Hawaiian Last Names and Their Meanings

Throughout its history, the Hawaiian Islands have preserved a unique cultural heritage that can be witnessed in its distinct language. Hawaiian is one of the oldest languages still spoken today. Despite a decrease in the number of speakers over the last century, it has experienced a resurgence in recent years.

Photo: “Big Beach” in Makena, on Maui's southwest shore
Photo: “Big Beach” in Makena, on Maui’s southwest shore. Credit: dronepicr; Wikimedia Commons.

Hawaiian names are a major part of both the language and tradition of the islands. If you have a Hawaiian name, you may be wondering where it comes from and what it symbolizes. In this article we’ll provide you information you need to understand Hawaiian last names and their meanings.

The Hawaiian Language

Before diving into the ins and outs of Hawaiian last names, it will be useful to get a quick sense of the Hawaiian alphabet and its grammatical structure.

Prior to the European discovery of the islands by Captain Cook in 1778, the Hawaiian language was only verbal. Missionaries created a written language in order to translate the Bible into an understandable format for the Hawaiian people, resulting in a 13-letter alphabet:

  • A, E, I, O, U, H, K, L, M, N, P, W

If you were born with a Hawaiian name it will surely only consist of these 13 letters. The Hawaiian written language also utilizes the apostrophe, termed “okina,” on a consistent basis, making it likely that a Hawaiian first or last name will contain one. The okina is only placed at the beginning or end of a word, or between two consonants, signifying a verbal pause.

Additionally, the Hawaiian language employs an accented vowel known as the “kahakō.” When a kahakō is placed over a vowel it indicates that the letter should be pronounced in a longer format, dragging out the sound. Understanding this dynamic may help you pronounce your Hawaiian name properly.

Understanding Hawaiian Names

While it is possible that your first or last name is of Hawaiian descent, the people of the islands typically did not have more than one name. While this has shifted with increased influence from the United States, many traditional Hawaiians still only retain a single name.

In addition to the custom of a wife taking the name of her husband, there are a few common dynamics associated with traditional Hawaiian naming:

  • Most names for boys and girls were not gender-specific and were used for both genders
  • When last names became more common in the late 1800s, most people would use their father’s first name as their surname
  • Nicknames have been common throughout the history of Hawaii, with many modern last names hailing from the nickname of an ancestor
  • Most names have a specific spiritual and symbolic meaning
  • Old Hawaiians would come up with a completely new name for each child, which resulted in many names being extremely long
  • Many Hawaiian names were also assigned to different species of fish

For generations, Hawaiians originally only used one name, so it’s very possible that your Hawaiian last name was originally constructed to be a first name. Also, because the Hawaiian people originally migrated from Polynesia, your Hawaiian last name may be similar to other Polynesian names.

Common Hawaiian Last Names

While Hawaiian last names vary greatly, there are some common names that appear more frequently. Here is a list of the most common Hawaiian last names and their meanings.

  • Alana – Awakening
  • Hale – House
  • Hekekia – Biblical for Hezekiah
  • Iona – Biblical for Jonah
  • Iosua – Biblical for Joshua
  • Kahale – The house
  • Kahananui – The great or hard work
  • Kahele – To go
  • Kahue – The gourd
  • Kalama – The torch
  • Kalawaiʻa – The fisher
  • Kalili – The jealousy
  • Kalua – The companion
  • Kama – Child
  • Kamaka – The eye or bud
  • Kameāloha – Beloved one
  • Kapule – Magic
  • Kawai – The water
  • Kaʻanāʻanā – The black magic
  • Kaʻaukai – The seafarer
  • Kaʻuhane – The soul or spirit
  • Keahi – Fire
  • Kealoha – Love
  • Keawe – The strand or twisted string
  • Kekoa – The warrior
  • Keliʻi – The chief or nobleman
  • Mahelona – Biblical for Mahlon
  • Mahiʻai – Farmer
  • Māhoe – Twin
  • ʻAkamu – Biblical for Adam
  • ʻAukai – Seafarer
  • ʻŌpūnui – Large stomach (this was a sign of high social status in Old Hawaii)

As can be seen in the above list, Christianity had a major effect on the culture of Hawaii, with many names borrowed from Biblical characters. Because a major portion of modern Hawaiian last names derive from nicknames assigned to historical figures, it is also common for a Hawaiian last name’s meaning to be related to a profession, characteristic, or aspect of nature.

While this list is not exhaustive, it represents the most common Hawaiian last names that are still in use today by the majority of the population. If your name appears here, you likely share a surname with a large number of other people of Hawaiian descent.

Hawaiian Last Names and Your Genealogy

GenealogyBank has a wealth of data that can help you track your Hawaiian ancestors by searching through Historical Newspaper Archives and other resources. Whether your name appears in the above list or not, you can easily sift through our archives to learn more about who your ancestors were and where they came from!

Along with common Hawaiian traditions and the rich history of the islands, discovering the stories of your Hawaiian family is also discovering yourself.

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