hawaiian "pidgin" English, spoken by many locals, incorporates bits of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese and many other languages, in addition to its own unique idioms. As Japan is the most important international tourist market in Hawaii, many tourist destinations offer information in Japanese and have personnel who can speak Japanese. There are also many ethnic communities that speak languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, Ilocano, Vietnamese, Korean, Samoan and the native Hawaiian language.
Learning a few words of Hawaiian can be fun and useful. Some signs in Hawaii use Hawaiian words, and most street signs use Hawaiian names. The following is a brief primer on Hawaiian pronunciation:
a as in father
e as in red
i as in machine
o as in phone
u as in fruit
ai, ae roughly like the igh in high
au, ao roughly like the ow in cow
ei roughly the ay in hay
ou roughly like the o sound in boat.
The Hawaiian alphabet consists of 13 characters: all 5 vowels plus 8 consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p, w, and the apostrophe) which are generally pronounced in Hawaiian as they are in English, except that w can also take on the sound of v in certain words and the apostrophe is a glottal stop (which has the speaker curtailing the flow of air and resuming as though speaking two separate words).
Each vowel or diphthong is pronounced separately. For instance, the highway connecting Honolulu and Kaneohe on Oahu is called the Likelike Highway, and is pronounced LEE-keh-LEE-keh, NOT like-like.
You will often see an apostrophe-like symbol in some words. This symbol, called the 'okina, means that the following vowel is pronounced with a catch in the throat, much like the sounds in "uh-oh" are separated. A line above a vowel means that the vowel is extended and stressed.
Some useful words include:
Hello. - Aloha. (ah-LOH-hah)
Goodbye. - Aloha. (ah-LOH-hah)
love - aloha (ah-LOH-hah) (So you indirectly refer to "love" when you first see someone and when they have to go)
Thank you. - Mahalo. (mah-HAH-loh). (Although this word is found on fast food trash receptacles around the islands, it does not mean "trash".)
finished, done - Pau. (pa-oo)
help - kokua (koh-KOO-ah)
woman - wahine (wah-HEE-ne)
man - kane (kah-ne)
child - keiki (KAY-kee)
local resident - kama'aina (kah-mah-EYE-nah)
toward the mountains - mauka (ma-OO-kah)
toward the ocean - makai (mah-KIGH)
As mentioned above, standard English is understood in Hawaii, and Hawaii residents are generally very friendly. However, there are some subtle differences in word usage. When talking with Hawaii residents, be aware of the following differences in word usage to avoid miscommunications.
Always refer to the continental United States as "the Mainland" rather than "the States." For instance, say "Back on the Mainland..." instead of "Back in the States..." Hawaii has been one of "the States" since 1959, and the Hawaiian sovereignty movement notwithstanding, most Hawaii residents are proud to be part of the United States. Using the term "the States" (implying that Hawaii is somehow foreign) may be seen as naive at best and condescending at worst. However, don't be surprised if some local people are condescending towards you because you are from the mainland. The "local" vs. "mainland" difference is something local people are only too happy to point out.
Residents of Hawaii do not necessarily consider themselves "Hawaiian." For instance, when asking a Hawaii resident, "Are you a native Hawaiian?" don't be surprised if his reply is "No, I'm Japanese." On the Mainland, for example, a Californian means any person who lives in (or has ties to) California. However, in Hawaii, the terms "Hawaiian" or "native Hawaiian" are reserved to mean someone who is descended from the aboriginal people of Hawaii. This definition even appears in state laws. Because Hawaii is made of people of various ethnicities, someone whose family may have lived in Hawaii for generations may still not be Hawaiian by the above definition. To avoid misunderstanding, it is best to refer to Hawaii residents as such, or as Islanders, "locals", or kama'aina (as above), unless you know for a fact that they are of native Hawaiian descent.
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