Using Correct Hawaiian Orthography

You sometimes hear that the Hawaiian alphabet has only 12 letters — 7 consonants and 5 vowels — which represent all the basic sounds, or phonemes, in the language. However, these letters (A, E, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, U, W) only represent the sounds that were easily recognized by the English-speaking missionaries who first implemented the written alphabet. The Hawaiian language contains another phoneme which is treated as a consonant: the glottal stop, or ‘okina. English speakers often don’t notice this sound although it is one that we make in the middle of the word “uh-oh” and at the beginning of many words which begin with vowels. Additionally, Hawaiian speakers distinguish between short vowels, which are briefly pronounced, and long vowels, which have a greater duration.

Modern Hawaiian orthography marks these significant sounds by using a “left single quotation mark” (‘) to mark the ‘okina, and a macron, or kahakō, to mark long vowels.

Why is correct Hawaiian orthography important?

Because these sounds are significant in Hawaiian, they can determine the meaning of words. A commonly cited example is a set of short words:
pau: finished
pa‘u: soot
pa‘ū: damp
pā‘ū: skirt

Without the ‘okina and kahakō, the distinction between meanings would be unclear.

Is it really necessary?

Modern Hawaiian orthography is not used by everyone. Hawaiians who were raised before the new orthography was standardized, or who learned Hawaiian with the materials produced in the earlier period, are often more comfortable with the simpler spelling. There is no reason why anyone who learned Hawaiian in this fashion should need to switch to the more recent conventions.

However, if you did not learn the other form growing up, and especially if you are a relatively recent arrival to the Hawaiian Islands (that is, within a couple of generations), then it is much better to use correct orthography. You can otherwise create the impression of being lazy, sloppy, or disrespectful. Using correct Hawaiian placenames is a way of marking these words as being meaningful. Being careful about learning and spelling Hawaiian words and names is a way of demonstrating respect.

Using modern Hawaiian orthography is also part of the University of Hawai‘i style guide:
Use correct diacritical marks. A glottal is not an apostrophe, an accent grave or the tick mark next to the semicolon on your keyboard. In word processing documents to be printed as is, find instructions in your user manual—or call the Customer Support number for instructions—on how to make a “single open quotation mark” with your software.

How to use correct orthography

It’s good to get into the habit of looking up the correct spelling of words you aren’t sure about. Pukui & Elbert’s (2003) Hawaiian Dictionary and (2004) Place Names of Hawaiʻi are considered authoritative, along with the Māmaka Kaiao dictionary by ʻAha Pūnana Leo / Hale Kuamoʻo. All of these can be searched together using the Hawaiian Dictionaries tool on Ulukau.

Working from the online dictionaries allows you to cut-and-paste into documents. There are other ways to create these characters in word processors. On a Mac you can use the Hawaiian keyboard, or the opt-] key for the ‘okina. On Windows machines you can set up specialized keyboards as well, or cut-and-paste. An ‘okina can also be made by typing a space, then single-quote, then deleting the space. More resources for setting your computer up for Hawaiian can be found at Kualono. While people formerly used special font sets, it is now better to use unicode fonts, which include more specialized characters, so that appearances don’t change if the font changes.

Remember that an ‘okina is a reverse apostrophe, i.e. a 6 rather than a 9. This is important to some people because an apostrophe represents a lack, i.e. a sound that has disappeared, while an ‘okina represents a presence (i.e. a letter formerly overlooked which has been restored). Incidentally, since it’s a consonant, and consonants in Hawaiian always go between vowels or at the beginning of a word, as in ‘ōhi‘a, but never next to another consonant or at the end of a word, it wouldn’t ever appear as something like o‘hia.

Remember also to set your Auto-Correct preferences in your software (such as Word and Powerpoint) so that it does not capitalize a single i which follows an ‘okina at the end of a work, creating misspellings such as Kaua‘I and Hawai‘I rather than Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i.

References on Hawaiian orthography and placenames

  • Carlos Andrade (2009) Hā‘ena: Through the Eyes of the Ancestors. Honolulu: UH Press
  • John Wesley Coulter (1935) "Hawaiian Toponymy" in A gazetteer of the territory of Hawai‘i
  • Luise Hercus, Flavia Hodges and Jane Simpson, eds. (2002) The Land is a Map: Placenames of Indigenous Origin in Australia
  • RDK Herman (1999) The Aloha State: Place names and the anti-conquest of Hawai‘i. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 89(1): 76-102
  • Joan Hori & Dore Minatodani (2008) Reference Sources on Hawai‘i Place Names. UH Mānoa Hamilton Library
  • Renee Louis (1999) Waikīkī Place Names: Ka Ho‘okahua Hou.  In Hawai‘i: New Geographies (ed. D.W. Woodcock) pp. 45-54.  Honolulu: UH Mānoa Department of Geography
  • Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert & Esther T. Mookini (1974) Place names of Hawai‘i.  Honolulu: UH Press.


(More than you want to know)

(It turns out that there are actually two unicode designations which appear to produce an identical character and which are both commonly used for the ‘okina. The “left single quotation mark” (i.e. the opt-] on Mac) is designated unicode 2018 (utf8:E28098) and is used on sites like Alu Like. The “modifier letter turned comma” is unicode 02BB (utf8:CABB) and is used in Ulukau: The Hawaiian Electronic Library. These look identical, and either should be acceptable.)

updated 15 August 2012

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