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
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:
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
deleting the space.
More resources for setting your computer up for
Hawaiian can be found at
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
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
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
- Carlos Andrade (2009) Hā‘ena: Through
the Eyes of the Ancestors. Honolulu:
- John Wesley Coulter (1935) "Hawaiian
Toponymy" in A gazetteer of the territory of
- 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.
the Association of American Geographers
- Joan Hori & Dore Minatodani (2008)
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
- Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert
& Esther T. Mookini (1974) Place names of
Hawai‘i. Honolulu: UH
(More than you want to know)
(It turns out that there are actually two unicode
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
The “modifier letter turned comma” is unicode 02BB
(utf8:CABB) and is used in
The Hawaiian Electronic Library. These look
identical, and either should be acceptable.)
updated 15 August
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