About Hawaiian Place Names


Hawaiian place names are given with much thought to incorporate landscape features, observations of weather and natural phenomena, and stories both legendary and contemporary. Hawaiian place names honor the people who named them and the natural forces and stories these names convey. In using proper Hawaiian place names, we bestow the highest honor to the land and the history of place.

Many places in Hawaiʻi are best known for things built on those places or designations given in modern times. These names are appropriate in some cases, but certainly, modern buildings or designations should never erase the history of a place.

If the place has an English nickname, the recommendation is to use the Hawaiian place name first and then add the optional English nickname (e.g., Lēʻahi, also referenced as Diamond Head).

Consider whether the nickname is an interpretation of the Hawaiian name, relays a Hawaiian tradition of the place, or is just an application acquired over the years.

The reference for Hawaiian place names used by NaHHA is Place Names of Hawaiʻi by Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel Elbert and Esther Moʻokini, available online.

The Hawaiʻi Board on Geographic Names (GNIS) was created by Act 50 of the 1974 Hawaiʻi State Legislature to develop uniformity in the use and spelling of the names of geographic features and the database can be used as a resource for researching the most recently approved orthography.

When there is a question on the orthography of a place name after checking with ʻAhahui ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (1978) and Place Names of Hawaiʻi, the GNIS relies on Native Hawaiian speaking elders of a particular area for assistance. When a decision cannot be reached as to the proper spelling or pronunciation, the name is given no orthography until further research is conducted. In this case, NaHHA recommends as a best practice to reference in parenthesis, “orthography and pronunciation vary” after a place name that may have multiple pronunciations, spelling or manaʻo on orthography.

Today, the normalization of Hawaiian language is a catalyst for change. As we grow the number of Hawaiian language speakers and we support projects like Awaiaulu and the digitization of Hawaiian language newspapers, we are able to unlock the knowledge found in honoring our native language. In learning the correct spelling, pronunciation and orthography of our places we mālama our home.

Mahalo nui to all of our kūpuna, researchers and community members who continue to contribute their manaʻo to the Board of the GNIS to ensure that our place names are properly honored and respected into the future.

To learn more visit www.wehewehe.org or https://files.hawaii.gov/dbedt/op/gis/bgn/Guidelines_for_Hawaiian_Geographic_Names_v1.1.pdf