Hawaiian Language and Syllabic Structure


Hawaiian Language

Hawaiian is a language spoken on the Hawaiian Islands, mainly on Ni‘ihau Island and the Big Island of Hawai‘i. It is one of the two official languages of the state of Hawaii, though Hawaiian Creole English (usually called Pidgin) is also natively spoken in the islands. According to Ethnologue, a collection of language statistics published by SIL International, there are said to be about 1000 native speakers of the language and maybe as many as 8000 speakers in general. ‘Olelo Hawai‘i and ‘Olelo Hawai‘i Makuahine are alternate names of the language. The language is widespread in oral tradition and songs, and there is also limited broadcasting of radio and TV programs in Hawaiian.

          Hawaiian is a  relative of the Marquesic language,  one of the Oceanic languages of the Eastern Malayo-Polynesian group of the Austronesian family. The first Polynesians may have traveled from the Central Pacific area, east, probably to the Marquesas Islands and in the 4th century bce to Easter Island and Tahiti. Other groups went north to Hawaii and south to New Zealand. They carried their language with them, of course, but over time Hawaiian developed its own unique characteristics.

Hawaiian is known for its small sound inventory, with only eight consonants and five vowels. The distinction between short and long vowels is phonemic; that is, a word with a short vowel has a different meaning when the vowel is replaced with a long one. For example, kau (with a short vowel) means ‘to place something’ and kāu (with a long vowel) means ‘yours.’

          Like many languages in the Oceanic family, Hawaiian uses the process of reduplication, doubling all or part of a word, to form new words. So, for example, wiki means ‘move fast,’ and wikiwiki means ‘quick.’ (And yes, the wiki- of Wikipedia came from this Hawaiian word.)


The reduplication problem set may raise questions about the nature of syllables – what syllables are, how we know what they are, how they vary across languages. It is actually difficult to provide a neat definition of a syllable, though we are really good at intuitively knowing what they are, and we all have awareness of syllables naturally and unconsciously. Very young children are able to tap out syllables; many phonological processes refer to syllables of words; and children (and adults) manipulate syllables quite skillfully in all sorts of ways.

          Languages do have varying syllable structures. The group of consonants at the beginning of a syllable is called the onset, and the vowel and any consonants following it at the end of the syllable are called the rime. The rime can be further divided into a nucleus, a vowel that is the nucleus of the rime, and a coda, the consonant(s) at the end of the rime. To the right is a visual representation of the syllabic structure for the word dog.

        A syllable in English can be pretty big, compared to other languages. It can have a cluster of up to three sounds at the beginning; consider words like splat, strap, sprig, all of which have three consonants as the onset. And English can have a cluster at the end, as the coda, as well; consider barks or bands. In many other languages, including Hawaiian and Japanese, an onset can have only a single consonant, and a rime must be just a vowel, so the basic structure of the Hawaiian syllable is simply a consonant (C) and a vowel (V). A so-called CV syllable is the most common type of syllable in the world’s languages. When a word is borrowed from one language into another, speakers will make that word conform to the syllable structure of their own language. Consider the following English word strike, which, when borrowed into Japanese, conforms to the CV syllable structure of Japanese, thus turning a one-syllable English word into a five-syllable Japanese word: su-to-ra-i-ku. Likewise, in Hawaiian, the English loanword aunty becomes ‘a-na-kē. In the Hawaiian word there are three syllables instead of two, each syllable is CV ( ‘ is a glottal stop, as in uh-oh, that is consonantal in nature), and the word also includes a replacement of /t/, which is not part of the Hawaiian sound system, with /k/, which is a close relative of /t/.

Syllabic consonants and nucleus-less syllables

While it is usually the case that the nucleus of a syllable is a vowel, there are words where a consonant fills that slot. Consider the word, table. It has a structure of CVC, C. The /l/ in table has some of the properties of a vowel and can be classified along with vowels, /r/, and nasals like /m/ and /n/ as a sonorant. And there are some languages, including the Salishan and Wakashan languages, that seem to defy the universal structure of syllables, where the nucleus is neither a vowel or a sonorant. English has a few such examples – Shh! 'Quiet!' and Psst! (a sound used to get attention). A few examples from a language of the Northwest coast of North America, Nuxálk (Bella Coola)....

[ɬχʷtɬtsxʷ] 'you spat on me'
[tsʼktskʷtsʼ] 'he arrived'
[xɬpʼχʷɬtɬpɬɬs] 'he had in his possession a bunchberry plant'
[sxs] 'seal blubber'

Some argue that there are no syllables in this language, but one linguist, Bruce Bagemihl, argues that they have a traditional structure with only sonorants in the nucleus.