What Language Do Hawaiians Speak: Unveiling Island Linguistics


In the heart of the Pacific Ocean lies Hawaii, a place of breathtaking beauty and a melting pot of cultures. The language spoken here is as much a part of its charm as the sandy beaches and tropical breezes. In this exploration, we dive into the colorful array of languages that call Hawaii home, focusing on Hawaiian and English. We’ll uncover how history and waves of immigration have woven a rich linguistic tapestry, integral to the cultural identity of these islands.

The Historical Context of What Language Do Hawaiians Speak

Brief History of the Hawaiian Language

The Hawaiian language, or ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, stands as a cornerstone of the islands’ heritage. As a member of the Polynesian branch within the Austronesian family, it has evolved in isolation, maturing into a language rich with oral literature including chants and songs. The introduction of a writing system in the 19th century by American missionaries, comprising twelve letters, allowed for the widespread sharing of the language through print.

European Contact and the Introduction of English

The arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778 marked a pivotal moment of European engagement with the Hawaiian Islands. As Westerners – missionaries, traders, and settlers – flocked to Hawaii, the English language took root. Serving as a bridge for trade and diplomacy, English became indispensable for the communication between Hawaiian leaders and the increasing Western population.

The Decline and Revitalization of the Hawaiian Language

Despite its strong foundation, the Hawaiian language faced a steep decline in the 19th and 20th centuries. An 1896 law mandating English as the only language for school instruction dealt a severe blow, drastically reducing the language’s speakers. Hawaiian neared the brink of extinction, but a revival movement surged forth, birthing language immersion schools and college courses that breathed new life into ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i.

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Official Languages of Hawaii

Recognizing Hawaiian as an Official Language

The year 1978 heralded a revival, as Hawaiian reclaimed its status as an official language of the state, sharing the spotlight with English. This decision played a key role in the cultural and administrative aspects of life in Hawaii, marking the start of a new chapter for the Hawaiian language, one of renewed appreciation and use.

The Role of English in Hawaiian Administration and Education

Despite the recognition of Hawaiian, English persists as the dominant language in Hawaii’s administration and education. It is the main medium in schools and state affairs. Nevertheless, Hawaiian culture and language are increasingly woven into the educational fabric, reflecting Hawaii’s commitment to its indigenous roots.

Understanding the Hawaiian Language

The Structure and Sounds of Hawaiian

Known for its pleasing rhythm and vowel-heavy sound, Hawaiian boasts a sound system with only a handful of consonants. The language is marked by the ‘glottal stop’, or ‘okina, and a pivotal five-vowel scheme. Hawaiian’s grammar structure is unique, shaping how sentences are formed and words interact.

Cultural Significance of Native Terms and Phrases

Embedded within the Hawaiian language are words steeped in cultural weight. For instance, “aloha,” a term signifying love and compassion, and “kuleana,” a word for personal responsibility, express the islands’ ethos. They are precious cultural artifacts, conveying the wisdom of Hawaii’s ancestors.

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English in Hawaii: A Unique Dialect

Pidgin: The Hawaiian Creole Language

Pidgin, a creole language born in Hawaii’s plantation fields as a means of communication among varied immigrant workers, weaves together elements of English, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Filipino, and other languages. Today, Pidgin stands as a proud emblem of local identity, spoken widely and celebrated for its vibrant expressions.

Distinguishing Features of Hawaii English

While the version of English spoken in Hawaii generally aligns with standard American English, it comes with a distinctive twist. Influenced by Hawaiian and the multiplicity of other languages spoken on the islands, Hawaii English includes particular pronunciations and syntactical flavors, adding to the state’s multicultural narrative.

The Multilingual Society of Modern Hawaii

Impact of Immigration on Language Diversity

Immigration waves have turned Hawaii into a quilt of linguistic diversity. The influx of workers for the plantations from Asia and Europe introduced languages like Japanese, Filipino, and Portuguese, adding to Hawaii’s already vibrant linguistic landscape.

Other Predominant Languages Spoken in Hawaii

In addition to Hawaiian and English, the islands resound with the voices of other languages. Tagalog, Ilocano, and Japanese, among others, paint the communal canvas, reflecting Hawaii’s rich population mix. The celebration of this linguistic medley is evident in the state’s media and educational initiatives, underscoring the island’s inclusive spirit.

Language Preservation and Education Efforts

Programs Promoting Hawaiian Language Learning

The drive to preserve and nurture Hawaiian is evident in various initiatives across the state. Leading the way, the Aha Punana Leo organization has established Hawaiian-immersion preschools, while the University of Hawaii offers dedicated Hawaiian Language degrees and supports related research. The dedication to the survival and growth of ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i is unmistakable.

Efforts to Maintain Other Language Communities

Hawaii’s embrace of linguistic variety extends beyond Hawaiian. Cultural festivals, language classes, and institutions like the Honolulu Festival foster an environment where languages from across the Pacific and Asian regions are not only learned but celebrated, maintaining Hawaii’s dynamic cultural and linguistic scene.

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Experiencing Language in Hawaii as a Visitor

Encountering Local Language and Slang

For those who travel to Hawaii, the local dialect and slang offer a memorable cultural immersion. Greetings like “Howzit?” and expressions of gratitude with “Mahalo” invite visitors to engage with the islands’ unique linguistic heritage, adding depth to their Hawaiian adventure.

Respecting Cultural and Linguistic Heritage

Visitors play a significant role by respecting the islands’ cultural and linguistic history. By embracing and using Hawaiian terms, tourists show reverence for the indigenous people’s traditions and identity. It’s an opportunity to connect more profoundly with Hawaii’s spirit, enhancing the overall experience.


To summarize, Hawaii’s vibrant linguistic scene mirrors its storied past and cultural richness. From the rejuvenation of the Hawaiian language to the distinct Pidgin and other tongues, Hawaii’s languages narrate tales of the islands’ evolution. Their ongoing preservation is imperative for the continued celebration of Hawaii’s diverse cultural identity. For natives and visitors alike, delving into the spectrum of languages on offer is a journey through the cultural heart of these remarkable islands.

Frequently Asked Questions about Language in Hawaii

What language do Hawaiians speak?
The native Hawaiians traditionally speak ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, which is an official state language alongside English. Today, many residents also speak Pidgin, a Hawaiian Creole language, with English being widely used across the state.
Has the Hawaiian language faced challenges over time?
Yes, the use of the Hawaiian language declined sharply following an 1896 law favoring English for school instruction. However, a passionate revival movement has been successful in reinvigorating the language through immersion schools and educational programs.
What unique features does the Hawaiian language have?
Hawaiian is known for its melodious flow and vowel-rich words, featuring a notable ‘glottal stop’ known as the ‘okina. It has a distinctive grammatical structure that sets it apart from English and other languages.
Is English spoken differently in Hawaii?
Yes, while English in Hawaii aligns with standard American English, it has a unique local flavor. Influenced by Hawaiian and other languages spoken in the islands, it includes distinct pronunciations and some syntactical variations.
Are there efforts to preserve linguistic diversity in Hawaii?
Definitely. Hawaii celebrates its linguistic diversity with initiatives like Hawaiian-immersion preschools, dedicated university programs, and cultural festivals that help maintain and celebrate the variety of languages spoken on the islands.

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