Hawaiian alphabet

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Hawaiian alphabet
Type Alphabet
Spoken languages Hawaiian language
Created by American Protestant missionaries
Time period 1822-Present
Parent systems

As an oral tradition, handed down generation after generation, the true origins of the Hawaiian language are relatively unknown. The Hawaiian alphabet, ka pīāpā Hawai i, however, does not have such an obscure past. It was originally designed in the early 1800s by American missionaries who wanted to print a Hawaiian bible. Due to the language being passed down as an oral tradition, the missionaries had to adapt the Roman alphabet to fit their needs.


In 1778, British explorer James Cook made the first reported European discovery of Hawaiʻi. In his report, he wrote the name of the islands as "Owhyhee" or "Owhyee". By July 1823, they had begun using the phrase "Hawaiian Language." The actual writing system was developed by American Protestant missionaries on January 7, 1822. The original alphabet included
A, B, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U, V, W, Y, Z
and seven diphthongs
In 1826, the developers voted to eliminate some of the letters which represented functionally redundant interchangeable letters, enabling the Hawaiian alphabet to approach the ideal state of one-symbol-one-sound, and thereby optimizing the ease with which people could teach and learn the reading and writing of Hawaiian.

  • Interchangeable B/P. B was dropped, P was kept.
  • Interchangeable L/R. L was kept, R was dropped.
  • Interchangeable K/T. K was kept, T was dropped.
  • Interchangeable V/W. V was dropped, W was kept.


Due to words with different meanings being spelled alike, use of the glottal stop became necessary. As early as 1823, the missionaries made limited use of the apostrophe to represent the glottal stop, but they did not make it a letter of the alphabet. In publishing the Hawaiian bible, they used the ʻokina to distinguish koʻu ('my') from kou ('your'). It wasn’t until 1864 that the ʻokina became a recognized letter of the Hawaiian alphabet.


As early as 1821, one of the missionaries, Hiram Bingham, was using macrons in making handwritten transcriptions of Hawaiian vowels. The macron, or kahakō, was used to differentiate between short and long vowels. The macron itself never became an official letter. Instead, a second set of vowels with macrons were added to the language as separate letters.

Modern Alphabet

A children's alphabet book in Hawaiian

The current official Hawaiian Alphabet consists of 18 letters: 5 normal vowels; Aa, Ee, Ii, Oo, Uu: 5 Vowels with Macrons; Āā, Ēē, Īī, Ōō, Ūū: and 8 consonants; Hh, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Pp, Ww, ʻokina.


Character Character Name IPA
Aa /a/
Ee /e/
Ii /i/
Oo /o/
Uu /u/
Āā 'ākō /aː/
Ēē 'ēkō /eː/
Īī 'īkō /iː/
Ōō 'ōkō /oː/
Ūū 'ūkō /uː/
Hh /h/
Kk /k/
Ll /l/
Mm /m/
Nn /n/
Pp /p/
Ww /ʋ/
ʻ ʻokina /ʔ/


Diphthongs Pronunciation Examples
ai i in ice kai = sea water
ae I or eye Maeʻola = Never-fading
ao ow in how

without nasal twang

Maoli = True

Kaona = Hidden Meaning

au ou in house or out

without nasal twang

Au = I, I am
ei ei in chow mein

or in eight

Lei = Garland
eu eh-(y)oo ʻEleu = Lively
iu ee-(y)oo

similar to ew in few

Wēkiu = Topmost
oe oh-(w)eh ʻOe = You
oi oi in voice Poi = Hawaiian Staple
ou ow in bowl Kou = your
ui oo-(w)ee in gooey Hui = Together, team, Chorus


Alternative Hawaii