Hawaii Travelogue: A Japan away from Japan [Ch.14: Linguistic Notes]

By | July 7, 2017

This article is a part of series of articles about my 2017 trip to Hawaii. Please see the table of contents that contains links to other chapters.

Linguistic Notes

If you’ve read the other articles in this series, you can probably tell I was thinking about language fairly often in the back of my mind during our trip to Hawaii. Besides the stuff I already mentioned about Japanese being deeply integrated into Hawaiian society, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Japanese and Hawaiian words. Just as with Japanese, Hawaiian language seems to have frequent usage of many consonant/vowel patterns, like for example the word “Waikiki” that is easy to spell in Japanese without modification (ワイキキ). When we drove around the coast we stumbled across a place called “Haiku” which of course sounds like Japanese short poems (“俳句”), though I was told there is no connection. I haven’t studied Hawaiian language to any extent, but when I listened to a few words spoken the vowels also sounded similar to Japanese ones.

If you stay in Hawaii for any period of time, you’re likely to pick up on a few Hawaiian words that are mixed in with English. Besides the commonly-known “aloha” (which I learned from context means not just ‘hello’ but also ‘goodbye’), the word “mahalo” is used in places like signs in hotels and throughout the city. When I first saw this word for “thanks” I was confused but eventually figured it out.

Another word that is used commonly in an English context is “pupu” which means “appetizer” in a general sense and seems to be related to the “pupu platter” dishes that some Chinese restaurants serve. One more word that I saw a few times and is useful to know is “ono” which means “tasty”. You can see this in advertisements in phrases like “Try out our ono food!”.

If you explore Honolulu, you’re likely to run across the word “Kamehameha”, whether it’s on a statue or a name of a street. Some of you may know this as the name of one of Goku’s super moves in the classic Dragon Ball anime series. This name, in fact, is the family name of several Hawaiian Kings who are celebrated as famous historical figures. A little research shows that the super move was apparently picked by Akira Toriyama’s wife because it sounded funny and appropriate to kame-sennin, a character whose name means “Turtle Hermit” and is called “Master Roshi” in the English version. It is written in Japanese as “かめはめ波” , where the last character represents the word “wave”. I think the word kamehameha was kept untranslated in the English version of Dragon Ball, but if I were to try to make a English translation which captures it’s essence, it might be something like Turtle-Jertle-Wave.

When I asked a local who worked at a restaurant in Shirokiya food court, he said many locals of Hawaii speak a language called “pidgin” which is a mix of English, Creole, and other languages. It is more formally called “Hawaiian Pidgin English”. The word “pidgin” can also be used to refer to a simplified language that different ethnic groups use to communicate, basically an informal mix of multiple languages. Things can be a bit confusing since “Hawaiian Pidgin English” is technically not a “pidgin” language, but a formal, stable language. 

Hawaiian Pidgin English can be surprising when you first experiene it because it almost sounds like someone is purposefully trying to sound funny. For example, in the Honolulu airport I saw a book called “Da Jesus Bible” which, as you might guess, is a type of Bible. Another example phrase is “Da watah stay cold” which means ”The water is cold”. This language is different enough to feel like a totally different culture, and yet at the same time I think the average English speaker can understand it with a little effort.

There are also some words used in daily life in Hawaii that come from Japanese that aren’t that common in the US, such as tako (octopus), ika (squid) and furikake (a seasoning consisting of fish, seeds, and other things). These words are used as-is in an English context.

Just based on my brief stay in Hawaii, I’d imagine that it would be a good place for doing linguistic studies due to the large diversity of languages used there.

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4 thoughts on “Hawaii Travelogue: A Japan away from Japan [Ch.14: Linguistic Notes]

  1. CP


    Although spelling is similar between the two languages and vowel pronunciation is the same, intonation is different. Haiku is pronounced “Ha’iku” with a guttural stop between the “a” and “i”. It means “speak abruptly or sharp break”.

    In addition, it is known that Toriyama did ask his wife for “Something-ha, something-ha”; in olelo Hawai’i, “Ka-mehameha” literally means “The (ka) lonely one (mehameha)”.

    Excellent articles! Glad you enjoy Hawai’i. 🙂

    PS. Just to add to your daily life words list, tourists say “soy sauce”, locals say “shoyu”. ;p

    “Pocket Place Names of Hawai’i – (1989)

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Mahalo for the comment! Thanks for reading!


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