Traditional Hawaiian Number Groups

Lesson 0503V Traditional Hawaiian Base-4 Grouping System

This 15 minute video covers the traditional Hawaiian base-4 number system used to group objects, much in the same way that English uses “a dozen” or “four score”. These are the beautiful numbers 4, 40, 400, 4000, 40,000, and 400,000. What a pattern!


One thing I love about teaching is that I often learn something new just by virtue of re-explaining something over and over. It was in this video – and thus thanks to all of you! – that I discovered that these six number names (kāuna, kaʻau, lau, mano, kini, and lehulehu) are used to group things, not necessarily to just count. I was always taught that these were “traditional counting numbers” and not of much use today. Furthermore, the Pukui-Elbert Dictionary uses the term “formulistic number” to describe these numbers; but I have no clue what that term really means in this context. Does any normal student? If any of you know, please add a comment or send me an email or post in the forums! Mahalo!

Unfortunately, these grouping terms are rarely used in Hawaiian language these days, except perhaps in humorous conversation. Nevertheless, perhaps they will come back into use as we rediscover how to re-incorporate kuanaʻike Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian world-view and Hawaiian thinking processes) back into the language over the next decade or so. This is one of my main goals and I hope that continuing to teach Hawaiian over the next few years will help me formulate my thinking on this topic.

Kuanaʻike Hawaiʻi

We need to start building sentences in our minds with a Hawaiian mindset, not an English-language-based mindset as is often the case in Hawaiian language classrooms of today (including, in many cases, my own!). I believe that this is one of the main characteristics that distinguishes the Hawaiian of today from that of the kūpuna elders and ancestors of years past. Now that grammar, vocabulary, and spelling have been essentially standardized for classroom use, the time has come for us to add back the “secret sauce” into the language: the kuanaʻike Hawaiʻi.

Numbers, Numbers Everywhere!

Returning to the topic of this video, I hope you enjoy it and learn something new! When I watched the video myself after recording it, I realized that I made a mistake in my counting of 4 x 8 and said it was “24”, which of course it is not! ahahaha! I had the numbers 3 and 8 stuck in my head for some reason – must have been an overload of multi-tasking while making the video! So “24 canoes” should be “6 kāuna waʻa”, not “8 kāuna waʻa” which would be 32 of course!

So please find the link to the video at the bottom of this article, and forgive the math.

Next Steps

Next up in the numbers series will be 0504V Numbers Zero and One, and Quantity vs. Question in which you will learn about how the numbers ʻekahi and hoʻokahi work, among other things.

The main index for this section, should you wish to go back, is at the 0500 Series Index

Video Outline

  1. Numbering based on the number 4
  2. 4 and 40 as exact numbers
  3. 400, 40,000, 400,000 as “fuzzy” numbers
  4. Kāuna
  5. Kaʻau
  6. Lau
  7. Mano
  8. Kini
  9. Lehu / Lehulehu
  10. “Nalowale”

Length: 15 minutes

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One comment on “Traditional Hawaiian Number Groups
  1. This was a fascinating video for me because I love numbers and am very interested in alternatives to base-10. Being a computer programmer, I am familiar with binary and hex (Base-2 and Base-16), and have even experimented in the ancient Babylonian base-60 (sexagesimal) number system. I heard some doubts from you about the true meaning of the word for these higher number and I wonder if they are in fact representing the numbers you have listed here. You have stated that Hawaiian’s traditionally used a base-4 number system, however the numbers forty, four hundred, four thousand, etc. are significant in a base-10 number system. Perhaps the if the number groups were truly base-4 then the higher number groups would sound more accurate and make more sense. For example: kāuna is four (Base-10: 4; Base-4: 10), kaʻau may be four fours or sixteen (Base-10: 16; Base-4: 100), lau may mean four sixteens or sixty four (Base-10: 64; Base-4: 1000), and mano may have meant four sixty fours or two hundred and fifty six (Base-10: 256; Base-4: 10000). I know this concept may be confusing to many, as it is still confusing to me, but that is what I find so fascinating about it. It is also hard to express what number we are referring to for number that are not in base-10 because our numbers 1 through 9 were designed to express base-10. That is why we use “A” in hex to represent Ten and “F” to represent Fifteen. So, maybe my theory is wrong, or maybe if you went back mano years or so and asked a Hawaiian how many dots are here (…. …. …. ….) they would say kaʻau.

    I would like to close with one of my all-time favorite jokes.

    There are only 10 types of people in the world:
    Those who understand binary,
    and those who don’t.

Pane mai

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