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 is known for having very few consonant phonemes — only eight: /p, k ~ t, ʔ, h, m, n, l ~ n, w ~ v/. There is allophonic variation of [k] with [t], [w] with [v], and [l] with [n]. 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, then the total of vowel phonemes is five. But if the long vowels and diphthongs are treated as separate, unit phonemes, then the total of vowel phonemes is 25. The short vowel phonemes are /u, i, o, e, a/. 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 nowhere near as dramatic as that of the consonants.

Hawaiian syllable structure is (C)V(V) where C is any consonant and V is any vowel. Double vowels (VV) may be long vowels or diphthongs. All CV(V) syllables occur except for ; 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. Ultimate loss (deletion) of intervocalic consonant phonemes has resulted in long vowels and diphthongs.

Phonemes and allophones

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,[1] and on the descriptions of Hawaiian pronunciation and phonology made by Lyovin,[2] and Elbert & Pukui.[3][4] Some additional details on glottal consonants are found in Carter.[5]

It is notable that Hawaiian does not distinguish between [t] and [k]; few languages do not make that distinction. 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.[6]

The missionaries also found allophonic variation between [ɹ] and [ɾ] (written with d) and [l], between [v] and [w], and between [b] and [p].[7]


Hawaiian has one of the smallest consonant inventories (Rotokas, the smallest, has 6) and one of the smallest phoneme inventories.[8]

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

[p] and [b] are reported to be in free variation, although reports of [b] could be a misinterpretation of unaspirated [p] by English speakers.[9]

There is basic free variation of [t] and [k]. However, since Hawaiian has no affricates, no fricative besides /h/, and no other stops besides /p/ and /ʔ/, any non-labial and non-glottal stop, fricative, or affricate, can function as a /k/.[10] In essence, [d], [s], [z], [ts], [dz], [c], [ɟ], [ʃ], [ʒ], [tʃ], [dʒ], [ɡ], [x], [ɣ] can all "work" as an allophone of /k/. Nevertheless, the main allophones noted by the missionaries in the 1820s, and by linguists, are [t] and [k]. Elbert & Pukui[11] point out some instances of a [ʔ] allophone. Schütz[12] conjectured that a t-dialect existed in the northwestern islands, and a k-dialect in the southeastern islands. Roberts documented a sound between that of English ⟨th⟩ [θ] and [k] in free variation with [k] among elders from Oʻahu and Kauaʻi.[13][full citation needed][clarification needed]

There is some evidence for instances of free variation between [n] and [ŋ].[14]

There is also free variation between [l] (lateral), [ɾ] (tap), and [ɹ] (approximant). Elbert & Pukui[15] have pointed out some instances of [n] and [ʔ] as allophones. Schütz[16] has 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) have conjectured that there is conditioned variation of [w] and [v], but their use of "usually" makes their theory an admission of free variation. Schütz[17] has 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[5] has shown 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 zero allophones. For example: /huli/ ~ /hui/ ('turn');[18] /luhia/ ~ /luia/ ('variety of shark').[19]

Glottal stop

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.[20]

This can still be seen in the historical development of the dual personal pronouns.[21][22] This is exhibited in the suffixes for dual and plural number, which come from lua ('two') and kolu ('three') respectively.[23]

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, ‘olua, 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[24] have shown instances of k ~ ʔ, and l ~ ʔ, such as mukumuku ~ muʻumuʻu ('cut'), and pūliki ~ pūʻiki ('embrace'). Carter (1996:373–374) has shown 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/ /lookihi/ /poohai/ /mea/ /noio/ /maalamalama/ /wenawena/
Glottal form /ʔeʔeiao/ /looʔihi/ /pooʔai/ /ʔea/ /ʔoio/ /maaʔamaʔama/ /ʔenaʔena/


Depending on how one analyzes the inventory of Hawaiian vowel phonemes, it has either 5 or 25 phonemes.[25] 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."[25]

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'.[26]

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.[23][26]

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   Back 
Close i u
Close-Mid ɛ~e/i
Mid æ/a/ɐ~ə 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].[27]
  • 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) have 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].


Short Diphthongs Ending with /u/ Ending with /i/ Ending with /o/ Ending with /e/
Starting with /i/ i̯u      
Starting with /o/ ou̯ o̯i    
Starting with /e/ eu̯ ei̯    
Starting with /a/ au̯ ai̯ ao̯ ae̯

Unlike the other falling diphthongs (that is, falling from higher to lower sonority), /iu/ and /oi/ are rising diphthongs. For example, kiu ('spy') is pronounced [kju], like the English name for the letter Q.

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

All long diphthongs are falling.


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.[28] However, the borrowed word Kristo is pronounced [ˈkri.sto].[29]

The syllable has a minimum of one vowel, and a maximum of two. A one-vowel syllable has any one of the short or long vowels. A two-vowel syllable has any one of the diphthongs.

The structure of the Hawaiian syllable can be represented as being (C)V(V), where the round brackets around C and second V mean that the syllable-initial consonant is optional and the syllable may have a long vowel or diphthong.[30]

  • V syllables. Every theoretically possible V syllable occurs in Hawaiian.[30]
  • CV syllables. Every theoretically possible CV syllable occurs, with the single exception of [see Hawaiian headwords]).[31] The syllable wu occurs only in borrowed words.[32] 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.[33]

Elbert & Pukui[34] have pointed out that "Certain combinations of sounds are absent or rare." For example, no content word has the form CVVʔV, and the form CVVCV, 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 penultimate mora.[25][4][35] Longer words will also follow this pattern, but may in addition have a second stressed syllable which is not predictable.[36] 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. However, every word can be analyzed as consisting of a sequence of these stress units:[37]

  • 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

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[38] have 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) has studied tape recordings of 13-14 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].

Palatalization of consonants in Hawaiian is demonstrated by the well known pronunciation of /kaa/ (mood adverb) as [tʃææ].[39][40]



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