Hawaiian phonology

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The phonological system of the Hawaiian language is based on documentation from those who developed the Hawaiian alphabet during the 1820s as well as scholarly research conducted by lexicographers and linguists from 1949 to present.

Hawaiian has only eight consonant phonemes: /p, kt, ʔ, h, m, n, lɾ, wv/. There is allophonic variation of [k] with [t], [w] with [v], and [l] with [ɾ]. The [t][k] variation is highly unusual among the world's languages.

Hawaiian has either 5 or 25 vowel phonemes, depending on how long vowels and diphthongs are analyzed. If the long vowels and diphthongs are treated as two-phoneme sequences, the total of vowel phonemes is five. However, if the long vowels and diphthongs are treated as separate, unit phonemes, there are 25 vowel phonemes. The short vowel phonemes are /ui, o, ea/. If long vowels are counted separately, they are /uː, iː, oː, eː, aː/. If diphthongs are counted separately, they are /iu, ou, oi, eu, ei, au, ai, ao, ae, oːu, eːi, aːu, aːi, aːo, aːe/. There is some allophonic variation of the vowels, but it is much less dramatic than that of the consonants.

Hawaiian syllable structure is (C)V(V) where C is any consonant and V is any vowel, which can be long or short. Double vowels (VV) represent falling diphthongs, whose first elements can be either long or short.[1] All CV(V) syllables occur except for , but wu occurs only in two words borrowed from English. Word stress is predictable in words of one to four syllables but not in words of five or more syllables. Phonological processes in Hawaiian include palatalization and deletion of consonants and the raising, diphthongization, deletion, and compensatory lengthening of vowels. Phonological reduction (or "decay") of consonant phonemes during the historical development of Hawaiian has resulted in the phonemic glottal stop. The ultimate loss (deletion) of intervocalic consonant phonemes has resulted in long vowels and diphthongs.

Phonemes and allophones[edit]

The following description of Hawaiian phonemes and their allophones is based on the experiences of the people who developed the Hawaiian alphabet, as described by Schütz,[2] and on the descriptions of Hawaiian pronunciation and phonology made by Lyovin,[3] and Elbert & Pukui.[4][5] Some additional details on glottal consonants are found in Carter.[6] A recent overview of Hawaiian segmental phonology has been given by Parker Jones.[7]

It is notable that Hawaiian does not distinguish between [t] and [k]. Few languages do not make this distinction, though several Polynesian languages have independently undergone the historical shift from /t/ to /k/ after the change of /k/ to /ʔ/; Samoan is notable for using [k] in colloquial speech where [t] is used in formal speech. The American missionaries who developed written Hawaiian during the 1820s found that a [t] reflex was common at the Kauaʻi (Tauaʻi) end of the island chain, and a [k] reflex at the Big Island (island of Hawaiʻi) end. They decided to use ⟨k⟩ rather than ⟨t⟩ to represent this phoneme. However, that does not prevent anyone from using the t realization, in speaking or in writing, if they so desire. T is used more than k by speakers of Niʻihau Hawaiian.[8]

The spread of literacy in the Hawaiian alphabet likely contributed to the spread of the [k] allophone to Hawaii's westernmost islands.[9]

The missionaries also found allophonic variation between [ɹ] and [ɾ] (written with d) and [l], between [v] and [w], and between [b] and [p].[10]


Hawaiian has one of the smallest consonant inventories (Rotokas or Pirahã may be smaller depending on the analysis) and one of the smallest phoneme inventories.[11]

Labial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
Stop p t    ⁓    k ʔ
Fricative h
Sonorant wv lɾɹ

[p] and [b] are reported to be in free variation, although reports of [b] could be a misinterpretation of unaspirated [p] by English speakers.[12]

There is basic free variation of [t] and [k]. However, since Hawaiian has no other stops besides /p/ and /ʔ/, any plosive that is neither labial nor glottal can function as a /k/. Nevertheless, the main allophones noted by the missionaries in the 1820s, and by linguists, are [t] and [k]. There is very little testimony of intermediate sounds between [t] and [k] having been used in speech.[13] Elbert & Pukui[14] point out some instances of a [ʔ] allophone. Schütz[15] conjectured that a t-dialect existed in the northwestern islands, and a k-dialect in the southeastern islands. As of the 1820s, the [k] variant was becoming dominant on Oahu.[9] Helen Heffron Roberts documented a sound between that of English ⟨th⟩, [θ] or [ð], and [z] in free variation with [k] among elders from Oʻahu and Kauaʻi while chanting.[16][clarification needed]

There is some evidence for instances of free variation between [n] and [ŋ].[17]

There is also free variation between [l] (lateral), [ɾ] (tap), and [ɹ] (approximant). Elbert & Pukui[18] pointed out some instances of [n] and [ʔ] as allophones. Schütz[19] conjectured that [ɾ] is prevalent in the northwestern islands and [l] is prevalent in the southeastern islands.

There is free variation of [w] and [v]. Pukui & Elbert (1986:xvii) conjectured that there is conditioned variation of [w] and [v], but their use of "usually" makes their theory an admission of free variation. Schütz[20] conjectured that there was neither [w] nor [v], but rather "something between the two". This is most likely [ʋ], a labiodental approximant (see also Schütz's (1994:113) quotes from letter of Artemas Bishop).

Carter[6] showed instances of synchronic alternation of every non-glottal Hawaiian consonant /p, k, m, n, l, w/ with glottal fricative /h/ and glottal stop /ʔ/. (See Hawaiian phonology#Glottal stop)

There are also instances of variation with null allophones. For example: /huli/ ⁓ /hui/ ('turn');[21] /luhia/ ⁓ /luia/ ('variety of shark').[22]

Some loanwords have been adapted to Hawaiian's consonant system, while others have motivated changes to Hawaiian's phonology and a division in its lexicon between native, core words and peripheral, foreign ones. For example, when adapting English loanwords, every single non-labial and non-glottal occlusive in English could be mapped to Hawaiian /k/. That said, other, less phonologically adapted loanwords show a number of consonants not native to Hawaiian phonology.[23]

Glottal stop[edit]

In Hawaiian, a phonemic glottal stop historically derives from an earlier consonant. A number of words have variant pronunciations between glottal (that is, both /h/ and /ʔ/) and non-glottal consonants; it is conjectured that the forms with a non-glottal consonant are older and that this phenomenon is part of a process of consonant deletion.[24] Word-medial glottal stops may be realized as creaky voice.[25]

This can still be seen in the historical development of the dual personal pronouns.[26][27] This is exhibited in the suffixes for dual and plural number, which come from lua ('two') and kolu ('three') respectively.[28]

Dual pronouns
1st person exclusive 1st person inclusive 2nd person 3rd person
Meaning we two we two you two they two
Old form /maː + lua/ /kaː + lua/ /ʔo + lua/ /laː + lua/
Glottal form /maː + ʔua/ /kaː + ʔua/ /laː + ʔua/
New form /maː + ua/ /kaː + ua/ /laː + ua/

The /l/ of /-lua/ in the first and third person forms has "died" or "vanished", resulting in the modern forms māua, kāua, and lāua. The presence of the glottal stop marks the absence of a "phonetically fuller" consonant. The second person form, ʻolua, contains a glottal stop, implying that the /l/ used to be there and /ʔ/ still exists in place of /l/ in the intermediate forms, /maː + ʔua/, /kaː + ʔua/, and /laː + ʔua/.

A Hawaiian glottal stop thus represents the maximal phonetic reduction of other consonants in centuries past.

Elbert & Pukui[29] showed instances of k ⁓ ʔ, and l ⁓ ʔ, such as mukumuku ⁓ muʻumuʻu ('cut'), and pūliki ⁓ pūʻiki ('embrace'). Carter (1996:373–374) showed examples of all seven of the (other) Hawaiian consonants alternating synchronically with glottal stop:

/C ⁓ ʔ/ /p/ /k/ /h/ /m/ /n/ /l/ /w/
Meaning ear long circle reddish-brown tern light glowing red
Old form /pepeiao/ /loːkihi/ /poːhai/ /mea/ /noio/ /maːlamalama/ /wenawena/
Glottal form /ʔeʔeiao/ /loːʔihi/ /poːʔai/ /ʔea/ /ʔoio/ /maːʔamaʔama/ /ʔenaʔena/


Depending on how one analyzes the inventory of Hawaiian vowel phonemes, it has either 5 or 25 phonemes.[30] The minimum figure of 5 is reached by counting only /u/, /i/, /o/, /e/, and /a/ as phonemes. Diphthongs and long vowels are analyzed as being sequences of two vowels. For example, the written form ⟨au⟩ is phonemically /au/, and the written form ⟨ā⟩ is phonemically /aa/. The maximum figure of 25 is reached by counting separately the 5 short vowels, the 5 long vowels, the 9 short diphthongs, and the 6 long diphthongs. A reason given to support this analysis is that the diphthongs "act as unit phonemes in regard to stress."[30]

It is not necessary to postulate that the long vowels and diphthongs should be counted as separate single phonemes, because they can be treated as sequences of two vowels. They are in fact historically derived from two-syllable sequences. This is easily seen in the synchronic co-existence of allomorphic pairs of Hawaiian forms such as kolu with -kou, both meaning 'three'.[31]

The example can be analyzed as a four-phoneme CVCV sequence alternating with a three-phoneme CVV sequence, where the CVV form is derived from the CVCV form through loss of the second consonant. In other words, /kolu/ loses the /l/, resulting in /kou/. Kolu is a root form, while -kou is found in the plural personal pronouns (indicating three or more referents) mākou, kākou, ʻoukou, and lākou.[28][31]

Vowels in Hawaiian have been described as invariably oral, even when adjacent to nasal consonants,[32] while Parker Jones (2018), describing a native speaker who has non-native-speaking parents and acquired the language in the revitalization movement, found consistent vowel nasalization in post-nasal environments: [ˈlo̯inã] loina 'custom'.[33]

The vowel phonemes are shown in the following tables. The information given on allophones constitutes a basic description, not exception-free laws. Native speakers of any language can get away with tweaking their own personal pronunciation.


Short Long
Front Central Back Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid ɛei æaɐə o

Vowel quality is the same for long and short vowels, except for /eː/ vs. /ɛ/, and /aː/ vs. /ɐ/:

  • When short /e/ is stressed it is lowered to [ɛ]. In a sequence of two or more syllables with /e/, unstressed /e/ can also be lowered to [ɛ] but it is otherwise [e]. For example, ʻeleʻele ('black') is pronounced [ˈʔɛlɛ.ʔɛlɛ]. But ʻaleʻale ('full') is pronounced [ˈʔɐleʔɐle]. There are also instances where unstressed short /e/ can be raised to [i]. For example, the negating form, /ʔaʔole/ or /ʔaʔohe/, can be pronounced [ʔaˈʔoli] or [ʔaˈʔohi].[34]
  • Short /a/ is phonetically [ɐ] when stressed and [ə] when unstressed.

One might argue for free variation of [a] and [ɐ] for stressed short /a/. However, Elbert & Pukui (1979:22–24) made citations to Kinney (1956) and Newbrand (1951), based on tape-recorded evidence, which specifically noted [ɐ], but not [a]. Even so, the pronunciations [ʔaˈʔoli] and [ʔaˈʔohi] exhibited above, show that there are at least a couple of forms where /a/ is realized as [a].


The following tables show Hawaiian's system of diphthongs, all of which are falling.[35]

Short diphthongs
Ending with /u/ Ending with /i/ Ending with /o/ Ending with /e/
Starting with /i/ iu̯
Starting with /o/ ou̯ oi̯
Starting with /e/ eu̯ ei̯
Starting with /a/ au̯ ai̯ ao̯ ae̯

As with its constituent vowels, diphthongs with short /e/ and /a/ are subject to the same free variation described above. In rapid speech, /ai/ and /au/ can become [ei] and [ou] respectively.

Long diphthongs
Ending with /u/ Ending with /i/ Ending with /o/ Ending with /e/
Starting with /oː/ oːu̯
Starting with /eː/ eːi̯
Starting with /aː/ aːu̯ aːi̯ aːo̯ aːe̯


Hawaiian syllables may contain one consonant in the onset, or there is no onset. Syllables with no onset contrast with syllables beginning with the glottal stop: /alo/ ('front') contrasts with /ʔalo/ ('to dodge'). Codas and consonant clusters are prohibited in the phonotactics of Hawaiian words of Austronesian origin.[36] However, the borrowed word Kristo is pronounced [ˈkri.sto].[37]

The structure of the Hawaiian syllable can be represented as being (C)V(V), where the C represents an optional initial consonant, the first V represents a vowel which may be long or short, and the optional second V represents the second element of a valid long or short diphthong.[1]

  • V syllables. Every theoretically possible V syllable occurs in Hawaiian.[38]
  • CV syllables. Every theoretically possible CV syllable occurs, with the single exception of .[39] The syllable wu occurs only in borrowed words.[40] There are only two such words, with wu, in the Pukui-Elbert dictionary: Wulekake (or Vulegate) ('Vulgate'), and wulekula (or vuletura 'vulture'), the very last Hawaiian headwords listed in the dictionary.[41]

Elbert & Pukui[42] have pointed out that "Certain combinations of sounds are absent or rare." For example, no content word has the form CV:ʔV, and the form CV:CV, is also not common. They also noted that monovocalic content words are always long.


Word stress is predictable in Hawaiian for words with three or fewer moras (that is, three or fewer vowels, with diphthongs and long vowels counting as two vowels). In such cases, stress is always on the second to last mora.[30][5][43] Longer words will also follow this pattern, but may in addition have a second stressed syllable which is not predictable.[44] In Hawaiian, a stressed syllable is louder in volume, longer in duration and higher in pitch.[citation needed]

  1. CVCV, VCV, with both vowels short: áhi, káhi
  2. CVCVCV, CVVCV, VCVCV, VVCV—that is, as in (1) but preceded by a short syllable: uáhi, alóha, huáli, kakáhi
  3. CVV, VV, with either a long vowel or diphthong: ái, wái, ā (= áa), nā (náa)
  4. CVCVV, VCVV, CVVV, VVV—that is, same as (3) but preceded by a short syllable: uái, uhái, kuái, wawái, iā (= iáa), inā (ináa), huā (huáa), nanā (nanáa)

For other Hawaiian words longer than three moras, stress is not predictable (but cf. [45]). However, every word can be analyzed as consisting of a sequence of these stress units:[46]

  • ʻéle.makúle ('old man'), stressed as CVCV plus CVCVCV
  • makúa.híne ('mother'), stressed as CVCVV plus CVCV

Etymology is not a reliable guide to stress. For example, the following proper names are both composed of three words, of 1, 2, and 2 moras, but their stress patterns differ:

  • Ka-imu-kī, pronounced kái.mukíi
  • Ka-ʻahu-manu, pronounced kaʻáhu.mánu

Phonological processes[edit]

Phonological processes at work in Hawaiian include palatalization of consonants, deletion of consonants, raising and diphthongization of vowels, deletion of unstressed syllables, and compensatory lengthening of vowels. Elbert & Pukui[47] cited Kinney (1956) regarding "natural fast speech" (vowel raising, deletion of unstressed syllables), and Newbrand (1951) regarding Niʻihau dialect (free variation of [t] and [k], deletion of consonants, allophone of /a/, vowel raising).

Kinney (1956) studied tape recordings of 13 or 14 native speakers of Hawaiian. She noted assimilatory raising of vowels in vowel sequences. For example, /ai/ was very frequently pronounced [ei], /au/ was often [ou], and /io/ was often [iu]. She cited specific words, such as /mai/ (directional adverb) as [mei], /mau/ (plural morpheme) as [mou], and /lio/ ('horse') as [liu]. The pronunciation of the island name Maui, Maui, /maui/, was [ˈmʌu.i], with the quality of [ʌ] compared to that of u in English cut. She observed deletion of unstressed syllables, such as /ke akua/ ('God') pronounced [ke ˈkuə], and /hele akula/ ('go') pronounced [ˈhɛlɛ ˈkulə]. She also documented pronunciations of /loaʔa/ ('gotten') as [ˈloʔə], and /puaʔa/ ('pig') as [ˈpuʔə].

Newbrand (1951) found that a Niihauan wrote ⟨t⟩ and ⟨k⟩ interchangeably, and freely varied the pronunciation of both ⟨t⟩ and ⟨k⟩ as [t] or [k]. She found /ʔaʔohe/ ('no') pronounced [ʔaˈʔohi], showing vowel raising of /e/ to [i]. She documented /noho ʔana/ ('staying') pronounced [noo ˈɐnə], showing deletion of the glottal consonants /h/ and /ʔ/. The vowel quality of stressed short /a/ was noted as [ɐ]. More recent observations suggest that [t] and [k] have since fallen into a largely complementary distribution in colloquial Niihau speech, with [k] generally found in a syllable before [t]. Thus Niihau has ketahi as opposed to kekahi or tetahi 'one'.[9]

When used by itself as an exclamation, /kaː/ (mood adverb) is frequently pronounced as [tʃæː] or [sæː].[48][49]



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