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The Hawaiian Family

One of the core concepts of Hawaiian culture is the ʻohana (family). Like English, there are the basic concepts of parents, grandparents and siblings, but the Hawaiian family is much more complicated beyond that. While we may have words for aunty and uncle, that concept is relatively new to Hawaiian culture and the language adopted those terms just recently, deriving the words and their pronunciation from English. In Hawaiian culture, the adults belonging to the same generation as your parents would be referred to as makua (parent). The distinction could be made between your mother and your aunty in the terms that you would use to refer to them. Your makuahine would be your mother while your māmā would be your aunt or “aunty” as is often said in Hawaii. The same would be true for your father and your uncle. Your father would be your makua kāne while your uncle would be your pāpā. Culturally, to have someone refer to you as their aunty or uncle means that they hold you in high regard and have a lot of respect for you.

Grandparents and ancestors are referred to with the same word in Hawaiian: kupuna. The words wahine (woman) or kāne (man) are added after it to distinguish between one’s grandmother, kupuna wahine, or grandfather, kupuna kāne. The word tūtū is also used to refer to a grandparent, specifically a grandma. There has been a slight shift in meaning and use of these words over the years. Kupuna has a more general and sometimes a slightly more formal context to it, while tūtū is a term of affection. Tūtū can also be used to refer to oneʻs great-grandmother, but whatever term is used, kupuna in Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian families are beloved by everyone in the ʻohana.

The terms for siblings can be a little confusing in Hawaiian. In English, a female sibling is always called sister, whether she is the sister of a boy or a girl. But in Hawaiian, there are different words for sister depending on whether she is the sister of a boy or of a girl. The same is true for brother; the terms for brother of a boy are different for the term for brother of a girl.

Additionally, if the siblings are of the same sex (a sister of a girl and a brother of a boy), there are different words for older and younger siblings. So, a girl will use one word for her older sister and a different one for her younger sister and a boy will also use a different word for an older brother than for a younger brother. Hawaiian does not distinguish between the ages of siblings of the opposite sex, so a girl simply uses one word for her brother regardless of whether he is younger or older and the same holds for a boy and his sister.

Siblings of a Female

older sister kaikuaʻana
younger sister kaikaina
brother kaikunāne
sister tita (slang)

Siblings of a Male

older brother kaikuaʻana
younger brother kaikaina
sister kaikuahine
brother palala (slang)

Note that tita and palala are colloquial terms and can also be used by friends to express a strong family-like bond.

Also keep in mind that kaikunāne is used exclusively to refer to a brother of a girl and kaikuahine exclusively a sister of a boy.

Notice that the term for an older brother of a male and an older sister of a female (kaikuaʻana ) is the same and for younger brother of a male and younger sister of a female (kaikaina). Another way of thinking of these terms is that kaikuaʻana refers to an older sibling of the same sex and kaikaina refers to a younger sibling of the same sex.