Pronunciation Practice: Vowels

Compare Pure Sounds and Vowel Glides

When pronouncing Hawaiian vowels, producing the correct sound and controlling the shape of your mouth is crucial. It is all too easy to unknowingly alter the shape of your mouth, adding another vowel to what should actually be one pure vowel sound and producing an unwanted vowel glide or diphthong (“dipthong”). This occurs most frequently for English language speakers at the ends of Hawaiian words.

The main problem with adding an unwanted vowel glide to the end of a Hawaiian word is that the result is often a completely different word in Hawaiian! A great example of this —and one I hear frequently from students of Hawaiian language— is vs pou (shown as #10 in the list below). Therefore, pronunciation practice helps strengthen our awareness of how the vowels should sound and how we can best produce them.

Vowel Glide Practice

Provided below is a list of word pairs that often cause trouble for those just starting to learn Hawaiian. If you have not already done so, see video 0401V Pronunciation #1: The Alphabet for instruction on how to pronounce Hawaiian vowels and consonants.

For this lesson, read through the list below, try to say the words to yourself, and take note of the differences in meaning. After trying by yourself, listen to the correct pronunciation of each word pair by clicking on the audio links provided and then say them once again.

Vocabulary List (click on word to play)

1 wai (water)wae (to sort, select)
2 kai (sea)kae (refuse, trash)
3 moi (threadfish)moe (to lie down)
4 koi (to urge, insist upon)koe (to strike as a match when starting a fire)
5 kau (season)kao (a goat)
6 mau (always)mao (to cease raining)
7 hao (metal, iron)hau (snow, ice)
8 hē (a grave)hei (to snare)
9 hale (a house, building)halei (to straddle something)
10 pō (night)pou (a post, pillar)
11 ule (male genitalia)ulei (to lift or raise something)
12 nē (to whine, nag)nei (indicator of close proximity)

Further Practice With Difficult Diphthongs

Listen to the word pairs in the table above once again. Repeat each pair after me so that you can learn how to correctly pronounce the vowel combinations with accuracy. A great way to practice is to use headphones while listening to me on one device, while at the same time recording what you are saying on another device such as your iPhone, Android, tablet, computer, or what have you. Then listen back again and really assess how accurate you were.

Next Steps

The next video lesson in this Series is 0402V Pronunciation #2: Macrons followed by 0402P Pronunciation Practice for Kahakō, which will help you learn how to differentiate pairs of words with, and without, macrons (kahakō).

Three comments on “Pronunciation Practice: Vowels
  1. Mahalo! The explanation is perfect for everyone to know. For the future, please include.

    I think the one word that everyone should agree would be pronounced w/the “v” sound—-Hawai’i.

    I truly enjoy learning this language.

    • E Janet, aloha kāua! That is a great question and touches on something I did not really point out in any of the video lessons so far (thank you for the idea of another video topic for the future!).

      In short, both the “v” and “w” sounds have been in Polynesia for thousands of years and have gone in and out of favor in the various island groups throughout the Polynesian diaspora and later intermixing which has led us to where we are today with both “v” and “w” still being used in what may appear to be quite a random pattern between the Polynesian and Polynesian Outlier islands.

      In Hawaiʻi, we still continue to use both sounds. I would say in general that there is a “gradient” of use, with the “v” sound being used more on Hawaiʻi island (in the south), and the “w” being used more on Kauaʻi and Niʻihau (to the north). For example, on Kauaʻi, one would normally say “waʻa” (with the “w” sound) for “canoe” whereas on Hawaiʻi island, one would say “vaʻa” (written as “waʻa” however!). This is not a hard and fast rule, however, because native speakers of the past, living in small groups around each island, may have “broken” this general pattern of use (the Mokuhulu-Kaimū-Kalapana area on Hawaiʻi island generally favoring the “w” sound as an example as far as I can tell).

      Today, we see the almost total loss Hawaiian speech variation based on area (excepting Niʻihau native speakers) due to (1) the loss of native-speaking “enclaves” of folks who keep their own dialects due to isolation; (2) the loss of large groups of Hawaiian language speakers on each Island who would “normalize” their own speaking style; and (3) the Hawaiian language revitalization movement which has had (by necessity) to create a “standardized” Hawaiian for use in teaching and assessing the language in school and university classrooms as well as at “Hawaiian language immersion” schools across the state. This being said, however, we do still have the “v” and “w” sounds being preferred by speakers in the general north-south pattern I mentioned above, since we all completely accept that both “v” and “w” are correct and may be essentially interchanged at any time (not always, but almost always: think of “ʻEwa” district on Oʻahu which is always pronounced “ʻEva” and newa ewa “ʻEwa” with a “w”!)

      Okay, so now to your question! You could say either “Vaimea” or “Waimea” and be correct anywhere, although I would suggest that you would want to follow whatever the kūpuna (older folks and their predecessors) would have said in that place if you can find that out from listening to old recordings, for example. In all cases, the sounds of “v” and “w” are always written with the “w” character. Thank you for your question! Aloha.

Pane mai

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