How To Pronounce Ukulele
Updated: May 28, 2020
Niche, mischievous, LaCroix, nuptial, caramel and poke (as in the raw fish dish).
Stop and say these words out loud. Now think. What do these words have in common? If you said these words out loud you probably mispronounced 4 out of the 6 words. And if your from Hawaii and got the last one wrong, I’m gonna have to ‘poke‘ you in the eye! Hehe! Now here are the proper pronunciations of the words above. Niche: “neesh” not “nitch”, mischievous: “MIS-chiv-us,” not “mis-CHEEV-ee-us”, LaCroix: “La-CROY” not “La-CWAH” (simmer down my French speaking friends, this is how they say it in Wisconsin). Nuptial: is actually only two syllables, caramel: “CARA-mel” not ”carmel“, and poke: see below...
There is another word that people all over the world mispronounce. It’s ukulele! When I think about it people mispronounce ukulele 90% of the time. Like my name Keli’i: “KAY-Lee-Ee” it seems hard to figure out. So here is how not to pronounce ukulele.
This is easily the number one way people mispronounce ukulele. In the Hawaiian language vowels can be long or short. Long vowels are usually written with a macron or in Hawaiian a kahako, (ā, ē, ī, ō, ū). But the word ukulele does not have this macron so the vowel is short. In Hawaiian the letter ’u’ is prounouced ’ooh’. Another mispronunciation is “ooh-coo-lei-lei”. Pronouncing lei as in flower lei. This is much closer but still not correct.
The proper way to pronounce ukulele is “ooh-coo-leh-leh”, where ‘leh’ is pronounced like ‘re’ in Do Re Mi.
There are two stories on how the ukulele got it’s name. The first is famous and if you ever visited Hawaii you probably heard it. Ukulele is made up of two Hawaiian words, uku and lele. Uku meaning flea, and uku meaning to jump or fly. Put them together and you get ‘the jumping flea’. The story goes that when the Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and Cape Verde traveled to Hawaii they delighted the locals with their native instrument the cavaquinho. They preformed nightly after working longs days on the sugar plantations. The Hawaiians watched in amazement as these amazing cavaquinho players quickly picked notes up and down the fingerboard. To these locals their fingers jumped around like fleas, hence the name ukulele, ’jumping flea’.
The other origin story is less known. According to historian Jim Beloff, the last Hawaiian monarch Queen Liliuokalani has been recorded as explaining that the term ukulele in fact means 'the gift that came'. She explained that a deep and poetic translation of the word uku is ‘gift’. She briefly ruled Hawaii in the early 1890’s after the death of her brother King Kalakaua. During his reign he opened Hawaii up to the world as the islands tropical climate had it’s agricultural advantages. This open door swung both ways introducing Hawaii to the ways of foreign merchants.
Waves of immigrants voyaged on ships to Hawaii’s shore to work at the many plantations around the islands. This led to the arrival of Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, the first ukulele builders in Hawaii. Before their arrival, Hawaiian music was played primarily with percussion instruments such as pohaku (drums), shells, puili (bamboo sticks), and the ipu (gourd). So adding the ukulele to the mix was ”a gift that came” from the Portuguese immigrants. What started out humbly on the plantations caught the ear of the royal family. Even the members of King Kalakaua’s royal service could play with exceptional skill! And by the time Queen Liliuokalani took the throne, the ukulele was already weaving its way into the culture. I agree with the Queen, the ukulele is the ‘gift that came’.
Now say it with me, OOH-COO-LEH-LEH! Got it? Now whenever your out and about and hear someone say ‘yukaleilei’, kindly stop them and show them the light. And why we are at it, @google and have them change it on their search engine as well. With this tactic I feel we can all get it right by the year 2800!
Now if we could just figure out how to pronounce GIF... Is it Giff? Jiff? Oh no!!!