Those pesky Hawaiian names

“One of Keawe’s sons was your grandfather, Kalanike‘eaumoku. Your own father, Keoua, is his son.”

Kamehameha slowly repeated the unfamiliar name. “Ka-lani-ke-au-moku.”

“Keawe had a son by another wife, who was of the ‘Ī family; this son was Kalaninui-‘Ī-amao. Your uncle, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, is his son.”

“Ka-lani-nui-I-a-ma-ma-o,” Kamehameha said, committing another forebear to memory.

Once There Was Fire: A Novel of Old Hawaii, copyright 2016, Stephen Shender

 Kealakekua—Try saying that three times fast.

In the way that the old Hawaiians’ complex, interlocking genealogies are mind-benders, Hawaiian names are torturous tongue twisters. In combination, their effect can be head spinning. “The names are so hard,” is my readers’ most common complaint about my novel’s early going. True, but the names are the names. Readers’ laments about the characters’ names remind me of Joseph Heller’s exasperated colonel in Catch 22, who demanded of an underling, “What the hell kind of name is Yossarian?” only to be told “It’s Yossarian’s name sir.”

What kind of name is Kalani‘ōpu‘u? It’s Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s name, dear reader. I regret that if you want to continue with the book past the first couple of chapters, you’ll just have to soldier on. That’s not to say you don’t have my sympathy. It took me quite a while to learn to read, not to mention pronounce, the polysyllabic names of Once There Was Fire’s characters and the places they inhabit. The key to getting over this hurdle is to remember that in the Hawaiian language, every vowel is pronounced. So instead of trying to pronounce Kalani‘ōpu‘u in one breath at first encounter, break it down by syllables: “Ka-la-ni-o-pu-u.” Actually, because the “i” in Hawaiian sounds like our long “e,” a better representation would be “Ka-la-nee-o-pu-u.” Moreover, because the “ō” in this character’s name signifies that you have to hold this syllable longer than the rest, an even better representation would be “Ka-la-nee-oh-pu-u.”

The reversed apostrophes in Hawaiian names are helpful guides to pronunciation. They’re glottal stops indicating a sharp break between two syllables in instances where there’s no intervening consonant. Take, for example, the place name Nāpo‘opo‘o. That would be “Nah” (remember that long ā sound) followed by “po-o-po-o.” Get this one down and you can impress your friends by pronouncing the name of the place correctly when you encounter it on a Big Island road sign, and they mangle it by saying “Na-poo-poo,” or some such thing.

Now you know how to at least talk Hawaiian, even if you don’t really speak it. (Full disclosure: Neither do I.) So, now try saying Kealakekua three times fast. Still can’t?

Be grateful I never wrote a scene about Kamehameha catching a humuhumunukunukuapuaa, modern Hawaii’s state fish. I think the Hawaiians’ chose it to drive us haole people crazy.

Enjoy this blog? You’ll enjoy Once There Was Fire.


3 thoughts on “Those pesky Hawaiian names”

  1. The history of Hawaii has always been of interest to me (other than Egypt – obviously).
    I’d like to suggest something (blog article) to you but find your “contact me” page/link does not work. Please, contact me.

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