Niihau dialect

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Niʻihau Dialect
Olelo Matuahine
Native toHawaiʻi
RegionNiʻihau, Kauaʻi
Native speakers
(500 cited 1995)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Spoken extent of Niihau dialect.png
The dialect is native to Niʻihau (dark red) and a significant Niʻihau diaspora lives on Kauaʻi (light red).

Niʻihau dialect (Standard Hawaiian: ʻŌlelo Niʻihau, Niʻihau: Olelo Matuahine, lit.'mother tongue') is a dialect of the Hawaiian language spoken on the island of Niʻihau, more specifically in its only settlement Puʻuwai, and on the island of Kauaʻi, specifically near Kekaha, where descendants of families from Niʻihau now live. Today, the Niʻihau dialect is taught in Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha.



The Hawaiian language and its dialects (including Niʻihau) are a part of the Austronesian languages, which are a group of languages spoken throughout Oceania, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.[2] It specifically belongs to the Polynesian subbranch, which also includes languages such as Samoan, Tongan, Tahitian and Marquesan.[3]


Today, the families with ancestry in Niʻihau who now live on western Kauaʻi use the same dialect as that spoken on Niʻihau, but some speakers refer to the speakers of the dialect outside of Niʻihau as speakers of Olelo Kauaʻi.



Labial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal m n    
Plosive p t ~ k ʔ
Fricative       h
Sonorant w ~ v l ~ ɾ    

Unlike the Hawaiian taught in schools, the Niʻihau dialect maintains the variation between [r] and [l], in addition to [t] and [k]. Some other pockets of speakers on Molokai and Maui have also been found to maintain the [t] variant. While in the 1950s the Niʻihau dialect had free variation between [t] and [k],[4] recent observations suggest that [t] and [k] are currently found in largely complementary distribution in the modern Niʻihau dialect. The [k] allophone appears when before other syllables containing the [t] allophone: thus Niʻihau has ketahi 'one', kātou 'we (inclusive)', makahiti 'year', where standard Hawaiian has kekahi, kākou, and makahiki.[5]

This pattern of dissimilation is also extended to some loanwords. For example, the English word 'cook' is reflected in Niʻihau Hawaiian as kute, even though the word 'cook' does not have a [t] in English.[5]

The [k] allophone, represented in standard Hawaiian and the Hawaiian alphabet, is prestigious and associated with reading styles. The Bible in particular is always read with [k]. The dissimilation pattern in colloquial Niʻihau may be due to an effort to preserve the Niʻihau dialect's distinctiveness from standard Hawaiian.[5]


Like the Hawaiian taught in universities, ʻŌlelo Niʻihau has five short and five long vowels, plus diphthongs.


Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i u
Mid ɛ ~ e o
Open a ~ ɐ ~ ə

Niʻihau retains the five pure vowels characteristic of Hawaiian with few changes. The short vowels are /u, i, o, e, a/, and the long vowels, if they are considered separate phonemes rather than simply sequences of like vowels, are /uː, iː, oː, eː, aː/. When stressed, short /e/ and /a/ have been described as becoming [ɛ] and [ɐ], while when unstressed they are [e] and [ə][citation needed]. Parker Jones, however, did not find a reduction of /a/ to [ə] in the phonetic analysis of a young speaker from Hilo, Hawaiʻi; so there is at least some variation in how /a/ is realised.[6] /e/ also tends to become [ɛ] next to /l/, /n/, and another [ɛ], as in Pele [pɛlɛ]. Some grammatical particles vary between short and long vowels. These include a and o "of", ma "at", na and no "for". Between a back vowel /o/ or /u/ and a following non-back vowel (/a e i/), there is an epenthetic [w], which is generally not written. Between a front vowel /e/ or /i/ and a following non-front vowel (/a o u/), there is an epenthetic [j] (a y sound), which is never written.


Short diphthongs 
 Ending with /u/   Ending with /i/   Ending with /o/   Ending with /e/ 
Starting with /i/ iu      
Starting with /o/ ou oi    
Starting with /e/ eu ei    
Starting with /a/ au ai ao ae

The short-vowel diphthongs are /iu, ou, oi, eu, ei, au, ai, ao, ae/. In all except perhaps /iu/, these are falling diphthongs. However, they are not as tightly bound as the diphthongs of English, and may be considered vowel sequences.[6] (The second vowel in such sequences may receive the stress, but in such cases it is not counted as a diphthong.) In fast speech, /ai/ tends to [ei] and /au/ tends to [ou], conflating these diphthongs with /ei/ and /ou/.

There are only a limited number of vowels which may follow long vowels, and some authors treat these sequences as diphthongs as well: /oːu, eːi, aːu, aːi, aːo, aːe/.

Long diphthongs 
 Ending with /u/   Ending with /i/   Ending with /o/   Ending with /e/ 
Starting with /o/ oːu      
Starting with /e/   eːi    
Starting with /a/ aːu aːi aːo aːe

Speech Tempo[edit]

Research done by Newman (1951) suggests Niʻihau dialect being among the fastest spoken Hawaiian dialects. He reported a Niʻihau woman having a reading speed of 170 words per minute whereas a man from Kalapana read at a slower 120.[7]

The fast pace of the Niʻihau dialect causes a number of phonemic reductions.[7][8] Newman lists three examples of this phenomenon:

English Standard Haw. Niʻihau dialect
'living' noho ʻana nooana
'two of my sisters' ʻelua oʻu kika elu aʻu tita
'one room' hoʻokahi lumi hoʻotaii lumi


Niʻihau dialect does not use an ʻokina to represent glottal stops nor a kahakō (macron) to indicate long vowels. The Hawaiian word /ʔoːlelo/ ("language") is spelt olelo in Niʻihau and ʻōlelo in Standard Hawaiian.


  1. ^ Hawaiian at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) closed access
  2. ^ "The Austronesian Language Family". Retrieved 2019-12-20.
  3. ^ "Polynesian languages". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-12-20.
  4. ^ Blust (2004:368)
  5. ^ a b c Blust (2004:369)
  6. ^ a b Parker Jones, ʻŌiwi (April 2018). "Hawaiian". Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 48 (1): 103–115. doi:10.1017/S0025100316000438. ISSN 0025-1003. S2CID 232350292.
  7. ^ a b H. Elbert, Samuel; Kawena Pukui, Mary (2001). Hawaiian Grammar. University of Hawaii Press. p. 23. ISBN 9780824824891.
  8. ^ D. McConnell, Grant. Linguistic Composition of the Nations of the World (in French). Presses de l'Université Laval. p. 56.