The internet is chock-full of ukulele advice these days. Some common answers you will see are: “whatever works for you,” “different strokes for different folks,” or “just have fun!” These all fall in the same vein of the ukulele being a casual, enjoyment-oriented pursuit for 90% of people.
But try asking these friendly folks about how to pronounce or spell “ukulele” and tempers flare! Everybody seems to have an opinion and discussion can become very heated. Search Google and you’ll find plenty of forum threads on the subject.
I’ve wanted to write this for a long time, but have struggled to figure out my approach. Barry Maz’s post Please Stop Arguing Over How Ukulele Is Pronounced got me back in the saddle again when it came out.
His opinion is that the whole ook vs. yook thing is “ridiculous” and he goes on to say that if you’re Hawaiian – great! Say it however, but if you’re NOT Hawaiian, as long as you strum along and don’t rock the boat, you’re cool.
I don’t have a problem with the post; it’s fine, I guess. But it misses the main point that, I believe, causes this to be such a heated issue: the history of Hawai’i, cultural appropriation, and colonialism.
As someone who lives in the islands, I feel like that’s a perspective I can try to add to the conversation. So if you wouldn’t mind, indulge me whilst I rock the boat.
For the record, I say “oo-koo-le-le.” Living in Hawai’i and learning the uke here I never knew any different. That’s just how we say it.
How We Got Here: A Crash Course in Hawaiian History
2000~ years ago, voyaging people came ashore on the most isolated land masses in the world – Hawai’i. They navigated their canoes using the waves, wind, and stars and brought everything they would need for a fresh start in an unknown land.
Things were great for a long time. The Hawaiians created resource management systems that allowed for abundance – and a population similar to today – without destroying the environment. As far as anybody can tell or remember, quality of life was high. They were a very healthy, happy, strong people.
Then James Cook sailed in on his ship in 1778, “discovering” the islands, and changed things forever.
When word got out that there was a chain of islands full of native people to convert, Christian missionaries made multiple bee lines to Hawai’i. They brought things with them like the idea of land ownership, written language, and many other Western concepts. Not to mention disease.
The missionaries were quick to downplay Hawaiian culture and spirituality while encouraging them to worship their one God, making efforts to suppress hula and cultural practices.
Flash forward a handful of decades to the golden era of the modern Hawaiian Kingdom and our little 4-stringed friend enters the picture. In 1879 the Ravenscrag docked in Honolulu harbor, bringing with it Portuguese immigrants to work in the sugar cane fields and their traditional instruments. These traditional instruments morphed over the next few years into what we now know as the ukulele.
This was a regal era in Hawai’i. There was a palace. There were kings and queens, princes and princesses. There was dignity the likes of which the rest of the world could only envy. The literacy rate was 90%. In short, things had stabilized and settled into a new, different way of doing things in Hawai’i.
But this was also the time of the sugar boom and foreign interests.
Businessmen hoping to influence politics for economic gain worked their way onto King David Kalakaua’s cabinet in 1887. They managed to strip the King of his power and put it instead in the hands of a new governmental body.
By manipulating the constitution, this so-called “Hawaiian League” made it difficult for Hawaiian citizens to vote and essentially excluded them from decisions regarding their own Kingdom. There was major pushback from the Hawaiian people as the cabinet made moves to annex the Kingdom to the US.
Following in the footsteps of her brother, Kalakaua, Queen Lili’uokalani made a great effort to restore power to her Kingdom, but in the end, after several years of protest, she yielded to avoid armed conflict in January of 1893:
“I, Lili’uokalani, by the grace of God and under the constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the constitutional government of the Hawaiian Kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a Provisional Government of and for this Kingdom.
That I yield to the superior force of the United States of America, whose Minister Plenipotentiary, His Excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed at Honolulu and declared that he would support the said Provisional Government.
Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps loss of life, I do, under this protest, and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.”
Weapons were found at the Queen’s house after a small anti-annexation rebellion and Lili’uokalani was imprisoned in ‘Iolani Palace. She wasn’t given freedom until late-1896, at which time she went to DC herself to protest the annexation.
Despite the Queens efforts and the famous Ku’e petition – 29,000 signatures delivered to Congress opposing the annexation – Hawai’i was annexed.
Much more of the history of this era in Hawai’i can be found in Lili’uokalani’s elegant and lovely book, Hawai’i’s Story by Hawai’i’s Queen. Understanding this is the key to understanding modern-day Hawai’i.
On top of the injustice and disrespect done to the will of the people, Hawai’i ended up a territory, and later a state. In this sense, it’s impossible to forget the crimes done in the late 18th century every time you open your wallet and pull out US money.
After the industries of sugar and pineapple began to subside, money shifted towards tourism. Hawai’i was marketed as “paradise” and images of hula girls, Waikiki beachboys, and palm trees were sent around the world.
Tourism is our main industry and pays the bills, but it manifests itself heavily on the local population. Monetary interests are put WAY above the well-being of people or place. Hotels are green stamped through the permit process, bulldozing sacred sites and burial grounds along the way. Then, of course, hoping to protect their investment, they make beach access tough for locals and pave the smallest parking lot they can get away with.
At the end of the day, Hawai’i’s infrastructure can’t even come close to keeping up with the hyper-inflated visitor population. As a result, roads are in terrible shape, water tables are falling at frightening rates, AirBnBs are creating a housing shortage, and we import 90% of our food.
There’s a certain “take, take, take” mentality that goes along with being a desirable destination. The residents here have never had much of a say in how things go down. It’s always been, “This is what’s happening. Try not to let it bother you.”
This ongoing humbug on top of general dissent from having to deal with outsiders all day (like Jennifer Lawrence), every day adds up to a lot of frustration, disappointment, and anger in the local people.
Some folks say that “Aloha” is dying. I don’t think it is; Hawai’i is just sick and tired of giving it away.
Things are slowly changing with the new Hawaiian renaissance. Kanaka maoli and kama’aina alike are finding their voice and the power of protest in the face of developments like the Thirty Meter Telescope and Ho’opili.
But there is still very far to go before Hawai’i might become the utopia every outsider imagines.
Pronouncing & Spelling Ukulele
So now maybe you have a small inkling why people can get so bent out of shape when you say ukulele wrong – let alone voice your “pro-youkalaylee” opinion.
I don’t believe it has that much to do with the word itself. Ukulele is by no means one of the best Hawaiian words, in my opinion. It has more to do with the impression of casual disregard you give to one more little piece of Hawai’i by saying it improperly.
Most people in the Western world pronounce ukulele: “you-ka-lay-lee.” This is the pronunciation that pops up in Merriam Webster.
This is the most widely used pronunciation of the word outside of Hawai’i.
At the time the ukulele originated in Hawai’i (circa 1880), the Hawaiian language was still the primary language of the islands. It makes sense that the Hawaiians named the instrument in their language.
It’s pretty easy to sound out words in Hawaiian. You’ve just got to be patient. Here’s a breakdown of ukulele.
- U is pronounced “oo” – as in boot.
- K is pronounced the same as in English!
- U is the same, so “oo” again.
- L is pronounced as in English.
- E is pronounced “eh” – as in bet.
- L again.
- E again.
The resulting pronunciation is: “oo-koo-le-le.” Try saying it a few times if it’s unfamiliar to you. It’s not hard as far as Hawaiian words go. (Even hard Hawaiian words are easy if you break them down.)
“A” VS “An”
Depending on how you say ukulele, “a” or “an” might sound more appropriate before the word in a sentence.
If you pronounce it the Western way, you’d follow the rule that consonant sounds are always proceeded with “a.” A yak. A yodeler. A you-ka-lay-lee.
If you pronounce it the Hawaiian way, you’d follow the rule that vowel sounds are always proceeded by “an.” An hour. An artist. An ukulele.
The ukulele has many variations on spelling. This is probably due to the fact that many people have never seen the word spelled out and rely on their knowledge (or lack thereof) of English to improvise a spelling on the spot. Some variations I’ve seen:
And of course the abbreviated variations:
As far as my knowledge and opinion goes, one is the correct Hawaiian spelling, one is an English compromise, one is a region-specific variation, and the rest are wrong.
The Hawaiian Spelling of Ukulele
The Hawaiian spelling includes the letter ‘okina. It’s a glottal stop that is notated as a sort-of apostrophe with the orientation of a little “6.” The ‘okina is pronounced like the vocal break in “uh-oh!”
Because the ‘okina in ukulele is at the beginning of the word, there’s nothing to glottal stop “against” when pronouncing the word on its own. That means you can ignore the ‘okina when saying ukulele by itself.
If there was another Hawaiian word in front of ukulele you would have to take the ‘okina into consideration and create a breath break between the two words. For example, ka ukulele means “the ukulele.” You would say ka and then stop your breath momentarily before you move onto the “u” sound.
Here’s a Hawaiian’s perspective:
Aunty Anuhea shared this many years ago on the MeleOhana Yahoo group of Kona. I reached out and she gave me permission to reprint her writing here.
The Western Spelling of Ukulele
When spelled without the ‘okina, pronunciation could go either way. It depends on context and who’s reading or writing.
If you pronounce it “you-ka-lay-lee,” it’s kind of silly to write it the Hawaiian way.
Moving Forward & Playing the Ukulele
With the ukulele soaring in popularity, there are more people than ever saying the word. Some people are going to say it haole (white person) style, some Hawaiian style. That’s never going to change.
I say potato, you say potato. These things evolve as dialect. It’s not necessarily wrong or bad, just different. In this globalized era we live in, it can seem like we should use the information available to us to correct and homogenize as much of our language as possible.
But that’s how culture dies. Just ask the Hawaiians. Since the language was banned here in the early 20th century and almost lost, there is so little of the culture left that it’s hard work to try and bring traditional practices and knowledge back. It gets better every year with more and more keiki being raised in Hawaiian language households, but I can still count on one hand the number of fluent Hawaiian speakers I know in my area.
Where you’re from in the world is really the biggest informer of how you’ll probably say ukulele. If you’re from Kansas, “you-koo-lay-lee” is what you know. If you’re from Waimanalo, “oo-koo-le-le” is what you know. Switch the two populations and they’d be telling everyone around them that they’re wrong.
But that’s not to say that you’re off the hook for how you say something. If you go to Italy, you’re expected to pronounce Italian words correctly because that’s the language; you won’t be understood otherwise. You will certainly be forgiven if you say something incorrectly while learning, but (I hope) you’d never insist that YOUR pronunciation is correct when it’s obviously not.
The concern with this subject is the flippant disregard of things Hawaiian. Whenever you make an effort to smooth over discussion by saying something like, “You’re overreacting. We don’t need to argue. Everybody can be right,” you’re continuing a long legacy of cultural appropriation.
Appreciate the instrument for what it is and remember its roots. You don’t have to say it the Hawaiian way at home, but when you come here, that’s how we roll. In the meantime, don’t tone police.