We still pronounce some of the Hawaiian Island names differently.
After western contact and attempts to write about Hawai‘i, early writers tried to spell words based on the sound of the words they heard. People heard words differently, so it was not uncommon for words to be spelled differently, depending on the writer.
However, it may be helpful to look how early writers wrote the respective Island names and see if there is a consistency in representative letters for names and the sounds they represent.
Remember, the writing of the letters in each word is based on the sound they hear, then written in the context of the sound of based on their own English language (and pronounced in the English language).
The first writers were Captain James Cook and his crew. Here are the ways he spelled the Island names (and the words we use for them now).
Oreehoua, or Keehoua (Lehua)
Oneeheow or Neeheehow (Niʻihau)
Atooi, Atowi, or Towi, and sometimes Kowi (Kauai)
Woahoo, or Oahoo (Oʻahu)
Morotoi or Morokoi (Molokai)
Ranai, or Oranai (Lanai)
Morotinnee, or Morokinnee (Molokini)
Kahowrowee, or Tahoorowa (Kaho‘olawe)
First off, let’s look at the preceding O or A in some of the names. ‘O, and sometimes ʻA, beginning a word are markers to note proper name subjects (persons, places or certain special things.) They are vocatives (addressing the person or place you are talking about or to) – i.e. Atooi means ‘this is (or, ‘it is’) Tooi’ – so it is a proper word and the Island name is ‘Tooi.’ (Johnson)
Here are some other early writers’ ways of writing the Island names by the sounds each hears:
Hiram Bingham (1820-1840)
Let’s start with the double vowel sounds to start to break down the sound … double O, ‘oo’, has a sound that rhymes with ‘Too’ or ‘Two’. Double E, ‘ee’, sounds like the way we say the single letter ‘E’ (rhyming with ‘wee’).
Now let’s look at the ‘i’ in the words – it, too, sounds like the way we say the single letter ‘I’ (rhyming with ‘eye’).
So ‘Atooi’ really is ‘Tooi’ – sounding like ‘two – eye’. As Hiram Bingham was working on the alphabet developed for the written Hawaiian, he actually notes that Atooi (Kauai), in his early writing was written as ‘Kau‘ ai’ (with the ‘okina before the second ‘a’, not after it) and sounds like ‘cow-eye’.
Some, today, say Atooi is pronounced as ‘Ah’ ‘two’ ‘ee’; however, they are putting in the Hawaiian sound for ‘I’ (which sounds like ‘ee’), rather than the English sound for ‘I’, which rhymes with ‘eye’.
Another Island name with varied pronunciations today is Molokai.
It seems there are at least two schools of thought; an explanation on the pronunciation/spelling of the island name (Molokai (Moh-loh-kī) versus Molokaʻi (Moh-loh-kah-ee)) is noted in the early portion of “Tales of Molokai The Voice of Harriet Ne” by Harriet Ahiona Ayau Ne with Gloria L. Cronin.
Harriet Ne’s grandson, Edward Halealoha Ayau, noted:
“The reason that the name Molokai (as used in the book) is left without the glottal stop is because my tūtū wahine (grandmother) says that when she was growing up in Pelekunu it was never pronounced Molokaʻi (Moh-loh-kah-ee), but rather Molokai (Moh-loh-kī).”
“Then in about the 1930s, the name changed to Molokaʻi, in part she believes because musicians began pronouncing the name that way. Mary Kawena Pukuʻi, three weeks before her death, called my tūtū and told her that the correct name is Molokai, which means ‘the gathering of the ocean waters.’”
“On the rugged north coast of the island, the ocean slams hard into the pali. On the south and east shores, the ocean glides gently to shore due to location of reefs at least a quarter of a mile offshore. Hence the name, Molokai, ‘Gathering of the Ocean Waters.’”
In a follow-up exchange with Halealoha, he resolved the matter saying that the “best answer is both pronunciations are correct and the most correct depends on which family you are speaking to. So for our ʻohana, it would be Molokai. For others, Molokaʻi.”
Bingham writes, “Aiming to avoid an ambiguous, erroneous, and inconvenient orthography, to assign to every character one certain sound, and thus represent with ease and exactness the true pronunciation of the Hawaiian language, the following five vowels and seven consonants have been adopted: a, e, i, o, u, h, k, I, m, n, p, w.”
“The power of the vowels may be thus represented: ‘a’, as ‘a’ in the English words art, father; ‘e’, as ‘a’ in pale, or ‘ey’ in they; ‘I’, as ‘ee’ or, in machine; ‘o’, as ‘o’ in no; ‘u’, as ‘oo’ in too. They are called so as to express their power by their names ‘ Ah, A, Ee, O, Oo.” (Bingham)
“The convenience of such an alphabet for the Hawaiian language, undisturbed by foreign words, is very obvious, because we can express with simplicity, ease, and certainty, those names and phrases with the sound of which former voyagers were utterly unable to make us acquainted by English orthography.”
“Though it were possible to spell them with our English alphabet it would still be inconvenient. A few names may illustrate the reasons for our new orthography.” (Bingham)
The Old. Corrected in English. The New, or Hawaiian.
Tamaahmaah Kah-mā‘-hau-mā-hah Ka me‘ ha-me‘ ha
Terreioboo Kah-lah‘-nȳ-ō-poo‘-oo Ka la’ ni o pu‘ u
Tamoree Kah-oo‘-moo ah lee‘-ee Ka u‘ rnu a Ii‘ i
Owhyhee Hah-wȳe‘-ee Ha wai‘ i
Woahoo, O-ah‘-hoo O a‘ hu
Attooi Cow‘-eye‘ Kau‘ ai‘
Hanaroorah Hō-nō-loo‘-loo Ho no lu‘ lu