An enlightening piece from Blair Mastbaum, for Atlas Obscura, about a song I had never heard of. The question: Is ‘Mele Kalikimaka’ Really the Thing to Say on a Bright Hawaiian Christmas Day? The answer: no.
So, what does it mean? “Nothing,” says Holton. “It’s basically gibberish.” Technically, it’s a borrowed phrase: a term in a foreign language, in this case English, transferred into Hawaiian using what linguists call the rules of phonotactics, or sounds available in that language, Holton explains.
“Hawaiian has just eight consonant sounds and nothing like a consonant cluster, where multiple consonants come together to form a new sound, like in the English word ‘strength,’ which starts with three consonants and ends with a four-letter cluster,” Holton says. He adds that the two syllables in “Christmas” became five in “kalikimaka” because of the Hawaiian language’s syllable structure: A consonant sound must be accompanied by at least one vowel sound. “When you borrow an English phrase into another language, it has to follow the rules of the receiving language, which adapts and integrates the word to fit more easily,”says Holton. In the case of “mele kalikimaka,” no one knows for certain who made these linguistic decisions.
De Silva says there’s not even a linguistic need for the phrase: “Hawaiian words could easily be chosen. Hauʻoli, meaning happy, and ʻahaʻaina, meaning festival, would accurately capture the sentiment, and be more respectful of the Hawaiian language and culture.”
I’ve gone this far in life without hearing the song and I think I’ll keep that up. Just say Merry Christmas or ‘Hauʻoli ʻahaʻaina’ if that’s acceptable.