The Depth of Hawaiian Words

Meanings as deep as the Pacific Ocean.

When we think of the Hawaiian language (as I got to do recently during my two week vacation), most of us barely get past aloha, which we think means hello and goodbye. But this word, like so many others in their lexicon, can’t be easily translated into English. The word’s meaning is as deep as the Pacific Ocean, and it reveals the profound cultural philosophy of the Hawaiian people.

If you Google aloha, you’ll find dozens of definitions, no two exactly alike. But in a vast oversimplification, Wikipedia defines it like so: “the Hawaiian word for love, affection, peace, compassion and mercy, that is commonly used as a simple greeting but has a deeper cultural and spiritual significance to native Hawaiians, for whom the term is used to define a force that holds together existence.”

When you visit these islands, you will quickly be introduced to the Aloha Spirit, which is so important to the culture that it was made into legislation in 1986. And people are encouraged to live with Aloha. It’s a wonderful way to be. All of us should adopt this philosophy.

The next word you’re bound to learn is mahalo, which we’re told means thank you, but again, it’s deeper than that. According to Wikipedia, it “is a Hawaiian word meaning thanks, gratitude, admiration, praise, esteem, regards, or respects.” But the “thanks” part was only added in there after they collided with western cultures (or rather, western cultures collided with them.) The Hawaiians are such a naturally gracious people that they never felt the need a word for thanks. It is always implied.

There are two other words that I came across during my visit that really resonated with me (and can be read about in greater detail here):

I first came across the word pono on a street sign that said, “Do the right thing. Be pono.” Upon looking it up, I discovered that it means righteousness, and/or doing the morally right or selfless thing, in terms of yourself, others, and the environment. I just love that. I will try to always be pono.

Ohana is a wonderful word that means family. It’s another way of saying that we come from the same root. And the generous Hawaiians have many ohana. They have a community ohana, a friends ohana, a work ohana. Any group can be an ohana, and it implies a closeness that Western cultures barely understand. I was welcomed into many ohanas during the course of my stay, and it felt really good.

The Hawaiian language itself is beautiful to hear. The words look like alphabet soup to me, which is funny, considering the fact that the language only has 13 letters, and one of those is the glottal stop called the ‘okina. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to tell apart ko’u, meaning my, from kou, meaning your. That could get confusing.

I do love a good glottal stop. I blogged about that here. I also blogged about a study which has found that the more tropical the climate, the more vowel-heavy the language tends to be. Hawaiian is definitely vowel-heavy.

13 letters notwithstanding, I did struggle with the pronunciation of place names such as Papahānaumokuākea and Honaunau-Napoopoo. But I delighted in the struggle, and I am convinced that given sufficient time to practice, the words would trip off my tongue rather than trip up my tongue.

With that, I say aloha to you, my blog ohana, in every sense of those words. And I’ll leave you with this Hawaiian proverb:

Ua ola no i ka pane a ke aloha.

There is life in a kindly reply.

A book about gratitude is a gift that keeps on giving!


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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