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It’s just the season to wish everyone a…Mele Kalikimaka?

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“Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way
To say Merry Christmas to you”

Made famous in 1950 by Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters, “Mele Kalikimaka” is indeed how the phrase “Merry Christmas” was borrowed into Hawaiian. It also demonstrates one of my favorite facts about Hawaiian and its special status among the languages of the world. So how did “Merry Christmas”, a familiar expression for most of us, enter Hawaiian as “Mele Kalikimaka” and just what linguistic curiosities does this reveal?

This Language Log post sums it up nicely. In the change from ‘merry’ to ‘mele’, the ‘r’ sound is replaced with ‘l’. It makes sense, as ‘l’ and ‘r’ are strongly related sounds. In English they happen to be phonemes, which means the sounds are used meaningfully to distinguish between different words, such as ‘lad‘ and ‘rad‘. In other languages, such as Japanese, ‘r’ and ‘l’ are conflated, so that speakers don’t recognize a meaningful difference if ‘meri kurisumasu‘ (‘Merry Christmas’) is pronounced ‘meli kulisumasu’ (even if they can detect a sound or accent difference).

But, more intriguingly, what about the second word in the phrase—kalikimaka? Looking at both words side by side, we can see a couple of unusual sound changes emerging that don’t seem to make sense.

chr    | i | st     | m | a | s
k(a)| i | k(i) | m | a | k(a)

Leaving aside the extra syllables (which is mostly due to the Hawaiian’s syllable structure and its phonotactics), we come to a bit of a baffling mystery. Why does ‘s’ become a ‘k’? From an Indo-European viewpoint this seems fairly inexplicable. Unlike ‘l’ and ‘r’, those two sounds don’t seem to have much in common (you wouldn’t generally mistake one for the other in a dark alley). When we look at other borrowings in Hawaiian, such as ‘kiwi’ for ‘TV’, ‘ki’ for ‘tea’ and ‘kaona’ for ‘town’, we can see that ‘k’ also takes over for words that originally had ‘t’ in English. So what’s going on here?

Let’s check out the consonant inventory of Hawaiian for some clues:

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

Ignoring all the linguistic terminology for now, what we can see is that Hawaiian is a language with a pretty small inventory of distinctive sounds. There are only eight consonants, one of the smallest consonant inventories in the world. Most importantly, you might notice that there’s no ‘s’ in Hawaiian. Perhaps even more astonishingly, there’s also no ‘t’ in the language. These are two very common sounds for speakers of English. What do you do when you borrow a word from one language, with many distinctive sounds, to a language with very few? The ‘s’ sounds in ‘Christmas’ have to be replaced with something, and Hawaiian, somewhat mysteriously, chooses to use ‘k’, arriving at the rather musical ‘kalikimaka’. For words borrowed into Hawaiian, ‘s’ can be replaced by ‘k’ (although sometimes ‘h’), and ‘t’, as we saw, is usually changed to a ‘k’. Thus ‘telephone becomes ‘kelepona, ‘doctor becomes ‘kauka’, ‘taro becomes ‘kalo‘, and so on. So, mystery solved…or is it?

One of the reasons this is unexpected is that consonants like ‘t’ and ‘s’ (known as coronal consonants, which are made in the front of the mouth) are kind of like the popular kids in the schoolyard of the world’s languages. Coronals are found almost everywhere, every language wants them in their inventory. For example, as evidenced by this sound frequency chart, as well your Scrabble set, ‘t’ and ‘s’ are two of the most frequently occurring consonant sounds in English, whether in written or spoken usage. These coronal sounds are so widely spread throughout the world’s languages that they’ve been called “unmarked“—they’re the most basic of consonants in a way. So while there are languages that have no labial consonants (sounds made with the lips, such as ‘p’ and ‘b’) and languages with no velar consonants (sounds made towards the back of the mouth, such as ‘k’ and ‘g’), it’s considered a universal rule that all languages must have coronal consonants in their phoneme inventories.

But Hawaiian is nudging its way to being a possible exception to this rule. While the language does have two coronal sounds (‘n’ and ‘l’) it’s famously missing the more common consonants ‘t’ and ‘s’, which means linguists have had to assess and reassess how absolute language universals really are. Hawaiian is kind of a linguistic outlier pushing out the boundaries of language diversity, testing what we thought we knew about language.

And so the mystery continues. Not only is it odd to have a language with virtually no coronal consonants, to most people, ‘s’/’t’ and ‘k’ sounds are completely different and unrelated to each other. All things being equal, why exactly does Hawaiian replace ‘s’ and ‘t’ with a ‘k’ rather than with a ‘p’ or another coronal in the inventory, such as ‘n’ for example? Is it just random chance?

Robert Blust’s 2004 paper showed how this t/k sound relationship, described as “the most interesting set of troublesome consonants in Hawaiian” is actually found in some form in at least forty-three languages, mostly of the Austronesian family, of which Hawaiian is arguably the most infamous. Blust wrote, “The writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who was familiar with both Hawaiian and Samoan, went so far as to call t/k interchange ‘the disease of the Polynesian languages,’ reflecting the common view of Europeans that there is something unexpected or even abnormal about such a change.” But it’s also been observed in other languages of the world. A Peruvian friend of mine, for instance, once told me in his dialect of Spanish, in the right context, borrowings like ‘futbol‘ (football) and ‘Hitler‘ are pronounced ‘fukbol‘ and ‘Hikler‘.

So the connection of ‘t’ to ‘k’ is not so random after all, though it’s still considered relatively bizarre. Whatever the reason for this linguistic oddity, enough evidence seems to exist that suggests ‘t’ and ‘k’ have mysteriously stronger ties than we first thought. Quite frankly, ‘K’ seems to suit Hawaiian to a ‘T’.

Editors’ Note: This piece has been updated slightly from the original.


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Oceanic Linguistics, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Dec., 2004), pp. 365-410
University of Hawai'i Press
American Speech, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Feb., 1951), pp. 18-26
Duke University Press
Oceanic Linguistics, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Jun., 2009), pp. 264-273
University of Hawai'i Press