Niihau dialect

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Niʻihau Dialect
ʻŌlelo Niʻihau
Native toHawaiʻi
RegionNiʻihau, Kauaʻi
Native speakers
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 (Hawaiian: ʻŌlelo Niʻihau, Niihau: Olelo Matuahine) 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.[1] It specifically belongs to the Polynesian subbranch, which also includes languages such as Samoan, Tongan, Tahitian and Marquesan.[2]

Former extent[edit]

In the past, Kauaʻi spoke the same dialect as Niʻihau did. However, due to American suppression of Hawaiian, the dialect survived only in Niihau, where it was not suppressed.

Today, the families with ancestry in Niʻihau who now live on westside 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 Kauai.



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 is the only variant of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi that maintains the free variation between /r/ and /l/, in addition to /t/ and /k/.


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 (2017), 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.[3] /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.[3] (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

Conservative phonology[edit]

Niʻihau dialect preserves both /t/ and /r/ sounds, which morphed into /k/ and /l/ in Standard Hawaiian.[4][5] In the past, every dialect of the Hawaiian language used these 4 sounds. However, missionaries only wrote down “k” and “l” when translating the Bible into Hawaiian due to their confusion over which words use “k/l” and which words use “t/r” as they were largely interchangeable.[6] The same phenomenon of interchangeable letters can be found in other Polynesian languages, such as the Anuta language of the Solomon Islands.[7]

An example of this change can be found in the word “teacher”, where its “kumu” in Standard Hawaiian as opposed to “tumu” in Niʻihau dialect. However, not all “k” sounds become “t”. The Standard Hawaiian word “kākou” becomes “katou” in Niʻihau.[8]

Due to the conservative phonology of Niʻihau dialect, it retains a higher degree of mutual intelligibility with other Polynesian languages than Standard Hawaiian does.[citation needed]


Niʻihau dialect does not use the ʻokina to represent glottal stops or the kahakō (macron) to indicate a long vowel. This contrasts from Standard Hawaiian, where the usage of these diacritics is widespread.[6] In Niʻihau dialect, the word ʻōlelo (language) would instead to be spelled as olelo, although the pronunciation would still include an initial glottal stop and a long vowel for the first “o”.


  1. ^ "The Austronesian Language Family". Retrieved 2019-12-20.
  2. ^ "Polynesian languages". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-12-20.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Deniz, Lacy. "These women are trying to save the Olelo Niihau dialect from extinction". Hawaii News Now. Retrieved 2019-12-20.
  5. ^ Christine (2016-05-12). "Keepers of the Flame: How cultural practitioners are preserving Niihau's unique traditions". Hawaii Magazine. Retrieved 2019-12-20.
  6. ^ a b Hiraishi, Ku`uwehi. "Why is Ni'ihau Hawaiian Language So Different?". Retrieved 2020-08-13.
  7. ^ Feinberg, Rick. The Anutan Language Reconsidered: Lexicon and Grammar of a Polynesian Outlier, Volume 1. pp. 10, 11.
  8. ^ "Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha". Retrieved 2020-08-13.