Hawaii Words and Phrases
Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. with two official languages: Hawaiian and English. English is the primary everyday language that is spoken in the islands, but when you visit Maui you will undoubtedly hear Hawaiian words, phrases, and songs. You might overhear some local people conversing in the beautiful, flowing Hawaiian language. And you will see various signs, menus, or brochures that incorporate Hawaiian terminology.
You might also hear bits and pieces of Hawaiian Pidgin, a multi-cultural slang that developed during Hawaii’s plantation era. Pidgin is not an official language — although it certainly can sound foreign at times! Pidgin phrases are commonly spoken among locals and are an interesting part of Maui’s culture.
Here are just a few common Hawaiian and Pidgin words and phrases you might hear (or see in written form) while visiting Maui:
HAWAIIAN WORDS AND PHRASES
aloha (uh-LOW-hah): a term most commonly used for “hello” and “goodbye”; also used to extend love, affection, sympathy, compassion. The single word “aloha” embodies a very beautiful and complex concept. You will probably hear references on Maui to “the aloha spirit.” Or you might see bumper stickers or slogans saying something like “Live Aloha” or “Spread Aloha.” In this sense, “aloha” is a reference to a spirit of kindness, hospitality, generosity, and acceptance.
“The state of Aloha can be created in an instant. It is a decision to behave with kindness, with generosity, wanting to give joy to another.” – Irmgard Farden Aluli
a hui hou (ah hoo-ey hoe): until we meet again; a polite way to say “goodbye and see you later”
kāne (KAH-nay): man, boy, male (you often see this sign on restroom doors)
kapu (kah-poo): forbidden, sacred, prohibited, not allowed (often seen on a sign to indicate “no trespassing”)
keiki (kay-EE-kee): child or children (keiki can be singular or plural)
kōkua (koh-KOO-uh): help, cooperate; for instance, you might see a “no littering” sign by a trash can that says “Please Kōkua”
kupuna (koo-POO-nuh): grandparent, ancestor, respected senior citizen
lānai (luh-NIE): porch, balcony, patio
mahalo (mah-HAH-low): thank you
‘ohana (oh-HAH-nuh): family; and extended family and friends in the larger sense
‘ono (OH-no): delicious (such as “This burger is ‘ono!”)
pau (pow): finished, all done; “pau hana” means finished with work, or after work, so you might hear locals say they are going out for pau hana drinks and pupu
pūpū (POO-poo): appetizers, hors dʻoeuvres
wahine (wah-HEE-nay): woman, female (commonly seen on restroom doors)
More information on the Hawaiian language here.
PIDGIN WORDS AND PHRASES
If you hear some locals speaking what sounds like an abbreviated form of English, it is probably Pidgin. Full sentences are usually shortened in Pidgin into the briefest and most basic phrases. For instance: “Would you like to eat dinner now?” would become “You like eat?” Some Pidgin terminology requires a great deal of explanation, because there is often no literal translation for the words or phrases. With Pidgin, it’s all about how the term or phrase is used.
Here are a few common Pidgin phrases:
auntie, uncle – respectful terms when referring to someone of the older generation. Whether or not they are an actual blood relative doesn’t matter. Similar terms, used in a friendly greeting, could be “cousin,” “cuz,” or “brah”
broke da mouth – No, this doesn’t refer to a broken jaw; it describes extremely delicious food or drink (similar to the Hawaiian word “ono” above)
chicken skin – goose bumps; not in reference to being cold, but something scary or unexplainable or emotional that makes your skin prickle and your hair stand up on the back of your neck
da kine – this is the catchall Pidgin term for just about anything. Similar to “what-cha-ma-call-it” in English, but far more versatile — and a lot shorter, which is fundamental in Pidgin! “Da kine” is like a verbal shorthand that can mean nothing or everything, depending on the context in which it is used. It can refer to a person, place, or thing, such as “Bring da kine” or “Let’s find da kine.” It can be a noun, verb, adverb, or adjective (“da kine house” or “da kine boyfriend”). It can be used to indicate something good or great: “Ey, dis is da kine, yeah?” Or it can be used to indicate something disappointing or awful: “Ey, dis is da kine, yeah?” See what I mean? “Da kine” is intentionally vague, and its meaning is derived solely from how it is spoken and in what circumstances. Good luck with this one.
grinds – great local food
howzit – short for “How’s it going?” or “How are you?”
kau kau (COW-cow) – a general term for food
no need – A stand-alone phrase that is a polite way of saying “That’s not necessary,” “No, thank you,” or “There’s no need for that.” Example: the waitress asks if I would like more water. The answer? “No need. Mahalo.”
stink eye – to give someone a dirty look out of irritation or annoyance. Hopefully you won’t get any stink eye while you’re visiting Maui. But just to make sure, check out my “Practical Do’s and Don’ts for Maui Visitors.”
talk story – friendly chatting; just hanging around “talkin’ story”
Should YOU try to speak Pidgin? NOPE! Pidgin is an art best left to those who were born and raised in the islands. Even for a longtime resident like me (over 35 years), Pidgin is difficult to master but really easy to butcher! There is a natural flow to it that is hard to learn. So, the general unspoken rule of thumb in Hawaii is, if you weren’t raised with Pidgin, don’t try to speak it — you will only sound awkward. Leave it to the “born and raised” locals. I don’t try to speak Pidgin, other than a few very simple words (like my “no need” example above). I would sound ridiculous trying to do so. However, my husband, born and raised in the islands, can speak like a proper English professor then slip into local Pidgin as naturally as a second skin when he wishes to. So my recommendation is . . . listen to it, enjoy it, be confused and amused by it, but “no need try talk da kine story” with the locals!
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(Note: We recognize and respect the significance of the ‘okina and kahakō markings in the written Hawaiian language; however, we have omitted those diacritical markings in most of the text on our site in order to integrate with the more common spellings used in online searches.)
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