Master Basic Hawaiian Greetings Today

Most travelers realize the importance of being polite when visiting a new destination—it will not only make your time there more pleasant, but you’ll be more likely to get to know the locals and truly experience the culture through their eyes.

Mastering basic Hawaiian greetings, learning common terms and becoming familiar with some of the island customs are some of the best ways to show your respect, become immersed in the culture and get to know the true Aloha Spirit during your stay.

For an ideal vacation, follow these tips on visitor etiquette in the Hawaiian Islands. To enhance your adventure further, take time to familiarize yourself with the common Hawaiian words below before you pack your bags.


If you hope to be a welcomed tourist, take this advice to heart:

  • If you are given a lei (a garland of flowers), always accept it and show your appreciation to the presenter. Never take it off in front of the person who gave it to you—if it starts to irritate, it’s okay to center it a little differently, but please wait until later to remove it completely so as not to be rude.
  • When asked to visit someone at home, always remove your shoes before entering.
  • Removing lava rocks or black sand for a souvenir or other purpose is considered bad luck.
  • Don’t wander through private property (someone’s yard) to get to a beach or other public area.
  • Allow anyone older than you, especially the elderly and mothers with young children, to cut in front of you while waiting in line for any activity.
  • Be courteous on the road. Don’t honk unless there is a real emergency. If you’re driving slowly in order to enjoy the scenery or navigate narrow roads and notice a local driver behind you, pull over and let them pass.
  • Be especially respectful at religious and/or historic sites.
  • It is illegal to approach humpback whales, seals and sea turtles. Observe from, and maintain, a distance of at least 100 yards.

Hawaiian Language

You’ve probably heard the words “aloha” and “mahalo,” but do you know what they mean and how they’re pronounced?

Aloha is pronounced “ah-lo-hah” and has several meanings, one being “to share the breath of life.” It is most commonly used to say hello and goodbye. Aloha is a Hawaiian philosophy—the local code of living. Mahalo is pronounced “muh-hah-lo” and simply means thank you.

One of the easiest ways to master basic Hawaiian greetings is to become familiar with the pronunciation of Hawaiian vowels. Many town and street names are written in Hawaiian, so this will make navigating much smoother.

Consonants are mostly pronounced the same way they are in English, with the exception being that the letter “W” is pronounced like the letter “V” in English, although locals and visitors alike tend to break this rule.

Start out by practicing Hawaiian vowels:

  • A sounds like ah as in aloha
  • E sounds like ay or eh as in pay or hey
  • I sounds like ee as in see
  • O sounds like oh as in odor or open
  • U sounds like oo as in moo

Another helpful tip to keep in mind is that while many Hawaiian words, including place names and the names of people, seem impossibly long and challenging to attempt to pronounce, you can break them up into a string of shorter words that are pieced together to create a longer descriptive label.

If you’ll be traveling to Hawaii with your family, consider making it a habit to practice some of the more common words at dinner each night. Here are several you should get to know well:

  • Water, both fresh and salt, is a common obsession for many islanders. Hawaiian words often incorporate this word into longer phrases. Wai is the term for fresh water, while kai is the term for sea or salt water.
  • Because fresh water is a necessity for life and something that was expected to be shared with others, the word wai also indicates wealth. For example, those who have an abundance of prosperity are referred to as “waiwai.” If you’re asking for a glass of ice water, you would say “wai hau.”
  • If you need to use the restroom, it’s especially important to be aware of the words “kane” for men and “wahine” for women.
  • “Pu pu” is the term for an appetizer or snack. This is an important one to remember lest you make a disgusted face when being offered a free bowl of pu pu with your drinks—bartenders enjoy testing tourists with this one.
  • “Kahuna” refers to a respected expert on any given subject in the community, whether it might be herbal medicine, religious practice, agricultural techniques, etc. It is similar to calling someone who holds a PhD “Doctor.”
  • “Kapuna” refers to respected elders.

Some traditional greetings in addition to aloha include:

  • “Aloha kakahiaka,” the term for good morning.
  • “Aloha ahiahi,” meaning “good evening,” is how you might be greeted in the evening when you walk into a restaurant for dinner.
  • “E komo mai” is the phrase for welcoming. The traditional Hawaiian greeting when you visit a home is “E komo mai. Nou ka hale”—”Welcome, my house is yours.”
  • “Pehea ‘oe?” is asking “How are you?”
  • “Maika ‘i” answers “I am fine.”
  • “Mahalo nui loa” and “mahalo a nui” both mean “thanks very much.”

The Hawaiian language is beautiful, and many natives believe that these words are sacred and even have spiritual power. Speaking with intent and becoming familiar with what the words really mean will go a long way in enhancing your visit and paying respect to the Hawaiian way of life.

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Practice the etiquette and Hawaiian terms from this article and you’ll endear yourself to the locals in no time. This will make your trip far more fun and may even result in a few lasting friendships.