Hawaiian Words and Deeper Meanings

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It takes some effort to hear the Hawaiian language spoken on a visit to the islands, but it is very common to encounter inpidual words that are incorporated in everyday conversations in Hawaii. There are two times this happens, one was demonstrated on television last night.

First, some words substitute for the English equivalent. Many people are familiar with aloha as a greeting or mahalo as thanks. Other words you may see on store signs or menus include keiki, which is “child”. When local residents receive a discount, it is called a kamaaina discount, referring to the words for “child” and “land”. I was somewhat surprised to find it in the regular English-language dictionary, along with wahine (woman) but not kane (man), which you’ll want to know to find the appropriate bathroom (although they are usually accompanied with symbols or pictures).

The second use was demonstrated in the title for last night’s episode of Hawaii Five-0. It was a Hawaiian phrase with no English words: Malama Ka Aina. Although aina can have many meanings in Hawaiian, it is most likely “land” and ka is most often “the”. But malama is a more complex term. The Hawaiian dictionary lists these many possible meanings: to take care of, tend, attend, care for, preserve, protect, beware, save, maintain; to keep or observe, as a taboo; to conduct, as a service; to serve, honor, as God; care, preservation, support, fidelity, loyalty; custodian, caretaker, keeper.

When malama is used in Hawaii, it seems to indicate a relationship of care. Such an attitude toward land here would mean caring for the land as a sibling or parent – and would include the idea of preserving the people living here as well. I have no inside information about why that title was chosen, but the idea of being a caretaker seems to fit with the events in the episode.

These deeper meanings to Hawaiian words indicate ways the culture differs from the mainland, ways in which neither the language nor lifestyle translate directly. The word in Hawaiian is used to express a different idea or attitude than English conveys.


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