Hawaiian Names

October 1, 2012 § 10 Comments

Maui’s Napili Bay.


The Hawaiian middle name of underwear model Antonio Sabato, Jr.’s one-year-old son Antonio III is a doozy (Jr. got married in Hawaii recently!) To the untrained eye, this 22-letter word is not a name; it’s a purposeful tongue-twister. But Hawaiian words have a tendency to be long, with phrases grouped together like compound words. One word, no matter how long, can often be directly translated into multi-word phrases. Kamakanaalohamaikalani, for example? It means “beloved gift from the heavens.”

Earlier this year I took a trip to Hawaii (and now that it’s officially fall, what better time to reminisce about the warm weather?) While there I learned one very vital piece of information in regards to pronunciation – which Westerners nearly always butcher. In general, for every vowel in a Hawaiian or Polynesian word, it’s the beginning of a new syllable. With that in mind, how does one pronounce Kamakanaalohamaikalani?

That’s easy. It’s Kama-kana-aloha-ma-ee-ka-lani. (Got that? 😉

This rule, naturally, is not mutually exclusive (but when are linguistics ever that simple?) The two i’s in Hawaii, for example, don’t indicate that the 50th US state, the most Westernized region of Polynesia, is pronounced Ha-wa-ee-ee – but rather an indication of how hard one must hit the long e sound at the end of the word. On the islands of Lanai or Kauai, for example, the single i means you hit the end syllable much more sharply. Westerners have taken to calling the islands La-nye or Ka-wye, which is incorrect. English texts also tend to ignore the ‘okina, as in Hawai’i, or the kahakō macron (denoting a long vowel), although these parts of the Hawaiian language contribute to the meaning of a word.

I also learned that every Hawaiian word ends in a vowel – but the letter Y acts solely as a consonant as no words in Hawaiian end in -y. And with only 17 consonants in the Hawaiian alphabet (b, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, y, z), the words inevitably follow numerous patterns. Long and flowing words that are heavy on vowels generally indicate that they come from this region of the world. The Hawaiian language – with English, the co-official language of the 50th U.S. state though less than 0.1 per cent of Hawaiians are native speakers anymore – is based in Polynesian. The colonial history of the United States on the island of Hawaii has also contributed to a pidgin dialect called Hawaii Creole English, which can be mistaken for neither of the original languages. Nonetheless, linguists worry about the future of the Hawaiian language as English, and lately an injection of some Asian dialects, begin to take over on the islands.

Like any language, the nature of it’s survival through the ages could be in names. Ancient dialects have derived millions of names in use today, regardless of the countless variations or alterations along the way. And our infatuation with Hawaiian names is nothing new – though we do use them sparingly without a connection to the islands of some kind. The top Hawaiian inspired baby names used in the United States in 2011, according to the annual SSA list released in May, were Kai from the boys’ list (at 202), and Leilani from the girls’ (at 204).

Kai means “sea” and has certainly found popular use (but it also claims Scandinavian, Greek, and Welsh origins with different meanings, which probably increases it’s popularity among non-Hawaiian parents and contributes to the Westerniszed one-syllable pronunciation). Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly has a 15-year-old son named Kai, and British soap star Danniella Westbrook’s son Kai is 16. English footballer Wayne and wife Coleen Rooney had son Kai Wayne in November 2008, and another footballer, Dutch star Arjen Robben, welcomed son Kai in February this year. Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber welcomed Samuel Kai in December 2008, British-born former ER star Parminder Nagra had son Kai David Singh in 2009, and German-Australian soap star Ingo Rademacher (General Hospital), who lives in Hawaii, welcomed son Peanut Kai in 2008 (his second son, Pohaku, born last year, has a Hawaiian name that means “stone,” but it’s also used as a transliteration for Peter). Donald Trump Jr. and wife Vanessa had daughter Kai Madison in 2007 (which is also the name of NBA star Vince Carter’s daughter, born in 2005), and American actress Tichina Arnold welcomed daughter Alijah Kai in 2004.  Ryan Phillippe’s daughter with former girlfriend Alexis Knapp is named Kailani (that would be “heavenly sea”) Merizalde, but called Kai. The name is simple and sweet and has been a nickname for trendy choices like Kaya and Kiana (along with Guiana, it’s the Hawaiian form of Diana) for years.

Leilani means “heavenly blossoms,” from lei (“blossoms,” but in Hawaiian culture, the ‘blossoms’ are a literal representation of ‘the children/people’ as well as being actual blossoms) + lani (“heavenly”). Anyone who has been to Hawaii probably knows that you can get someone to meet you at the airport with a lei – the traditional Hawaiian gift of welcome, signifying love and respect for whom it is given. Along with a necklace and a ride to your hotel, the floral pieces are a quintessential part of the Hawaiian experience. In Hawaiian history, they could be made of flowers, seeds, shells, feathers, and even the bones and teeth of animals, and they were exchanged by ancient royal chiefs to signify peace between their tribes. Because of the symbolic gesture of the giving of leis, Leilani has also come to refer to the wearer – a “royal child of Heaven.” Former NFLer Curtis Conway, now married to boxer Laila Ali, has a 13-year-old daughter named Leilani, but ultimately similar, shorter names have proven much more accessible (like Laila, indeed!) to most parents. Some parents might be inspired by the standard “Sweet Leilani,” which has been recorded by Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Chris Isaak over the years, though it hasn’t been popularly produced in a while.

Not surprisingly, because of the Americanization of the Hawaiian islands, their Top 5 significantly resembles trends across the country (Noah, Mason, Elijah, Aiden, and Ethan), but names of Hawaiian origin obviously chart significantly higher on the islands. Kai comes in at number 12 on the boys’ state list for 2011, while Leilani sits at 24 on the girls’. Interestingly, while Malia charts at 314 nationwide, below Leilani, it’s number 13 on the state list to rank as the most popular female Hawaiian name on the islands. Popularized of late by the eldest daughter of Hawaiian-born US president Barack Obama, Malia is the Hawaiian form of Mary. (My name in Hawaiian is Apikalia – you can generate yours here!)

Other Hawaiian-inspired choices popular in Hawaii include Keanu (“the coolness,” as in the weather, but meaning and Keanu Reeves association gives the name a couple cool points!) at 66, Kekoa (“the warrior”) at 74 – a cousin to trendy, Hawaiian-inspired Koa, which I’ve covered, Nainoa, which means “the namesakes,” is at 87, with Kaimana (“diamond”) at 93, at Kainoa, meaning “the namesake,” is at 94 on the boys’ list. The similarity of Nainoa and Kainoa is no accident – na or ne is the plural form of ka or ke (the), and inoa is the Hawaiian word for “name.” None of these names crack the US Top 1000.

Hawaiian names in the statewide girls’ list for 2011 included Kailani at 39, Kiana at 45, Anela (“angel”) at 52, and Kalia (the name of a type of tree or sweet potato, it also means “waited for”) at 55. Only Kiana ranks in the US Top 1000, at 628.

Other choices popular in Hawaii include the male name Kanoa (“the commoner,” a reference to Hawaii’s monarchic island history), and female names Mahina (moon), Kalena (the Hawaiian form of Karen, but also a less-used slang term to describe “the lazy one”), Maile (the native plant used to make traditional hula skirts and for use in special leis, and the name of comedian Wayne Brady’s daughter, Maile Masako, 9), Kailea (“joyful sea”), Anuhea (“sweetness” or “cool fragrance”), Naia (possibly from the Hawaiian nai’a meaning “dolphin”), and Nanea (“pleasant, relaxing”).

Celebrities, like Sabato, have sometimes been a little bolder in their Hawaiian name choices, Koa‘s recent celeb popularity notwithstanding. FOX New correspondent Courtney Friel and husband Carter Evans welcomed daughter Cameron Kaiulani in April. Kaiulani was the last Crown Princess of the Hawaiian islands and her name means “the royal sacred one.” Evangeline Lilly and her Hawaiian boyfriend, Norman Kali, welcomed a son named Kahekili, which means “the thunder,” in May 2011. Actress Lisa Bonet’s children with Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa are named Lola Iolani, 5, and Nakoa-Wolf Manakauapo Namakaeha, 3. Iolani means “to soar like the hawk,” a variation on Iolana. Nakoa means “the warriors,” while Namakaeha, which is a Momoa family name, may mean “family of millers” as an occupational surname. Manakauapo is another one-word solution to a group of connected phrases, from mana (spirit) + kaua (the rain) + po (dark). Both Lilly and Bonet named their sons for the stormy conditions on the nights their sons were born, and it’s not unlike Hawaiian names to make one feel connected to nature.

Visiting Hawaii, for a start, is to experience a unique piece of the natural world, still pristine despite it’s Americanization. Hawaiian culture, if not the language, still permeates everyday life on the islands of Hawaii. Metallica’s Kirk Hammett has sons named Angel Ray Keala (meaning “the pathway”) and Vincenzo Kainalu (“ocean wave”), though some consider both to be female names – The Walking Dead star Sarah Wayne Callies welcomed daughter Keala in July 2007. Actor Woody Harrelson, who lives in Hawaii, named his third daughter Makani Ravello in 2006. Makani is a Hawaiian unisex nature name meaning “wind.” And in truth, all authentic Hawaiian names were meant to be unisex, even though in Western culture, names ending in vowels are overwhelmingly considered feminine.

And we might like names for other reasons, from other origins, without realizing they have traditional Hawaiian meaning – Leia means “child of Heaven,” Lana means “calm as still waters,” and juxtaposing Alana means “awakening.” Luana means “content, happy” in Hawaiian, while Kalea means “bright,” Kaila means “style,” and Malana means “soothing.” Noa is a variation on Noah, and means “freedom.”

All these names with their beautiful meanings are splendid, but Old Hawaiians were actually encouraged to give their children names like Kukae (“excrement”) – a traditional practice said to help ward off sorcery. If you were born Kealoha (“the love”) but then fell ill in childhood, your 19th Century Hawaiian parents would have thought nothing of changing your name to something Westerners probably deemed offensive, presumably with the thought process that a name with a negative meaning could combat evil spirits. Certain other naming traditions were prevalent, and important, in pre-colonial Hawaii. For example, any names ending in –lani (“heaven”) were reserved only for tribal royalty, with the understanding that they were closer to God than the slave class. And poor Hawaiians never thought themselves above their station, until, of course, Western values were infused on their culture in the mid-1800s.

In 1860, King Kamehameha IV signed The Act to Regulate Names, which required all Hawaiians to be given Christian/English names. The Hawaiian people, who had also traditionally never had surnames, were told that their father’s names would henceforth become the family surname. Traditional Hawaiian names were only permitted as middle names, until the culturally debilitating law was finally repealed in 1967. Of course, most Hawaiians still use Christian or English names for their offspring to this day, but choice is nice!

And while Hawaiians of today tend to stick to the names with beautiful meanings, the typical selections most often familiar with Western cultures, you will find Hawaiians throughout the islands with traditional names that cause tourists to do a double take. My double take? Happened when I met a guy named Pa’a on Kauai. I asked him what it meant and he told me there was no English translation that made sense, but that it, essentially, marked one of the cornerstones of Hawaiian civilization, as in “just being.” Further research finds little, but I did find a translation of “spark of existence” that would line up with his explanation.

And now, a song that is so quintessentially Hawaiian that it plays on repeat almost anywhere on the islands that you go (I’ve had it on repeat while writing this post, so enjoy) – Hawaiian pop star Israel Kamakawawiwo’ole‘s take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which is a classic. Commonly known as Iz, he was immensely popular in Hawaii, and became a national treasure when he died in 1997 at age 38.

What Hawaiian names are on your list?


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§ 10 Responses to Hawaiian Names

  • There is something very beautiful about Polynesian names – I’m not sure if these names are all specific to Hawaii, as some of them are common in Australia in the Pacific Islander community, who are often from Fiji or Tonga.

    They have influenced Australian naming practices (Kai, Kalani, Noa, Leilani, Malia etc), but we have influenced them too – I saw a baby girl of a young Islander couple named Nevaeh, and it occurred to me that the name probably fits in with Polynesian name sounds very well. As with your pop star, Israel is very common as an Islander name, and that probably has a good “sound” too.

    The practice of giving a baby a “bad” name to protect it wouldn’t seem strange to our ancestors – right up into the 20th century, superstitious parents would never praise their children in case fairies stole them, but would say insulting things about them to avert harm. And you would never even say you had a child lest the fairies heard – they were always a pot lid. In Australia, we still call kids billy-lids!

    • That is so cool with the billy-lid thing. I just love that! And so funny because it’s very un-American so that Pacific Islanders way of thinking is kind of foreign in North America. Really, it was the American disgust in the practice of giving kids names that meant such terrible things that helped encourage the Regulation of Names Act. While the United States is absolutely a spiritual nation, magic is still myth, and evil spirits are either not real or eminently beatable.

      And it’s probably true that these names are essentially Polynesian, not just Hawaiian, because there wouldn’t be a Hawaiian language without Polynesia. Nevaeh definitely sounds Hawaiian and in a lot of ways the h is silent anyway, but a true name from the Pacific islands would end in a vowel. Dare we respell Nevaeh, which is kind of a nice name that maybe doesn’t need to have religious connotations? Nevaya? Nevaia? Naveyah? I’m reaching… 🙂

  • Dee says:

    I am born and raised in Hawaii, and of Hawaiian ancestry. I just would like to say, that I enjoyed reading what you wrote. It was done in a very respectful manner. 😊😃😃

  • […] Hawaiian Names | The Name Station – Oct 01, 2012 · Kamakanaalohamaikalani. The Hawaiian middle name of underwear model Antonio Sabato, Jr.’s one-year-old son Antonio III is a doozy (Jr. got married in …… […]

  • Carol says:

    Just happened upon your blog. Am a writer and editor and have lived in Hawaii for 25 years. Most of what you wrote is valid — except for there being 17 consonants in the Hawaiian language. There are only 12 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet: a,e,h,i,k,l,m,n,o,p,u,w and sometimes the soft ‘v’ but written as w. — a total of 7 consonants — not 17 –.and that is why so many syllables are repeated to change meanings of words.

  • Arthur Bernstein says:

    I would like to know what the name “Namakaeha” means.

  • Kehaulani says:

    the Hawaiian alphabet consist of 12 letters total, 5 vowels and 7 consonants. . . A, E, I, O, U, H, K, L, M, N, P, W.

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