Why Diacritical Marks Are Crucial When Writing in the Hawaiian Language

by Keolu

Speaking English

In English, the spelling of a word confers its meaning.  You can slightly mispronounce words and your audience will still understand you.

For instance, the word apple.  Whether you say apple or lengthen the vowel sound and say a-a-pple, people may look at you funny, but they will understand that you mean the red crunchy fruit.

Why Speaking Hawaiian is Different

In Hawaiian, the vowel length or the stress placed on a vowel will change the meaning of a word completely.

In the Hawaiian language, words have short and long vowel sounds.  Long vowels are held for a longer duration when speaking.  To indicate a long vowel when writing, the letter is marked with a kahakō – a horizontal line over that vowel.  

Stress can also be placed on a vowel when speaking.  This is marked by a ʻokina before the vowel.  An ʻokina is this symbol→  ʻ  ←it looks like an apostrophe flipped around.

The distinction between long and short vowels or the stress put on a vowel is crucial in understanding and speaking Hawaiian correctly.

Dad or Surfboard

Consider the Hawaiian word papa.  Pronounced with short vowels, the word can mean a board, for instance a surfboard.  But pāpā pronounced with long vowels, can mean dad.  The only difference in speaking is the length of time you hold the vowel.

Or how about the word kou.  If pronounced as spelled without stressing the letter u, it can mean your.  If you pronounce the word koʻu, stressing the letter u, the word can mean my

Mispronouncing just those two words could mean your surfboard (kou papa) or my dad (koʻu pāpā).   That’s a big difference in meaning.

Now imagine if you mispronounce an entire sentence or paragraph.  You don’t just sound funny, you are unintelligible.

Be Accurate When Pronouncing Hawaiian Vowels

When you learn a Hawaiian word, pay particular attention to the subtleties of its pronunciation  …so you don’t end up with someone else’s surfboard instead of your dad.

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