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Unlock Hawaii: 20 Must-Know Phrases for Island Adventure

Ever whispered to a sea turtle? Start with "Aloha" and charm Hawaii's locals with 20 words and phrases that'll turn your trip into a true island dialogue!

Tobi Miles
July 31, 2022

Hawaii is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States with unparalleled sights and cuisine. The culture, scenery, food, and way of life in Hawaii are all completely different than what you find in the mainland United States. It’s important to know basic Hawaiian words and phrases for your trip to Hawaii because of how different things are there.

Mahalo is among the most important Hawaiian words to know and it means “thank you”. Aloha is the most iconic Hawaiian phrase with many meanings, but it typically means “hello” and “goodbye”. E hele kāua i ke kahakai is an important phrase to know on your trip, and it means “let’s go to the beach”.

Ohana refers to family and close friends which is why it’s one of the most important words in Hawaiian culture. Casual phrases like kanak attack are easy to remember and refer to something as simple as being overstuffed with food. Follow along as we explore the most important 20 basic Hawaiian words and phrases for your trip.

Common Hawaiian Words and Phrases

Hawaii is unlike any other state that is part of the United States of America. The scenery, culture, cuisine, and language are entirely separate from the rest of the country. You will find several Hawaiians that speak English, but many locals speak Hawaiian.

The Hawaiian language is close to Samoan or Tahitian but has nuances that make it unique. Its roots are largely based in Polynesian languages, but the Hawaiian language is distinct. You won’t be entirely lost if you can’t understand Hawaiian during your vacation, but it’s helpful to have a basic understanding.

Luckily, you can easily get by on your Hawaiian trip even if you only understand a handful of important phrases. Iconic words like aloha, mahalo, and Lū'au are great to know, but there are several more that are worth learning. Let’s take a look at some of the basic Hawaiian words and phrases that you should learn before your Hawaiian trip.

1. Mahalo

Mahalo is one of the most important Hawaiian words for you to learn before your vacation. The meaning of mahalo is “thank you”, and you will see and hear the word many times on your trip. You will see the word posted on doors, trash cans, and outside of businesses.

Hawaiians also say “mahalo” to each other as a courtesy to show gratitude. Variations like “mahalo nui loa” are a way to go above and beyond with your appreciation. This phrase means “thank you so very much”, and it’s polite to say as a tourist.

2. Aloha

Aloha is among the most basic and necessary words to know for your trip to Hawaii. It’s easy for tourists to get confused because aloha has so many meanings. Aloha has several different means from “hello” and “goodbye” to “presence of breath”.

Related Read: How Much Does A Trip To Hawaii Cost?

3. Ohana

Ohana means family, and it’s an important word in Hawaiian culture. This endearing term includes close friends and its meaning is important to locals. This term isn’t quite as common as aloha, but you will likely hear it if you meet enough people in Hawaii.

You may recognize the term ohana from the movie “Lilo and Stitch”. While that movie made the term more popular for non-Hawaiian residents, it is an important word in Hawaiian culture.

4. Pau Hana

Pau Hana is the equivalent of happy hour in Hawaii. Hawaiians refer to the calm time after a day of work as Pau Hana. Look out for Pau Hana specials at local bars and restaurants when you stay in Hawaii.

5. Kane

Kane is the Hawaiian word for man and you will find it posted on changing rooms and restroom doors. It’s an important word to know because it can make it easier to navigate public restrooms. Locals use the word regularly and they may even say it referring to you or someone in your group.

Related Read: 50 BEST Things To Do In Waikiki

6. Wahine

The Hawaiian word for woman is wahine and it has grown with time. Now, people in the surfing community refer to female surfers as wahines. It can be confusing because this term doesn’t exclusively refer to Polynesian or Hawaiian women in that context.

However, you will primarily hear wahine as a gender descriptive word when you visit Hawaii. Female restrooms and changing rooms are generally labeled wahine.

7. Haole

Haole is a slang word that refers to tourists and non-local people in Hawaii. It is generally used as a blanket term to describe foreigners in Hawaii and you may hear it on your vacation.

8. Lū'au

The Hawaiian Lū'au is one of the staples of the state and marks a timeless tradition. A Lū'au is a traditional Hawaiian festivity that includes food, music, and dancing. You can expect delicious seafood, hula dancing, and adult beverages at the average Lū'au.

9. Hui

Much like aloha, hui is a casual way to address someone in Hawaii. Hui is less formal than aloha and simply translates to “hi”. You can say hui in passing or to get the attention of someone at a restaurant or shop during your trip to Hawaii.

Related Read: Best Time to Visit the Big Island

10. Lanai

A lanai is a veranda or porch that is native to Hawaii but has expanded throughout the United States. Many homes, restaurants, hotels, stores, and apartments in Hawaii have a lanai. Nothing is more relaxing than a warm, breezy night on a lanai in Hawaii.

11. Mauka

Mauka is the Hawaiian word for mountain, and Hawaii is home to some that are quite notable. Diamond Head is the most notable mountain in Hawaii followed closely by Kamakou. Volcanoes and mountains are popular sights for tourists in Hawaii because you won’t find anything like them in the mainland United States.

12. Makai

Hawaiians refer to the ocean as makai and it’s an important term to memorize. The ocean is always within your sight in Hawaii and you will hear the word many times. This can help with giving and receiving directions during your trip.

13. Kama’aina

Kama’aina refers to locals in Hawaii and you will find it written on some businesses and even restaurant menus. Hawaiians make this distinction because the state is such a bustling tourist destination. Some businesses even offer discounts for locals as a Kama’aina special.

14. Ma Kai

Ma kai is a simple term referring to “seaward” which is useful when you make plans. Locals and tourists alike use this term to say that they are going to be near the ocean. Seaside leisure is a staple of every trip to Hawaii, so it’s worth learning this term.

15. Ma Uka

Much like ma kai, ma uka is a directional phrase. Ma uka instead refers to the land and implies that you have plans that are away from the water. You may use this term when you go on a hike, bike ride, or horticultural tour in Hawaii.

16. Kanak Attack

It may sound silly, but “Kanak attack” is a casual phrase in Hawaii that you hear or need to say yourself. This casual slang phrase simply means that you’ve eaten too much and need to sleep it off. Keep this phrase in mind when you’ve eaten way too much poke.

17. E Como Mai

This pleasantry is commonly used in restaurants, stores, hotels, and spas in Hawaii. E como mai means “come on in” and you will hear or see it many times on your vacation. It is written on signs and doors just as commonly as the locals say it in Hawaii.

E como mai also interchangeably means “welcome”. It’s a simple pleasantry like aloha or mahalo that is deeply ingrained in Hawaiian culture.

18. A Hui Hou

Every fun event has to come to an end at some point after a long night. Hawaiian locals say a hui hou at the end of a night when it’s time to go their separate ways. It translates to “until we meet again” and is a polite way of saying that you enjoy spending time with someone else.

19. E Hele Kāua

E hele kāua is the Hawaiian way of saying “let’s party”, and you’ll be glad to hear it on your trip. Locals say this phrase at sporting events, concerts, dinner, and of course, at a Lū'au. E hele kāua is a phrase that you want to hear on your vacation because it often marks the beginning of a fun night.

20. E Hele Kāua I Ke Kahakai

E hele kāua i ke kahakai is something that you need to say at least once on your trip to Hawaii. This phrase translates to “let’s go to the beach” and that’s something necessary for every Hawaiian vacation. Whether you say this to your cab driver or hear someone say it at a restaurant, this is a phrase worth learning.

Do All Hawaiians Speak English?

Not all Hawaiians speak English but over half of them do. Just over 54% of Hawaiians can speak English fluently whether it’s in public or private at their home. It is common for Hawaiians to speak exclusively speak Hawaiian while at home but that doesn’t apply to everyone.

Currently, nearly 25% of Hawaiians report that they don’t speak English while at home. That is much higher than residents of mainland states in the United States of America. You can largely chalk that up to how young Hawaii is as a state when you compare it to the rest of the country.

Hawaii was admitted to the country the same year as Alaska and both states are quite young compared to Virginia or Massachusetts. While it became a state in 1959, Hawaii has a long history and culture that sets it apart from most states in the union. Many locals speak Hawaiian to honor their heritage, family, and history.

What is Hawaii’s Main Language?

Hawaii’s main languages are English and Hawaiian which sets it apart from the rest of the United States. Locals refer to the language as Olelo Hawai'i as it is traditionally called and it is accepted just as much as English. You won’t find another state with a constitution that includes two languages as the standard.

This can be understandably intimidating to tourists in Hawaii, but you have nothing to worry about. Hawaii is such a tourism mecca that businesses fully expect that you will arrive and only understand English. Hotels, stores, and restaurants often post important messages in both Hawaiian and English to avoid confusion.

You will almost certainly encounter locals that don’t speak English if you venture out far from your hotel in Hawaii. That comes with the territory and is a great way to immerse yourself in the strong culture that Hawaii is known for. Even a basic understanding of their language can help you navigate Hawaii, mingle with locals, and get the most out of your trip.

Article updated:
January 5, 2024

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