Mele Kalikimaka!

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"Mele Kalikimaka" is Hawaiian for "Merry Christmas". Or, more precisely, it's the English phrase "Merry Christmas" as pronounced in Hawaiian. And it was the title of a hit song for Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in 1950:

There's also a (different) 1978 Beach Boys song, originally released as "Kona Coast", which features the same phrase: "Mele Kalikimaka / is Merry Christmas in Hawaii talk-a".

"Wait, what?" you may be asking yourself. "Mele" for "merry", OK — obviously /l/ is the closest thing to /r/ in Hawaiian, we're used to that from stereotypes (and even facts) about Japanese and other varieties of "Engrish".  But where did that kalikimaka come from?

Here's the consonant inventory of Hawaiian:

Labial Coronal Dorsal Laryngeal
Stop p k ʔ
Fricative h
Nasal m n
Glide w
Liquid l

The only fricative is /h/. So what should they use for /s/? Well, according to Allison Adler ("Faithfulness and perception in loanword adaptation: A case study from Hawaiian", Lingua 116(7): 1024-1045, 2006), it's sometimes /h/ and sometimes /k/. Thus the English word crease might be rendered as kaliki or kalihi.

Then there are the extra vowels. That, of course, is because Hawaiian doesn't allow consonant clusters — so that /krɪ/ becomes /kali/ — or syllable-final consonants — so that /mas/ becomes /maka/.

(Actually, according to Adler, the illegal consonants are sometimes dropped and sometimes licensed by adding extra vowels — thus trade might be rendered as /kaleiʔe/ or as /kale:/.)

And you might have noticed that the epenthetic vowels are somewhat variable. Thus Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert, Hawaiian Dictionary (1986) gives christmas as both kalikimaka and kalikamaka:

But Kalikimaka is apparently the favorite version, and it's the one that made it into the song, as well as into the earliest printed evidence of the borrowed phrase. According to Robert C. Schmitt, "Holidays in Hawai'i", The Hawaiian Journal of History, 29 1995:

The Hawaiian version of "Merry Christmas," Mele Kalikimaka, did not surface until 1904, when it was printed by Ka Nupepa Kuokoa. First proclaimed a national holiday (by Kamehameha IV) in 1862, Christmas was included in the list enacted by the 1896 legislature and has remained a legal holiday to the present time.

("Ka Nupepa Kuokoa" is a Hawaiian-language newspaper that began publishing in 1861.)

So Mele Kalikimaka to all!


  1. J Lee said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 7:59 am

    …of course, like most stereotypical phrases, we in Hawaii don't genuinely use it.

    So to all readers, an authentic Hawaiian Creole English [m æ ɹ i k ɹ i s m ɛ s]!

  2. Mike Anderson said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 9:40 am

    Thanks for the reference to Ka Nupepa Kuokoa. I have an old project–Huffman coding and decoding–designed for my statistics students that needs a substantial amount of Hawaiian text, which wasn't readily available when I designed it. Now there's a huge amount online ( is astonishing) and my project lives! Look out, undergrads.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    Thank you so much for posting this, Mark. I heard that song about five times in the last two days, and each time I asked myself, "What? How do they get from 'Christmas' to 'Kalikimaka'?" Now I know exactly how it happened. What's most amazing to me are the following:

    1. A real linguist like yourself can solve such seemingly intractable problems without necessarily being a specialist in the language in question.

    2. It's hard for me to come to grips with the fact that a natural language can exist without at least one sibilant. Goodness, some languages, like Sanskrit, have three different sibilants! Furthermore, hissing sounds seem like the most natural sorts of sound for human beings to make, albeit often with seemingly reptilian associations (e.g., "The audience hissed the actor off the stage when he bungled his lines").

  4. a George said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    Did the early missionaries force the phonetic term Christmas and accept local attempts at replicating it, rather than go for etymology and make a combined word? Was this habitual among English-language missionaries world-wide?

  5. Neal Goldfarb said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    Presumably Hawaiian does just fine with "Happy Hanukah." Or rather, "Hapi Hanaka." Although the stress in "Hanaka" would be on the "na," no?

  6. Randy Alexander said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    That song (the first one) has been going around in my head now and then since I first heard it last year. Very catchy.

    I'm interested in why you class /ʔ/ as a glide.

    [(myl) I don't. Or rather, a slip of the mouse, for which I have to take responsibility, classed /ʔ/ as a glide. It should, of course, be a stop, as the name "glottal stop" suggests. Fixed now.]

  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

    And while we're on renderings of Christmas in the Oceanic subgroup of the Austronesian language family, there's the island name Kiritimati — which, despite the spelling, has a pronunciation in Gilbertese/Kiribati not too far off from the English word from which it's derived. (Wikipedia's page on the island says [kəˈrɪsməs], though the page on Gilbertese suggests it might be more like [kiɾismäs].)

  8. John Cowan said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    Nupepa suggests that foreign /s/ also goes to zero on occasion.

  9. Bob Ladd said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    Victor Mair: I'm spending Christmas in Australia, where very few of the indigenous languages have any fricatives at all (think of the sound of stereotype Australian place names like Wollongong and Wagga Wagga and Kirribilli). And for a good few years now I've been involved in a project on the Nilotic language Dinka, which also doesn't have any fricatives. Having had my initiation into linguistics long enough ago to acquire the idea that you might find just about anything in the next language you came across, I don't find such differences especially unsettling, but LL readers whose assumptions have been formed during the Chomskyan era may find them more striking.

    Anyway, Mele Kalikimaka.

  10. James C. said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    People looking at loanword adaptation in Hawaiian need to be quite careful about making generalizations. As Al Schütz detailed eloquently in his The Voices of Eden, the Christian missionaries who were responsible for developing the Hawaiian writing system had a very heavy hand in adapting loans to Hawaiian. The problem is that the missionaries often followed their own intuitions in how words should be adapted rather than consult with native speakers all around them. Thus there are quite arbitrary differences in loanwords that are not explainable by Hawaiian phonology, but are instead the result of amateur linguistic meddling. As should be expected, the major semantic areas of such borrowing involve Christianity and other missionary concerns, but as the nation’s education establishment for half a century they had influence in nearly every walk of life.

    [(myl) The basic phenomena involved in this case, however, seem to be well within the orbit of the effects documented in Adler's paper, cited above, which is based on the intuitions of two contemporary speakers about how to adapt various English words into Hawaiian.]

  11. James C. said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    @Neal Goldfarb: I would guess that they’d use something like hauʻoli hānaka instead, with the indigenous term for “happy”, and a long vowel to capture the English initial stress. But you’d have to ask a Hawaiian speaker to be sure. Unfortunately there’s no entry for Hanukah in Nā Puke Wehewehe ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, neither in the traditional Pukui and Elbert nor in the Māmaka Kaiao which covers modern vocabulary developed by committee.

  12. Eric said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 4:44 am

    Then there are the extra vowels. That, of course, is because Hawaiian doesn't allow consonant clusters — so that /krɪ/ becomes /kali/ – or syllable-final consonants — so that /mas/ becomes /maka/.

    This seems like a simple point, but there's something really confusing about it for me. When is a foreign sound so alien to a language that it's "disallowed"? When does a linguist–or just a transcriptionist–decide to throw her hands up and say: "these people will never get this"? I'm sure Victor Mair can offer some clarification here. But the gap between tonal and atonal languages seems to me to be much less bridge-able than that between languages with consonant clusters and ones without.

    For example, the last name of the former president of South Africa is phonetically alienating for a speaker of English like me. I'm sure I would mangle it in speech. But I'm glad somebody didn't just pat me on the head and tell me it's "Tahbo Embeki" (or whatever). As it's spelled now, at least I can kind of see what phonetic target I should be aiming at.

    In the case of Hawiian, it's not like there was some pre-existing syllabary constraining the transcriptional decisions like this one; or was there?

  13. Joyce Melton said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 4:56 am

    Polynesian languages with their dearth of fricatives and reduplicative syllable habit may have their origins in trying to communicate with the constant sound of surf and waves around.

    Some folk have theorized that this is part of the reason for port and starboard ("sta'b'd") being used on ships; "right" and "left" just sound way to much alike.

    Similarly, in radio communication the numbers are frequently distorted to emphasize dissimilarity and words are sometimes spelled out in AbleBaker or AlfaBravo codes.

    On the other end, the languages of the Kalahari and nearby areas seem designed to sound like natural noises with clicks and hisses that might be insects or the wind but can carry information to humans and not their wary prey.

    There are other tricks language plays to be heard but I can only think of the two complexes of languages half a world apart that show evidence of pervasive adaptation to ambient sound.

  14. Riikka said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    Then there are the extra vowels. That, of course, is because Hawaiian doesn't allow consonant clusters — so that /krɪ/ becomes /kali/ – or syllable-final consonants — so that /mas/ becomes /maka/.

    There is another way to handle this problem:
    Finnish is a language that doesn't accept consonant clusters in the beginning of the word (in the middle of one they are all right). Because of this the "extra" consonants in the loan words are simply dropped out. Usually we only keep the last consonant of the consonant cluster. For example, the noun 'strand' (Swedish for shore, beach) has become 'ranta'. (Finnish also avoids words ending in consonants, so an extra vowel in the end of the word is required.)

    With the same logic the word 'Christ', (that is, Greek 'Χριστός' or 'Khristós') has effectively become 'Ristus'. Of course it is still written as 'Kristus', because the Swedes, who brought us the Bible, didn't share our aversion. In any case it probably was good that Finland got converted by the Swedes and not English speakers, because it's much easier to wish 'Hyvää joulua' and not 'Meri Kihiristmasi'.

  15. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    I would be interested in how Hawaiian achieved such a reduced set of consonants as it evolved. That is, what forces were at work–cultural, linguistic, environmental, etc.–to transform two dozen consonants into eight, and what is the value to speakers of Hawaiian to have eight versus two dozen?

  16. Yomikoma said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    Is it "mele" rather than "meli" because "mele" is the Hawai'ian word for "song"? That was my impression but I don't know for sure.

  17. John Cowan said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    Joyce Melton: Port was indeed a conscious substitution for the earlier nautical term larboard, which was too similar to starboard. But note that the equation "right is starboard" works only if you are facing forward; if you are facing aft, left is starboard. In fact, forward, aft, starboard, and port/larboard are ship-centric rather than egocentric directions. (There is no truth to the claim that the round windows on one side of the ship are called starboardholes.)

  18. Joyce Melton said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    John Cowan: Like stageleft and stageright, nigh and off sides to a horse, driver and passenger side to cars; there can be more than one reason to use port and starboard.

    I have a dyslexic friend who uses Ralph and Louie to distinguish right and left. He never gets Ralph confused with Louie like he does right and left and part of me wonders if that is because of the similar pattern of the two standard words: glide, front vowel, offglide/fricative, voiceless dental stop.

  19. Dw said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

    @Mr Fnortner:

    I would reverse the question and ask why other languages maintain such complex phonologies. Anyone know of any theories in this one?

    It's tempting to link the simplicity of the Hawaiian phonetic system to the prolonged isolation of the Hawaiian people.

    [(myl) The WALS maps for consonant inventories and vowel inventories show some areal phenomena, as expected. In general, though, attempts to explain historical sound change in functional terms have not been very successful.]

  20. J Lee said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    I can understand a plausible evolutionary advantage of complex phonologies providing more shibboleths.

    As for the Hawaiians, any missionary account will describe how lazy they were. It does seem that the more westward you go (and thus the later dates of initial settlement and establishment of new speech communities) the Polynesian languages lose consonant phonemes. What's baffling is that despite the small inventory there is the weird free variation between [t] and [k].

  21. Nathan Myers said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 3:36 am

    I'm curious about a geographically related phenomenon. In "Hawaiian Pidgin", properly a creole, loan words containing a schwa (i.e. most of the vocabulary) are invariably adjusted to use some other vowel. Who knows what's going on there? I hear the schwa avoided in some other languages, too, though I don't know how common it is. It's hard to believe anybody would have any difficulty making the sound, so I have to guess that it just seems too crude by people who are not brought up with English. Has this been looked into at all? How did we end up without even a letter to represent it?

  22. Alon Lischinsky said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 4:16 am

    @Nathan Myers: actually, quite a few languages don't have a schwa, and monolingual speakers of those languages have a very hard time recognising or producing it (I know that it took me quite a long time to learn to distinguish the English schwa from /e/, and I was still a child then). I suppose it has to do with it being equidistant from all cardinal vowels, so that no easy contrast comes to mind to define it.

    West African Englishes also tend not to show stress-caused syllable reduction, and consequently to lack vowel reduction as well.

  23. John Swindle said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    James C regarding heavy-handed missionaries: It's said that Hawaiian-language literacy in Hawaii by the 1840s exceeded English-language literacy in New England, where the missionaries came from, so I guess the alphabet worked.

    Joyce Melton regarding surf and waves: How was the sound system of Indo-European languages affected by the constraints of a continental environment?

    Mr Fnortner regarding two dozen consonants: which Polynesian language has two dozen consonants? I'm not denying, just asking.

    DW regarding the prolonged isolation of the Hawaiian people: On the other hand, Captain Cook's crews, who had just spent considerable time in Polynesian parts farther south, immediately recognized the language of the Hawaiians as Polynesian and not much different from that which they had encountered elsewhere.

    J Lee regarding westward: Didn't the Polynesian languages move roughly eastward? Regarding the weird free variation between [t] and [k]: in Hawaiian songs I think I've sometimes heard an [s] substituted for emphasis.

  24. John Cowan said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    John Swindle: Proto-Oceanic, the ancestor of the Polynesian languages among others, is reconstructed with 23 consonants, so there has unquestionably been a lot of loss and merger. One of the things the budding comparative Austronesianist has to get used to is how the comparative stability of the five vowels contrast the flexibility and change of the consonants, as opposed to Voltaire's Indo-European wisecrack that "consonants go for little, and vowels for nothing at all."

  25. J Lee said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

    Yes, 'west' was a typo (well-spotted). I really do wish someone would offer a good explanation as to why Hawaiian in particular lost so much when the more westward languages like Tongan and Fijian have even /v/ and /f/ and velar nasals in addition to /s/.

  26. John Swindle said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    John Cowan, J Lee, thanks! Two dozen consonants it is, then.

  27. Linkblogging For 28/12/10 and next few days plans « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    […] Log on why Mellekalikimaka is Hawaii's way to say Merry Christmas to you (warning, includes MP3 of embarassingly bad late-70s Beach Boys […]

  28. LDavidH said,

    December 25, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    @Eric: "When is a foreign sound so alien to a language that it's "disallowed"? " I think, in most cases, for most people: as soon as a sound is different from those of your native language. When trying to pronounce a foreign word, you will almost automatically "distort" it to sound more familiar (as an ESL speaker, I do it all the time, but only notice it when I listen to myself recorded). Other examples: it seems very difficult for English-speakers to pronounce a long /e/ at the end of a word without turning it into a diphthong (as in cafe); on the other hand, in Swedish we pronounce Europa (Europe) as if it was spelled Eropa, because Swedish does not have diphthongs. So I imagine that any borrowing will automatically adjust to the existing sound system, at least until there are so many borrowings that the sound system itself changes. (Which might be the case with the w-sound, which seems to be allowed in borrowings into Swedish, even though Swedish in itself does not have a w-sound.)

  29. Suzanne Lanoue said,

    December 22, 2013 @ 12:18 am

    I wonder why they said "Mele" instead of the Hawaiian word for "Happy"? Which someone said above is hau'oli….

    After all, the British say "Happy Christmas", not "Merry Christmas", and one presumes that the missionaries would have been familiar with that. When they say "Merry Christmas" in other languages, they usually just use the word for "Happy" like "Feliz Navidad".

    As someone who is new to Hawaii, this is very fascinating. I'd heard of the song "Mele Kalikimaka" but never thought about where it comes from before.

  30. Ka'uilani Kim said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 5:28 am

    Mele Kalikimaka is the PHONETIC translation, meaning how they hear it and try to use their language to pronounce it. There is no Christmas in the the Hawai`ian language, so there is no real way to say it. If you take the actual translation it means song-(mele) tighten (Kaliki)- eyes (maka). It is like those idiot key rings you find in the tourist shops that have your name in Hawai`ian, it is not what your name really is, it is the phonetic translation. Example, you will find a key ring named Alice and the Hawai`ian name would be Aleka. Aleka does not mean Alice. Aleka means protector. Diamond is phonetically Kaimana, but Kaimana actually means powerful (mana) ocean (kai). As for the Hawai`ian creole or pidgin, because of so many people coming from different places, they needed to build a language to understand each other. And the most of it comes from trying to pronounce English words with their limited alphabet. So words like water or shower or ever, the "er" got dropped and became the "ah" sound (like when your doctor says open up and say ah). With progression we learned to speak correct English, but we still use the pidgin, because it's our slang. As for the person who said we don't use it during Christmas, um, mebbe you ste livind undah one rock cuz everybody says it ad nauseam during Christmas.

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