If you look at the list of most popular names in the state of Hawaii, you won’t find them very different from others, with Chloe, Isabella and Madison, Ethan, Noah and Isaiah at the top. It isn’t until you get quite a bit futher down the list that you find names more reflective of the distinctive native nomenclature, such as Kai, Leilani, Malia, Kainoa, and Kalena.
In the past, names have held deep significance in the Hawaiian culture, especially prior to the arrival of English-speaking missionaries in the late 18th century. Before that, the choice of a name involved the whole extended family, and was believed to have been sent by the family’s ancestor god, either via a dream, a spoken message or some other sign, and to ignore it could mean illness or death to the baby. Another old tradition was for several words— of particular significance to the parents– to be joined together into one long name, which would then be shortened into a nickname. Much of this came to an end in 1880, when King Kamehameha IV enacted a law mandating that all citizens follow the standard European system of naming—that is using a Christian name followed by a surname–which didn’t exist before.
There are few families of names as lilting, rhythmic, and romantic as indigenous Hawaiian names. In both sound and meaning, they evoke pleasant images, many of them related to nature—flowers, the forest, sky and water. Part of this flavor derives from the fact that there are only five vowels and seven consonants in the language, making the names rich in vowel sounds, each of which is pronounced as a separate syllable. Many English names have been “Hawaiianized,” to accommodate the missing consonants. (see below to translate your own name to Hawaiian)
Many, if not most, traditional Hawaiian names are used interchangeably for girls and boys, but here are some that are more or less gender specific, with their meanings and/or English equivalents. Note that the accent is always on the next to last syllable.)
AKELINA – noble (form of Adeline)
ALAMEA – ripe, precious
ALANI – orange tree
ALOHI – shining, brilliant