Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reduplication in Hawaiian: A Pronunciation Aide

Hawaiian words can often be difficult to pronounce for those not used to its idiosyncrasies. This is compounded when the words start exceeding five or so syllables, even though the actual pronunciation of each syllable is quite simple.

There's a particular pattern I've noticed running through a good number of Hawaiian words, one which can really help pronunciation once you learn to spot it. As a quick reminder, all Hawaiian words are composed of one or more syllables, each of which is either a vowel or diphthong, or a constant followed by a vowel or diphthong. Most consonants are pronounced the same way they are in English, except for w which is interchangeably pronounced as either w or v (mostly due to euphony). The only new sound is the ‘okina (the little ‘ symbol), which represents the glottal stop and is pronounced by simply blocking off the airstream at the back of the the throat, like the pause in the middle of “uh-oh.” Vowels are pronounced as follows:

a…“ah,” as in “father”
e…“ey,” as in “hey”
i…“ee,” as in “machine”
o…“oh,” as in “mote”
u…“oo,” as in “flute”

Diphthongs (two vowels together) are pronounced pretty similarly to English; basically just take the two vowel sounds and run them together. Technically there are only about seven diphthongs in Hawaiian, so not every grouping of vowels is one, but for this post I'll point out any exceptions as they come up.

Anyway, the point I wanted to make in this post is there a common pattern in a lot of Hawaiian words of the form A·B·B, where A and B are usually one or two syllables. For example, take the name of the capital of Hawaii:


which has a two-syllable A part, and a one-syllable B part. The opposite pattern (one-syllable A, two-syllable B) is even more common, and since it's a bit longer it can be harder to parse on the fly. For example, the dynastic name of the first king of the united Hawaiian islands is:


Very often when encountering a word that fits this pattern for the first time, I'll try to parse it incorrectly at first, in this case something like Kame·hame·ha. Recognizing this pattern will help you pronounce such words correctly; for instance, the primary stress almost always goes on the A part of the word. (The word division here, as an aside, is “ka,” meaning “the,” and “mehameha,” meaning “lonely” or “alone.” Perhaps appropriate for the first king of the whole archipelago who was famously rather reserved and isolated growing up.)

One more example of this style is the Hawaiian word for “rainbow”:


Here, “nue” is not a diphthong, and is pronounced as two syllables, ”nu-ey.” (The line over the a, called a “kahakō,” just means to draw that syllable out slightly longer – Hawaiian has both long and short vowels.)

When I first conceived of the post I had a whole host of words in mind to illustrate this pattern, and it figures that by the time I've sat down to write it I can't remember most of them. I'll add any new ones I think of at the end of the post in the future. A hui hou!

Edit (11/29/17): The name of the first known interstellar asteroid, ʻOumuamua, also follows this pattern (ua is not a diphthong):


ʻOumuamua means “scout” (like in a military sense) from ʻou meaning “to reach for” and mua, meaning forward or ahead.

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