The Correct Spelling of ‘Ukulele

Out of all the instruments, it seems that the poor ‘ukulele has the most variations on spelling. This is probably due to the fact that most people have never seen the word spelled out and rely on their knowledge (or lack thereof) of English to improvise a spelling on the spot. Some variations I’ve seen:

  • ‘Ukulele
  • Ukulele
  • Ukelele
  • Ukalele
  • Ucalaly
  • Ukalalay

And of course the abbreviated variations:

  • Uke
  • Uku

As far as my knowledge and opinion goes, one is correct, one is a compromise, and the rest are wrong.

‘Ukulele is how it’s properly spelled in Hawaiian (after all, it’s a Hawaiian word…). More on that later.

Ukelele is the variant that somehow evolved to become the English spelling. I’ve heard that this is the spelling you’ll find in some English dictionaries. Which will get you into the argument that ukelele is an English word and should be pronounced “you-ka-lay-lee.” This spelling seems to be especially prevalent in the UK.

So ‘ukulele is the Hawaiian spelling, ukulele or ukelele is the “English” spelling.

The Hawaiian Spelling of ‘Ukulele

This came through my inbox years ago from one of the ‘ukulele mailing lists I belong to. I read with fascination, as this piece of the Hawaiian language and culture was so beautifully presented by Aunty Anuhea. I contacted Aunty Anuhea for permission to reprint her message on this site. She responded and said that I may. I hope you gain as much as I did from her letter.

“I am of Hawaiian ancestry, born and raised in Hawai’i.  As a child the Hawaiian language was never spoken conversationally in our home, the result of prohibition in the mid to late 1800’s.  My fluent-speaking grandparents never spoke the language to us, my parents understood it but did not speak it.  None of my brothers and sisters (8 of us) understood it or spoke it.  The only time we articulated the language in an expressive and extended way was while singing the traditional songs and hymns. Over the years we have learned bits and pieces but we are still far from fluent.

One thing I do know is the correct Hawaiian spelling of the name of the instrument we are all enjoying … ‘ukulele. The Hawaiian spelling includes the ‘okina (‘) at the beginning. The ‘okina is one of 8 consonants in the Hawaiian alphabet and is written as an apostrophe which curves toward the next letter [like a small number “6” ~BB].  I find it interesting that the Hawaiian/English dictionary lists ukulele (without the ‘okina) in the English section and translates it to Hawaiian as ‘ukulele (with the ‘okina).  Another Hawaiian word which begins with an ‘okina is ‘ohana.  Please check the online Hawaiian/English dictionary at ulukau.org to verify the information I have shared here.

The language of my ancestors has been forced into many changes, some out of necessity (i.e. the expansion of its vocabulary), some out of lack of knowledge and some out of self-righteous motives (prohibition initiated by the missionaries).  Please accept my comments here as my sincere and humble effort to contribute to the spread of the correct usage of the Hawaiian language.  I don’t know how ukulele (without the ‘okina) can be considered an English word, but if you prefer to omit the ‘okina… I guess technically you would not be wrong.

Anyway, thank you for this opportunity to add my two cents to this chit chat.

‘O wau no me ka ha’aha’a (Humbly yours),

Anuhea”

Thank you Aunty for giving me permission to reprint this here.

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