Photo: Devin ForrestInterpreting the meaning of language is central to the work of all courts in all parts of the world. Whether it be words used by governments in laws, orders, and rules; words used by parties when making agreements, or words used to show the mental state and intent of someone accused of a crime, determining what words mean – and how that impacts a legal outcome – is a core function of judges.

Here in Hawaiʻi, the usage, meaning, and interpretation of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has affected the outcome of cases and guided our law. Generally, there are a few methods that the courts use to interpret the meaning of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi at issue in a case.

The courts can consider the “plain meaning” interpretation or the regular meaning and definition of a word in recognized sources such as Pukui and Elbert’s Hawaiian Dictionary (1986) and A Dictionary of Hawaiian Legal Land-Terms (1995). Where appropriate, the court can also look to the “statutory meaning” or the definition created by law. Another method the court employs is known as the “custom and usage” of the word and is guided by the customs of a group, people, businesses, trades, etc.

The State of Hawaiʻi Supreme Court, through its jurisprudence and that of the Kingdom courts, has decided cases that required interpretation of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. In several cases, the court has done so based on the cultural understanding and interpretations of various words rather than on plain dictionary meaning or statutory interpretation of Hawaiian words.

One example is the 1968 court decision of In re Application of Ashford, which affirmed the public ownership of beaches. In that case, the court needed to determine what “ma ke kai” meant in relation to property boundaries along the beaches throughout the Hawaiian Islands. The Court interpreted these words using kingdom maps, land grants, and Native Hawaiian custom to determine where the high wash of the waves was located.

This approach, using historical and cultural context to inform the meaning and legal effect of Hawaiian words, enables the most accurate interpretation and culturally sound outcome that best reflects Native Hawaiian intention and understanding of the language. Advocating for this care with the language, however, is important in every case in which interpretation of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi is required. If not, there is a risk that the multi-layered and rich meanings of our language will not be properly considered. Instead, ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi could be deemed as having only colloquial, contemporary meanings not centered on Hawaiian culture and disconnected from Native Hawaiian usage and understanding.

This is an issue of concern for many Indigenous people. Indeed, just this March, the Oxford English Dictionary announced the addition of more than 40 words in te reo Māori (the Māori language) to its publication, declaring them “New Zealand English,” much to the anguish of Māori community members. This also surfaced as an important issue here in Hawaiʻi in a recent case, in which the argument was made that “haole” is a racial slur.

ʻO ka ʻōlelo ke kaʻā o ka mauli – language is the fiber that binds us to our cultural identity. ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi binds Kānaka together. A thorough, faithful interpretation of it in a legal context is essential to achieving justice.

This article was originally published in the May 1, 2023, edition of Ka Wai Ola. NHLC partners with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to publish an article in Ka Wai Ola each month that responds to community questions. You can access this article on the Ka Wai Ola website here.

Ask NHLC provides general information about the law. Ask NHLC is not legal advice. You can contact NHLC about your legal needs by calling NHLC’s offices at 808-521-2302.

To submit questions for future editions of Ask NHLC, email

Related Posts