One thing that first-time visitors to Hawaii mention are the seemingly complicated Hawaiian names found on street signs and maps. Be assured: there’s a way to get through words that look like vowel soup.
Look for the ‘okina or break up long words with lots of vowels.
An ‘okina is a character that resembles an apostrophe or a tiny, upside down, superscript 6. It marks a very brief pause between the syllables of a word, a sound you can hear in the word “uh-oh,” for example. (This is also called, for you grammar nerds out there, a glottal stop.) Pronouncing the vowel and consonant sounds separated by the ‘okina allows you to break down the word into shorter, simpler parts, but you can also do this with longer words in which there is no ‘okina. This is also useful for when the ‘okina is absent from traffic and street signs.
Look for vowel pairs and syllable couples
Note that some vowel pairs are not pronounced separately, but together as one sound, unless they are separated by an okina. “Au,” (pronounced like “ow”) “ei” (pronounced “ay”) and “ae” (usually pronounced “eye”) are such pairs (called a diphthong).
Practice with common names
Try this method with some of these street names and cities:
Mokulele–broken up into 4 parts is easy to pronounce phonetically: Moe-koo-LAY-lay
Honoapiilani–broken up into 7 parts is pronounced: Ho-no-ah-pee-ee-LA-knee
Kaahumanu–is another 5 part word: Ka-ah-hu-MAH-noo
Hookele–broken into 4 parts, with the stop happening between the two Os: Ho-oh-KAY-lay
Haleakala–broken into 5 parts: Ha-lay-ah-kah-LA
Kihei–very simply, in 2 parts: KEY-hay
Kaanapali–properly pronounced in five parts, with the stop between the As, but commonly pronounced in four parts, without the stop between the two As: KA-nah-PAW-lee (or ka-AH-nah-PAW-lee if you honor the okina)
Note that the emphasis on some words will vary from person to person, just as with words in other languages. Often the authentic pronunciation differs from the casual dialect that has evolved over time. You’ll also hear some widely accepted pronunciations of Hawaiian words that are incorrect, but most locals use them. One such example is Hali’imaile. The way that you’ll most likely hear it pronounced is “HIGH-lee-MY-lee.”
Most Important: It’s OK to slow down
Remember, while you’re driving around Maui, that slowing down to read those long street names is OK. Speed limits are low, and if you’re on vacation, a change of pace is probably why you’re here. Take your time, both driving, and “talking story.” Discover the island with aloha and be safe. Welcome!