“It’s pronounced L’wah. It’s French,” proclaimed the guy sitting next to my son, Aaron. Aaron gives him side-eye. The guy and his girlfriend are studying the bios of the authors seated on the platform in front of the room. It’s the first day of a writers’ conference and I’m here to talk about how to write children who sound, act, and think like children instead of mini-adults. Seated in the middle of the table, I figure I’m in a power-spot.
“No, says the woman, spotting a dark-haired, olive-skinned author seating herself to my right. “It’s Native American. It’s Leh-huish-hah.”
Aaron tries not to snicker.
“I’m telling you it’s French. L’wah!”
“Welcome everyone. Let’s start by having each of our panelists introduce themselves.”
“Aloha! My name is Lay-who-ah Parker and I write…”
When they hear me say my name, they both shake their heads. “No,” the guy says, “she’s wrong.”
On Hawaiian playgrounds and beaches it’s common to hear Moms calling for little Kalani, Pua, or Lei, but usually you’re only hearing part of the story. Kids with Hawaiian names are often called by nicknames formed out of shorten versions of their full Hawaiian names. Most full Hawaiian names are unique to that individual; children are rarely named after someone else, and names are not borrowed from a lineage outside one’s own—at least not without specific permission.
Unlike Western names which tend to be a single or compound word, most Hawaiian names are much longer, combining at least a noun and adjective to convey a complete thought or idea. Phrases and even complete sentences as names are not unheard of, and in modern times when few speak Hawaiian, names are sometimes lifted from Hawaiian translations of the Bible or from well-loved songs and poems.
Traditionally, giving a child a Hawaiian name requires much prayer, reflection, and consultation with elders. Rather than simply choosing a name themselves, it’s not uncommon for parents to receive a name as a gift from a grandparent or other respected family member. Parents who break with protocol and tradition do so at a risk: I’ve had two cousins whose birth certificates had to be changed because an elder later said they were given the wrong Hawaiian name. Everyone tsk-tsk’d that the parents didn’t know what they were doing when they chose Hawaiian middle names based on the idea that they “sounded good” with the first names they’d picked.
Being asked to name a child is an honor that people take very seriously. Birth names are powerful and often express qualities hoped for or seen in a child. Once a name is needed, the entire ‘ohana starts looking for signs and inspiration. True Hawaiian names reveal themselves in many ways.
Inoa po: name in the night; a name received in a dream.
Inoa hoʻailona: name in a sign; a name received in the form of a vision or natural phenomenon
Inoa ‘ulaleo: voiced name; a name heard
Inoa ho’omanao: name that commemorates a person or event
Inoa kupuna: name that is handed down, an ancestral name
Inoa ewe: name that is based on traits or personality
I’m often startled at how aptly a traditionally given Hawaiian birth name fits the recipient, both the literal and figurative translations. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of the name fitting the child or the child adapting to the name, but time after time and in the most unlikely ways, the names fit.
There’s an added plus to having a Hawaiian middle name—no matter where you go outside of Hawaii, you’re guaranteed to have the longest, coolest middle name in any group, even if no one but your family can say it.
In Hawaii, teachers never ask children to write their full names. There are never enough lines on the paper or time in the day. The reasons for this go back to naming traditions and an unusual law once on Hawaii’s books.
Wanting Hawaii to be more like the west, in 1860 King Kamehameha IV signed the Act to Regulate Names. From 1860 to 1967, all people born in Hawaii were required by law to have a family surname and an English first name, which explains why Robert, William, Mary, and Sarah started popping up in Kamakawiwaole, Asao, and Chung family trees in the nineteenth century.
Because of the naming law it became common in Hawaii’s mixed plate melting pot to give kids a middle name from each branch of the family tree. At a christening the kahu wouldn’t even blink at pronouncing an infant Joseph Makanani Atsushi Manchu Pacheco, except maybe to ask the parents if Makanani was little Joe’s entire Hawaiian name.
Most likely it wasn’t. On birth certificates, parents often list just part of a Hawaiian name, although this trend is changing. For example, my son’s middle name is list as Kalani on his birth certificate, but his full Hawaiian name is Ka Ikaika Mai O Ka Lani Wai. Despite its appearance, in comparison with the Hawaiian names my classmates have given their kids, it’s really only average in length.
As a language, Hawaiian is highly poetic and idiosyncratic. What’s translated literally is frequently not the whole story. Given the ancient Hawaiians’ love of puns and riddles, it’s not surprising that most Hawaiian names have a simple overt translation like “beautiful flower” along with a host of hidden and layered meanings. Because of this, the general rule of thumb for Hawaiian names is that the true meaning of a name is whatever the giver or owner say it is, regardless of grammar or literal translation.
In ancient Hawaii, names were precious and powerful, and true birth names were not shared casually. Families called children the equivalent of Stinky, Worthless, Ugly, or Wretched (and worse) to make them unappealing to evil spirits and others who might snatch a prized child. As Hawaiian faded from common daily use, these names lost their meaning and became…well, names. Sometimes these kinds of family nicknames were the only ones recorded or remembered, raising eyebrows when modern genealogists start translating.
Throughout their lives Hawaiians changed their names to commemorate deeds, abilities, or desires and were frequently called different names by family members, close friends, and co-workers. I can imagine the hair-pulling frustration of his majesty’s census keeper as he tried to maintain records in an era where there were no surnames and people changed names on a whim.
Ironically, the English first name/family surname only standardized things on paper. With so many Georges, Johns, and Ruths running around, kids were often called by a nickname or middle name, which made the first day of a new school year particularly fun when you discovered Kawika was really Aloysius or Bartholomew.
People often ask me what their name is in Hawaiian. The request isn’t as odd as it sounds; if you’ve ever traveled to Hawaii, I’m sure you were overwhelmed with all the kitsch offered in stores personalized with Your Hawaiian Name Here!, everything from cheap plastic placemats to high-end solid gold jewelry. It’s a source of endless fascination for tourists who want to make a connection with something exotic.
Unfortunately, the idea of plug and go translations of non-Hawaiian names into Hawaiian is also among biggest shibai exports about Hawaiian culture, right next to pineapple on pizza and coconut bras.
Back in the 1800s, when missionaries translated spoken Hawaiian into a written language, they used only 12 letters of the English alphabet (a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, p, w) and added two punctuation marks (the kahakō and ‘okina) to help convey the way a word is pronounced. In addition to using only half of the English alphabet, Hawaiian words never contain two consonants together and never end in a consonant. To the English speaker, it’s all a bunch of broken and elongated vowel sounds sprinkled with a random h, k, or m.
Which got some akamai kanaka thinking: if I can come up with an easy and consistent way to take non-Hawaiian names and give them a Hawaiian twist, I’ll laugh all the way to the bank. Developed over 150 years ago, most non-Hawaiian to Hawaiian name translations are based on a simple letter/sound substitution system that doesn’t allow double consonants or consonant endings. This hidden system gives the illusion of authenticity and explains why name translations are so consistent across various sources and so consistently wrong.
Take Katherine, for example. It’s my mother’s name and a source of endless amusement to my part-Hawaiian father. “Katherine” is “Kakalina” in Your Hawaiian Name Here! translations. It’s also the Hawaiian word for gasoline, super hilarious in a couple of pau hana beers way since my Dad worked for Chevron in Hawaii and later owned a gas station. In typical Hawaiian tradition, he gave her expensive gold bracelets, rings, and necklaces all proudly proclaiming Kakalina in black enameled script. He said that way he could write them off as advertising.
Most of the time the Hawaiian name translations result in pure gibberish. Most of the time. Sometimes they are pee your pants hilarious to those who know a little of the language, making my mother’s gasoline jewelry look merely quaint.
All of which is too bad, really, when you understand the importance names hold in Hawaiian culture. Real Hawaiian names are a sacred, serious business that require much thought, prayer, and consultation among family and friends before being bestowed. (More on this in an upcoming blog.)
If someone really wants to know what his or her name is in Hawaiian, I’ll ask for the origin and meaning behind the name and look for a comparable Hawaiian word or phrase.
Katherine is Greek in origin and is often translated as “pure.” Hemolele is a Hawaiian word with connotations of flawless, holy, saintly, pure in heart, complete, and person without fault—far more beautiful and accurate for my mother than gasoline.
When it comes to Hawaiian names, keep in mind that Hawaiian words are highly poetic and layered in meaning; things are not always what they seem. It also pays to know who you’re asking. When pestered once too often at a family party on the mainland, Mr. Hilarious once told a nephew that his name in Hawaiian was ‘Okole, which is what my cousin told his friends to call him. Years later when I met up with this cousin and some of his friends, I had to pull him aside and tell him he needed a new nickname. He’d been the literal butt of my father’s joke long enough.