AN Ukulele or A Ukulele?

AN Ukulele or A Ukulele?

Hawaii 15

ukes, uke, ukulele, ukelele, HawaiiOh, you grammar mavens are cringing over the possibility of an ‘ukulele, I just know it. But while you’ve probably known this tiny four-stringed instrument as a you-ka-lay-lee, that’s an anglified version of a Hawaiian word. The Hawaiian pronunciation is oo-koo-ley-ley. Pronounce it Hawaiian style, and ‘an ‘ukulele’ sounds just fine.

It’s a problem for someone like me, who writes frequently about Hawaii. If I write it so that it feels comfortable to me, my editor will likely think I’ve skipped Grammar 101. When I do write about ukuleles* I present the issue of pronunciation to my editor. Invariably, ‘an ‘ukulele’ is trashed for the more common ‘a ‘ukulele.’ Editorial license trumps my comfort zone.

I prefer to use the Hawaiian pronunciation because, well, it’s just more accurate. It feels right. Just as a San Franciscan may cringe to hear their city called ‘Frisco,’ I’m sure folks from Hawai‘i find ‘you-ka-lay-lee’ to be a little hard on the ears.

Some people find the Hawaiian pronunciation to be snobbish. I can’t quite follow that train of thought, myself. It seems more respectful to me since the word is Hawaiian in origin. Of course, if you want to continue playing the you-ka-lay-lee, that’s fine by me.

It’s a contentious subject, though. My 17-year-old son is the editor and webmaster of Live ‘Ukulele. Via email, he interviewed a gentleman who used the term ‘a ‘ukulele.’ In his capacity as editor, my son changed the verbiage to ‘a[n] ‘ukulele’ to suit his editorial style. The man in question was not happy about this and things got a little unpleasant. I understand that the changes must have felt awkward to someone who’s used to the corrupted pronunciation, but again with the editorial license. It’s like to-may-to, to-mah-to. No matter how you say it, it’s good stuff.

And as if that isn’t enough controversy for an ‘ukulele, there’s the whole question about how to properly spell the word. I’ll let Aunty Anuhea address that one for you, though.

*Technically, that plural ‘s’ shouldn’t be there, but we’ll push one envelope at a time, ‘kay?

(Photo: Flickr user Runder)


15 Responses

  1. I love that your son has an “editorial style”!

  2. sheryl says:

    I guess each region has their own *proper* pronunciation of words specific to their area. From now on whenever I see the word ukulele I’m going to remember reading this post!

  3. oh, the things I learn reading your blog! I had no idea about these pronunciation issues with the word “ukulele” but being multilingual, I well know how common it is for the pronunciation of a word to diverge from its native origin.

  4. This is great. I’m forwarding this to my nephew who handcrafts–ukulele’s. He’s even trying to teach his mom how to play:)

  5. MarthaandMe says:

    Quite an interesting conundrum! I think it’s great that you’re using the traditional Hawaiian pronunciation. I think Hawaiian is a beautiful language.

  6. Susan says:

    Hadn’t given this much thought, but that’s an interesting conundrum. Here in Massachusetts, we have several towns with multiple spellings. “Plymouth” is the town and “Plimoth” is the historic site, because that’s the old spelling. There’s also “Attleboro” and “Attleborough” and “Westboro” and “Westborough.” (same place, just different spellings, which makes it tricky for newspaper copyeditors!). I think it’s because many of the old New England settlers couldn’t read or write so it was tough to standardize language back then.

  7. Oh, the many ways we butcher our own language and the languages of others. Who would have known something like this would be so hotly debated?

  8. Very interesting – I didn’t know about the Hawaiian origin and pronunciation.

    Generally though I think it’s fine to Anglicise/Americanise pronunciation of words. Otherwise there are tons of words that we are saying incorrectly. Do you roll your Rs every time you say “croissant”?

  9. Jesaka says:

    I had no idea that this was such a hot topic. The Hawaiian language is so beautiful that it’s hard to think of the oo-koo-ley-ley pronunciation as snobbish. And applause to your son for having an editorial style. Sometimes the key is just being consistent.

  10. Wow, this is fascinating. The grammar nazi and language nerd in me is captivated!

  11. Ha! Caitlin, I’m one of those weirdos who rolls my R’s when I pronounce croissant, but only because I speak French semi-proficiently. Usually I’m best with the food words in any language. 🙂

  12. Casey, I think that since you have a grasp of the French language, you’re going to pronounce those words in the technically correct manner. Because I have a general understanding of the Hawaiian language, I try to pronounce Hawaiian words as they should be pronounced. Someone who doesn’t know how those words are pronounced “correctly” uses the default pronunciation, and that’s fine.

    But in this case, since ‘ukulele *sounds to many people like it begins with a consonant, it becomes a big grammatical issue when I’m writing!

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

  13. sarah henry says:

    Who knew? My son, who played the Ukulele, will love this story.

  14. We need to draw a line in the sand about the ‘a/an’ distinction, and how ‘an’ seems to be losing ground all the time. Every time I see “a historical precedent” I can’t quite believe people speak that way, much less write it so.

    While we were in Kauai a few years ago I noticed that the authentic pronunciation of local words predominated even in English, and isn’t that as it should be? It is another language, and one spoken natively only within the US.

    People who come to Oregon pronouncing it “ORE-uh-GAHN” to rhyme with ‘octagon’ sound pretty silly (it’s ‘or-i-gun’ here–almost like the word organ with a very short schwa in the middle).

  15. TeresaR says:

    I’m not sure why people get so huffy; I think a word, when usurped by another language, should be pronounced as close to the original way as possible (and have the proper article and pluralization to go with it). So, thanks to your post, I’ll be saying oo-koo-ley-ley from now on (unless I forget)!

    And yes, that photo was from Sequoia National Park! =)

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