A lovely bit of linguistic trivia popped up on Haggard Hawks yesterday: the name of the Hawaiian plant ieie is the only four-letter, four-syllable word in the English dictionary. And, just as brilliantly, it’s pronounced almost exactly how it’s spelled.
We’ve talked a little before about vowel-heavy words on this blog, specifically under the words euouae (the name of a type of stock musical cadence often found in mediaeval plainsong) and aa (the name of a brittle basaltic Hawaiian lava). But knowing that we can add ieie to our list of consonant-less words brings one last question to mind: are there any more?
Oddly, there are a few. Odder still, a great number of them come from Hawaii. And oddest of all, most of them are the names of birds.
As well as ieie and aa, Hawaiian loanwords in the dictionary include the oo, a family of honeyeater bird (also known as the moho); the ou, a specific type of oo; the ao, a species of Pacific Ocean shearwater; the uau, the Hawaiian petrel; and, rivalling ieie for that coveted four-syllable-from-four-letters spot, the ooaa, a sadly now extinct species of oo, once found exclusively on the island of Kauai.
So why does Hawaiian tolerate so many vowel-heavy words? Well, one reason is that it’s all to do with how the Hawaiian language itself operates. And another reason is that—well, it actually kind of doesn’t.
Like a lot of Polynesian languages, words in Hawaiian are built out of chains of alternating vowels and consonants; pairs of successive vowels are occasionally also tolerated in Hawaiian, but chains of consonants absolutely never are. All Hawaiian words, ultimately, must end in a vowel.
The Hawaiian language itself had no official written form until the islands were first contacted and explored by westerners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In their attempt to make the Hawaiian language both legible and easy to learn, these early settlers transcribed it into an alphabet of just thirteen letters, five of which (almost 40%) are vowels. The Hawaiian alphabet, ultimately, reads in order A, E, I, O, U, H, K, L, M, N, P, W, and ʻ —the latter of which is the ‘okina, an apostrophe-like symbol used to represent a throaty consonantal sound properly known as a glottal stop.
So the Hawaiian language finally had a written form. But then, some Hawaiian words began to find their way into English—and that caused something of a problem. English tolerates all of the letters of the Hawaiian alphabet except the ‘okina. The upshot of that is that when Hawaiian words spelled with an ‘ (the name Hawai‘i among them) are translated into English, this symbol tends simply to be omitted.
Returning to that list above, ultimately, we find that the proper Hawaiian names for all of these vowel-heavy words are actually ‘ie‘ie, a‘a, ‘o‘o, ‘o‘u, ‘a‘o, ‘ua‘u, and ‘o‘o‘a‘a—all of which are built not from endless chains of vowels, as they appear to English speakers, but from individual vowels, or pairs of vowels, separated by a subtle but important consonant—the ‘ . It’s just that English doesn’t tend recognize it.