How to Sound Like a Local in Honolulu

Here’s the single most important piece of advice about sounding like a local in Honolulu: Don’t try to sound like a local in Honolulu.

At least, not right away. Listen and learn for awhile first.

Hawai‘i is very different from the mainland U.S. in some ways, including how people talk. Many people in Honolulu speak a “pidgin English.” And new arrivals who try to speak the local pidgin right away can sound a bit ridiculous.

There’s a lot going on with what is commonly called pidgin. It’s not just slang, and words are not strung together any which way; it follows a lot of grammatical rules you won’t understand at first. Linguists call it Hawaiian Creole English and tell us it’s a full-fledged creole language.

But don’t worry – people in Honolulu will understand your standard English (hello, television). Almost everyone will make an effort to speak a more standard English to you, too, if they see that you don’t understand. You’ll be fine.

King Kamehameha Statue in front of Aliiolani Hale.

A brief history lesson

Pidgin English has an interesting history. It started in the mid-19th century when immigrants from different countries worked together on Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations. Because they couldn’t easily communicate, a common language sprung up that borrowed words and phrases from their languages (Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and later others) and used them along with Hawaiian and English words. This pidgin also borrowed grammar and intonation from the various languages.

When their children began using this Hawaiian pidgin as a first language, it expanded and evolved, and this is why it’s considered a creole. In 2015, the Census Bureau added it to its list of official Hawaii State languages.

Words you need to know first

Although you shouldn’t try to speak full-on pidgin right away, you should definitely learn some words commonly used in Honolulu. Here are some you will hear all the time, and it’s fine to incorporate them into your vocabulary.

Aloha. This is a greeting, whether you are meeting up with someone or saying goodbye. As a noun, you’ll hear it as a type of heartfelt good wishes or love, as in, “Give my aloha to your mother,” “I feel so much aloha for her,” or “My sincerest aloha to your family upon Kimo’s passing.”

Whereas elsewhere people might say, “Hi, how are you?” the casual friendly greeting in Hawai‘i is “Howzit?!

Mahalo is Hawaiian for thank you.

Forget north and south

Mauka and makai are directional terms consisting of the phrases “ma uka” (toward the mountain) and “ma kai” (toward the ocean). The islands are unique in that people give directions not in terms of north and south, but in terms of “toward the mountain” (inland), or “toward the ocean.” When you think about driving up a coast that curves, it makes more sense to advise someone to turn toward the ocean rather than to turn south.

You’ll also hear (and use) the directional term ewa, which means toward the town on Ewa, which is located on the west side of O‘ahu. Traveling “ewa on the H1” means taking the H1 freeway toward Ewa. This may mean going west if you’re on the Honolulu side of Ewa, but if you’re out in Makaha, it means heading east. Stop thinking in cardinal directions – just figure out where the town of Ewa is from your location and head that way.

You can take the H1 Diamond Head, too. That common landmark and directional marker is on the east side of the island.

If someone tells you they live on the windward side, they live on the rainier, cooler eastern side of the island. The leeward side is the dry, hotter, western side.

Who’s who?

haole is someone who is foreign to Hawaii. This very common term is usually not meant in a derogatory way, so don’t take offense if someone refers to you this way. Although it can be negative (context is your friend here; you’d know.)

Kama‘aina is a Hawaiian word referring to long-term residents. Although all you have to do to get a “kama‘aina rate” (discount) at a local attraction is show a Hawaii driver’s license.

Someone who is hapa (the Hawaiian word for “half”) is racially mixed.

The food in Hawaii is often ono (Hawaiian for “delicious”).

Da kine is a handy, catch-all word meaning “that thing,” or “whatchamacallit.” It can also be a verb, adverb or adjective.

Beyond the basics

It’s also helpful to learn some basics about the Hawaiian language, including how to pronounce Hawaiian words. Pronunciation is very straightforward – vowels are pronounced as they are in Spanish or Japanese – and there are no exceptions to the rules. This will help you read and pronounce the names of streets, towns and more.

There’s even an app for iOS that teaches you how to Speak Hawaiian Place Names.

Leslie Lang