Understanding The Use of Diacritical Marks In The Hawaiian Language

There was a time in our history that everyone here spoke Hawaiian, natives as well as foreigners.  Hawaiʻi was a free and independent nation  recognized  by the other nations of the world.  Shortly after the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by the Americans in 1893, these traitors banned the Hawaiian language from being used in schools, in an attemt to eliminate the Hawaiian language and convert the people to Christian Americans.   English took over as the prevailing language.   As the older folks dies off, so did the use of the Hawaiian language.

The missionaries, who arrived here in 1820, set out to convert the oral Hawaiian language into a written one.  Hawaiians became prolific writers and newspapers popped-up all over Hawaiʻi.  In fact, not too many know that at one time, Hawaiʻi was the most literate country in tne world  We had a highter percentage of people who could read and write than any other country in the entire world.  

Mrs. Pukuʻi and all native speakers never used any diacritical marks, like the ʻokina (glottal stop) and kahakō (macron) because they knew their language.  The people of Niʻihau, who are native speakers, never have to use these pronunciation aids because they know their language and donʻt need help with pronunciation.  However, there came a time when the majority of people interested in Hawiaiian, did not know the language and since proper pronunciation determines definition, diacritical marks became invaluable tools to aid in pronunciation.

For example, in the sentence, ʻWe saw the moi at Kaʻaluʻalu.”  Todayʻs readers would not know the difference between moi, a type of fish or moʻi a high ranking chief, without these helpers.

Another example is from Lilinoe Andrews.  Without diacriticals, how would one know the difference between:

     Pau  –  finished

     Paʻu  –  spot; smudge

     Paʻū –  moist; damp

     Pāʻū –  skirt

The ʻokina and kahakō are necessary tools to help with proper pronunciation and therefore, definition of Hawaiian words.

A couple of important facts in the use of diadritical marks seem to have escaped the people who are claiming this new pronunciation.  Here are the misconceptions:

I.  The early writers and maps had various spellings but none of them showed an ʻokina.   

     The reason none of them had the ʻokina was because ʻokina were not used at the time by anyone.

II.  Using the ʻokina changed the pronunciation.

     This is not true.  Diacritical marks DO NOT change pronunciation.  They are used to make sure the words are prononced properly.  

The following is proof that the pronunciation wasnʻt changed by the ʻokina:


Beginning with a 6,00 word, “Vocabulary of Words in the Hawaiian Langage” in 1836, Lorrin Andrews, in 1865, issued a 15,000 word “Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language.

A.  In 1913, because of increasing interest in Polymesian liguistic studies, there was a need of a authoritative reference book for the spelling, pronunciation and definition of Hawaiiann words.  Under the direction of the Board of Commissioners of Public Archives, a legislative act made provision for “compiling, printing, finding and publishing in book form, a dictionary of the Hawaiian language” in which was to be given the correct pronunciation of the ancient and modern Hawaiian words and phrases and their respective equivalents of meaning in the English language.”

The Andrews dictionary was used as a base, help from the Bishop Museum was attained and Rev. Henry Hodges Parker was chosen to lead this effort.  Lists from other sources were considered.  “Particular effort was made to insure correct separation into syllables of the words defined, and to insure correct spelling of Hawaiian words, phrases and quotations.”

A “Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language,” commonly referred to as the Andrews/Parker dictionary was published on September 1, 1922.  The following is from this dictionary:

Molokai  (mō´-lŏ-kaʻi ) n. The fifth in relative size of the Hawaiian Islands.

The Guide to Pronunciation explains: The glottal closure (ʻ) indicates the interjection of a sound that prevents two vowels from coalescing.


B.  Pronunciation by Niʻihau people –  The people of Niʻihau are native speakers.  Because of their isolation, they were never affected by changes made in the language like the other islands were.  They know their language and donʻt, as a rule, use the ʻokina or kahakō.  A well respected professor of the language at the University of Hawaiʻi, Annette Wong, was asked how the Niʻihau people pronounce Molokaʻi.  Her reply was that her Niʻihau kūpuna always pronounced the islandʻs name as Molokaʻi, even if no ʻokina was used.

C.   In addition, every taped interview made by Mrs Pukuʻiʻs four trips to Molokaʻi (1961, 1964 [2] and 1967) were reviewed.  (Pending report)

D.  The following are statements from the MKPCPS Board and Komike ʻOlelo Hawaiʻi members who are more than well-qualified to address this issue.

E.  Also, a list of Molokaʻi songs has been included.  Molokaʻi was the pronunciation in all of these songs.

E.   Finally, there was a radio show in the 1970ʻs, Ka Leo Hawaiʻi, hosted by Larry Kimura.  Only Hawaiian was spoken and native speakers called in from all over.  We have listened to all the tapes which included  speakers from Molokaʻi and they all pronounced the island as Molokaʻi  They are:                (Mahalo Larry)


Itʻs Molokaʻi, has always been and will always be Molokaʻi

It has been detrmined that we settled on these islands at least 1,000 years ago.  Some names are so old that theyʻre meanings have been forgotten.  Perhaps the meanings of some names were never meant to be known.  However, since a time way back in the distant past, this island has been referred to as:

Molokaʻi nui a Hina – Great Molokaʻi, child of Hina

Molokaʻi pule oʻo – Molokaʻi of powerful prayers

Molokaʻi, ʻaina mōmona – Molokaʻi, land of plenty

These attributes belong to an island child of the Goddess Hina named Molokaʻi, not Molokai.  Perhaps if its inhabitants refer to it by iits proper name, these attributes would become more apparent.

Finally, we, as an organization and as individuals, in the interest of proper decorum, have had to refrain from expressing how disgusted we are by Mr. Ayau putting false words in the mouths of Mary Kawena Pukuʻi and his own grandmother, Harriet Ne.

This deplorable act violates an ancient value of our people that prevails throughout our lifetimes.  That value is to respect our elders, our kūpuna.  WE could say much more but end with a wise saying:


Truth is not changeable.

Mary Kawena Pukui Cultural Preservation Society