Translating “Merry Christmas” into Hawaiian offers insight into the language’s modest inventory the consonants.

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“Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s wayTo say funny Christmas to you”

Made famed in 1950 by ice Crosby and also the Andrew Sisters, “Mele Kalikimaka” is indeed exactly how the phrase “Merry Christmas” was obtained into Hawaiian. It additionally demonstrates one the my favorite facts around Hawaiian and its special status amongst the languages of the world. So how did “Merry Christmas”, a familiar expression for many of us, get in Hawaiian as “Mele Kalikimaka” and just what etymological curiosities does this reveal?

This Language log post sums the up nicely. In the change from ‘merry’ to ‘mele’, the ‘r’ sound is changed with ‘l’. It makes sense, as ‘l’ and ‘r’ room strongly related sounds. In English they happen come be phonemes, which method the sounds are supplied meaningfully to distinguish in between different words, such together ‘lad‘ and also ‘rad‘. In various other languages, such as Japanese, ‘r’ and also ‘l’ are conflated, for this reason that speakers don’t acknowledge a meaningful difference if ‘meri kurisumasu‘ (‘Merry Christmas’) is pronounce ‘meli kulisumasu’ (even if they have the right to detect a sound or interval difference).

But, much more intriguingly, what about the second word in the phrase—kalikimaka? Looking at both words side by side, we have the right to see a pair of unusual sound transforms emerging the don’t it seems to be ~ to do sense.

chr | i | st | m | a | sk(a)| i | k(i) | m | a | k(a)

Leaving beside the extra syllables (which is mostly due to the Hawaiian’s rate structure and the phonotactics), we involved a little of a baffling mystery. Why go ‘s’ end up being a ‘k’? indigenous an Indo-European viewpoint this seems relatively inexplicable. Unequal ‘l’ and also ‘r’, those two sounds don’t seem to have much in common (you wouldn’t generally mistake one because that the other in a dark alley). Once we look at other borrowings in Hawaiian, such together ‘kiwi’ because that ‘TV’, ‘ki’ because that ‘tea’ and also ‘kaona’ for ‘town’, we deserve to see that ‘k’ also takes over for words that originally had ‘t’ in English. Therefore what’s going on here?

Let’s inspect out the consonant perform of Hawaiian for some clues:


Ignoring every the linguistic terminology because that now, what we deserve to see is the Hawaiian is a language with a pretty little inventory that distinctive sounds. There are just eight consonants, among the the smallest consonant inventories in the world. Most importantly, girlfriend might notification that there’s no ‘s’ in Hawaiian. Maybe even an ext astonishingly, there’s also no ‘t’ in the language. These room two an extremely common sound for speakers of English. What execute you do when you loaned a word from one language, with many distinctive sounds, to a language with really few? The ‘s’ sounds in ‘Christmas’ have to be replaced with something, and also Hawaiian, rather mysteriously, chooses to usage ‘k’, getting here at the rather musical ‘kalikimaka’. For words borrowed into Hawaiian, ‘s’ have the right to be replaced by ‘k’ (although periodically ‘h’), and ‘t’, as we saw, is usually changed to a ‘k’. Thus ‘telephone i do not care ‘kelepona, ‘doctor becomes ‘kauka’, ‘taro becomes ‘kalo‘, and also so on. So, an enig solved…or is it?

One the the reasons this is unforeseen is that consonants like ‘t’ and ‘s’ (known together coronal consonants, which space made in the front of the mouth) are type of choose the popular youngsters in the schoolyard of the world’s languages. Coronals are found almost everywhere, every language wants them in their inventory. For example, as evidenced by this sound frequency chart, as well her Scrabble set, ‘t’ and also ‘s’ room two the the most typically occurring consonant sound in English, whether in written or spoken usage. This coronal sounds space so widely spread throughout the world’s languages the they’ve been called “unmarked“—they’re the most basic of consonants in a way. Therefore while there are languages that have no labial consonants (sounds made v the lips, such together ‘p’ and ‘b’) and also languages v no velar consonants (sounds made in the direction of the earlier of the mouth, such together ‘k’ and also ‘g’), it’s considered a universal preeminence that every languages must have actually coronal consonant in your phoneme inventories.

But Hawaiian is nudging its method to being a feasible exception to this rule. When the language does have actually two coronal sound (‘n’ and also ‘l’) it’s famously lacking the more common consonant ‘t’ and ‘s’, which means linguists have had to assess and reassess just how absolute language universals yes, really are. Hawaiian is type of a linguistic outlier pushing the end the borders of language diversity, testing what we thought we knew around language.

And therefore the an enig continues. Not only is that odd to have actually a language with virtually no coronal consonants, to many people, ‘s’/’t’ and also ‘k’ sounds are completely different and unrelated to every other. All things being equal, why specifically does Hawaiian replace ‘s’ and ‘t’ with a ‘k’ rather than through a ‘p’ or another coronal in the inventory, such together ‘n’ for example? Is it just random chance?

Robert Blust’s 2004 paper showed just how this t/k sound relationship, explained as “the many interesting collection of troublesome consonants in Hawaiian” is actually uncovered in some kind in at least forty-three languages, greatly of the Austronesian family, of which Hawaiian is may be the many infamous. Blust wrote, “The writer Robert luigi Stevenson, that was acquainted with both Hawaiian and also Samoan, went so far regarding call t/k interchange ‘the an illness of the Polynesian languages,’ showing the usual view of Europeans the there is something unexpected or even abnormal around such a change.” however it’s additionally been observed in other languages that the world. A Peruvian girlfriend of mine, because that instance, once told me in his language of Spanish, in the best context, borrowings like ‘futbol‘ (football) and also ‘Hitler‘ space pronounced ‘fukbol‘ and ‘Hikler‘.

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So the connection of ‘t’ to ‘k’ is not so random after all, though it’s still taken into consideration relatively bizarre. Whatever the reason for this etymological oddity, sufficient evidence seems to exist that argues ‘t’ and ‘k’ have actually mysteriously stronger ties 보다 we first thought. Rather frankly, ‘K’ appears to fit Hawaiian come a ‘T’.