Please Stop Arguing Over How Ukulele Is Pronounced.

3 Apr 2016

Please Stop Arguing Over How Ukulele Is Pronounced.

How do YOU pronounce ukulele? It's an argument that has been running for years and years. I kind of hoped it must have run its course by now, but no. The 'what is the correct way to pronounce ukulele debate' is alive and kicking. I lose the will to live with it. Anyway, I thought it was probably time to nail my colours to the mast. (Or at the very least give me an easy to find statement that I can just share on the next discussion that I see going on and on).. 

how to pronounce ukulele
Please note - this is 'irony'...

Only very recently on a very well known social media group this debate raged YET AGAIN and ran into around a hundred comments... In the red corner: Those who claim that it must be pronounced 'OOK-KUH-LAY-LAY' and in the blue corner, those who claim that it muct be pronounced 'YOO-KUH-LAY-LEE'. Both sides fight their corners with venom, some making quite outlandish claims and always with a sprinkling of 'i'm offended'.. And it's not the first time - many people witnessing the debate were shaking their heads thinking ' please...not this again..'

So who is right? Well, they BOTH are. And that is what makes the argument quite so ridiculous.

The Ook brigade are, in the main, traditionalists who choose to pronounce the name of the instrument in the native Hawaiian style. In fact, in Hawiian the instrument is spelled with an apostrophe type symbol before the U, so it reads 'Ukulele. That's called an 'Okina' and denotes that the pronunciaton should be a soft U, giving you the 'Ook' sound. Compelling huh?

Well, I cannot argue with the Hawaiian tongue as being correct, but only IF YOU ARE HAWAIIAN. If you are Hawaiian that is exactly how you will pronounce it because you are, errr.. Hawaiian. I am not. I am from the rainy North West of the UK.

You see, language is a quite wonderful living thing and it changes as you move around the globe. In fact it can change within regions of the same country. In the UK words like 'bath' and 'castle' will differ in pronunciation depending on which County you are in. It's essentially vernacular - and it relates to the common parlance of the district, region or country that changes the way words are pronounced. Put simply, a particular region of population will pronounce a word in the way that is most common for the area they are in. It's the same reason some people in the US pronounce words like Oregano, Aluminium, Duke, Zebra, Yoghurt, Semi, Vase, Buoy, Futile, Anti, Schedule, Herb and Garage differently to the way people in the UK pronounce them. Neither side is 'wrong' - they are just pronouncing words in the way that is most common in where they live. English speakers pronounce the name of the capital of France as 'Pah-Riss' whereas the French (and they should know) pronounce it 'Pah-Ree'. But both sides know exactly what they mean, and to the best of my knowledge they don't slug it out on social media groups arguing which is right. And they don't do that because they know how language works. They are just phonological differences, but the words still make total sense. And in fact, such phonological differences not only within different regions but also over time too.

Some people have surnames that are difficult to pronounce and get irritated when people get it wrong. I totally get that because it is your actual name. But it's completely different with an inanimate object and I have yet to meet the person who named the ukulele in person..

So with the ukulele, whether YOOK or OOK, the debate just rolls on and on and on and on (and on). I've seen people get quite upset by it and I've seen people suggesting it is in some way disrespectful or rude to Hawaiians to pronounce it any way other than the native way. What absolute and total nonsense. It's just a word and in the same way the French don't get offended by people pronouncing the name of their capital differently, neither should the Hawaiins be offended. (In fact, I would be surprised if true Hawaiians were actually offended, and they would probably just be pleased you played a uke - rather I suspect those who 'claim' offence are the sort of people who just like being offended... we all know someone like that).

Heck, Hawaii is part of the USA, but even some parts of the US itself pronounce it 'YOOK' so it's not even an 'America vs the rest of the world' phenomenon..

I saw one defence of the 'Ook' pronunciation as 'the Hawaiian dictionary gives the phonetic word soundings as it being 'OOK'. I am sure it does - why would it not? It's a Hawaiian dictionary! But in the Oxford Dictionary (the bastion of the English language in the UK) the pronunciation guide suggests it is 'YOOK'...  and so we go on.. (Incidentally, Websters and Collins dictionaries also both favour the 'YOOK' variety...)

But arguing the point based on reasonings such as those above is rather pointless.  These arguments on both sides  miss the understanding of language differences and vernacular.

I suppose it could be worse - the debate about the spelling seems to have died down (note - BOTH of these are technically correct for the same reason).

ukulele spelling
credit - Tim Harries

So please, come on.. - recognise that language changes around the world and over time. It's how it works. Nobody 'owns' it and so long as you are understood between other humans who speak the same or similar languages, that really is all that matters. We can all be right in our own way. Nobody is trashing your heritage or trying to be offensive. If you have your way of pronouncing it that differs to others, then that is absolutely fine if you are understood (whichever way you pronounce it). And if you think differently I will ask you whether you keep a buoy in your garage and whether your aluminium vase has herbs in it... in the British way... (and then get really offended if you don't sound like you are from Downton Abbey). Honestly, I really don't care how you pronounce it and neither should you...

(And if you are one of those people who think that you can only pronounce things the way the native speaker does - have you thought for a moment that you might be like this guy?)

EDIT - it's been said on Social Media (and in the comments below) that I am missing an important point here - I really dont think so actually. I DO recognise the arguments on both sides. I see them fully. I am not trying to belittle or wipe out either argument - the whole point of the post is that both sides of the argument are so strong that the debate is pointless. Neither side will win. Neither side will prevail and ensure that the other way of saying the word will stop. Yes some of those arguments can be powerful and can surround heritage and some horrible history. But ultimately, language is resilient to such things (and rightly so in my opinion). As such, the basic premise of the post stands as far as I am concerned. Before you choose to get offended - my view is - 'you are both right' but so what. Just play the damn thing!

And if you enjoyed this rant, you may enjoy my other ukulele rants here.  Some posts to read over coffee while you scratch the varnish from your desk with your fingernails in despair..


  1. Haha! I was gonna post a link to that video in the comments but you beat me to it! Love it! I cringe everytime I hear a non-Hawaiian say Ook oo lay lay.

  2. People do so love proving that they're "right." Can't see the fuss myself. Mark Kermode makes a point of saying "ook," citing the Hawaiian origin, whereas I generally go with "yook" because that's what performers like Cliff Edwards said. It simply doesn't matter outside of minor linguistic interest and childish point scoring. In the early days there wasn't even a consensus on how to spell the word, let alone say it, as can be seen in sheet music for "When old Bill Bailey plays the ukalele" from 1915 and other sources.

  3. "Oo-koo-leh-leh" English speakers continually bastardize other languages. Pronounce something wrong long enough until it becomes the correct and acceptable. "Ka-ra-o-ke" is another example.

    1. One could easily argue that the '-oke' bit of karaoke was initially a bastardisation of an English word by the Japanese. I think that the one of the beauties of the English language is her ability to borrow words from other languages and use them as her own. It would soon become ridiculous if we pronounced every word of foreign origin in the same way as it has been pronounced in the original language.

  4. Yeah - Americans have done that with many English words too. What's the difference?

  5. And as Big Jack Brass says above - Cliff Edwards - probably one of the biggest ukulele stars EVER - pronounced it YOO KOO LAY LEE

  6. But perhaps more importantly - I would agree with you if it led to the loss of the traditional pronunciation. It hasn't.

  7. I'm part native Hawaiian, and I honestly don't care how you pronounce it. I say it different ways at different times.

    But please save me your bullshit comparisons.

    Your examples are not even close to comparable. English and French are two strong languages with hundreds of millions of speakers, neither in any danger of disappearing. You're right, languages that big do grow and change over time and place.

    But Hawaiian is an indigenous language with at most some 25 thousand speakers worldwide, only a couple thousand of which speak it natively. There's a big difference, when there was a systematic effort to wipe out both the Hawaiian language and the Hawaiian culture as dirty and replace with with good clean white English culture. Hawaiian was designated a foreign-language IN Hawaii by English-speaking foreigners.

    Many older Hawaiians (my grandmother included) can tell stories about being literally beaten in school for daring to speak Hawaiian. It wasn't until later movements and Renaissances started to save the language, save the culture, that they weren't completely lost.

    No one beat kids in school for saying Pah-Riss instead of Pah-Ree or vice-versa.

    There's a history of trying to blot the Hawaiian language out of existence, and you can't ignore that. Pronounce ukulele however you want, but it's not just semantics or the difference between English and French - Hawaiian and English aren't even close to being on equal ground. Saying they are, and that it's not worth arguing about, is like saying women hit men same as men hit women. Sorry buddy, but it's not the same, the balance isn't even close. One side has a history of legally sanctioned, socially approved abuse and violence that can't be left out of the discussion.

  8. Wow.. I didn't say English and Hawaiian were on equal ground.

    Actually, whilst I agree with you about the history - it seems to me today that those things are thankfully in the past and Hawaiian culture seems to be celebrated more now than it ever has been - right around the world.

    So as of today, 2016 I really see no threat of the Hawaiian language being blotted out. I appreciate the history, but it just doesnt apply today and certainly not to those who have never been to Hawaii yet still tell others how it must be pronounced.

    It certainly isn't worth arguing about on a music site. And I dont think not pronouncing ukulele in the Hawaiian way is any threat to the natives of those islands in 2016. That was my point.

  9. And to add to that - actually the fact that the ukulele is so celebrated around the world is testament to the Islands who created it - thats hardly dismissing Hawaiian culture or history - it's embracing it. The fact we play the damn thing is what matters - not what we call it.

  10. But actually the comparisons are highly relevant - your point would make sense if the US had abolished the name 'ukulele' and given the instrument a new name - but they didn't. The name of the instrument and the spelling has remained and lived on. This is merely about how the syllables come out of your mouth. We are all still saying 'ukulele' though.

  11. I'm sooooo glad someone finally spoke up about this! Yep- I've been scolded by the "ook" people more than once and in a not so nice way either. I'm one of the "yook" people as that's what I grew up hearing. Love this entry!

  12. I thought we were just discussing how to pronounce "ukulele".

  13. Exactly Geoffrey - we were. I read and read and re-read that comment then finally realised it had nothing to do with the subject!

  14. Yeah agree but I would like to say I get annoyed when people call my baritone a small guitar but put GCEA on it a uke ..... I give up ...... Pitch has nothing to do with it .... It an instument a ukulele ,in words how you prononse it , is a different matter comes down to linquistics where you are from ,have you heard a Gordie say ukulele ..... I rest my case .... BTY I love the Gordie accent this is just a way to express my point..........

  15. "Heck, Hawaii is part of the USA, but even some parts of the US itself pronounce it 'YOOK' so it's not even an 'America vs the rest of the world' phenomenon.."

    'Murican here - almost nobody uses the Hawaiian pronunciation unless they're either Hawaiian or the guy in that video.

  16. Even though I flip-flop on the pronunciation depending who I'm talking to, I just realized I have a strong inclination to type "an ukulele" rather than "a ukulele", implying the Hawaiian pronunciation. Or maybe it's those grammar rules drilled into my head to use "an" before a vowel. Maybe I should just shut up and play!

  17. In 10th century Old English it would be pronounced Ook oo leh leh not far off the Hawaiian pronunciation..
    Have fun Kev

  18. Everyone, let's just all calm down and agree on MI-NI-GUI-TAR as the standard pronunciation.

  19. Interesting article and opinion. I agree that pronunciation is really of no consequence. In Tranquada and Kings text, "The 'Ukulele, A History" many other pronunciation are reported during the early introduction of the instrument to the Mainland. My personal aproach is to use "ook" when in Hawaii or when playing Hawaiian mele and "Yoo" when playing on the Mainland. I really comfortable switching between the two pronunciations and have not really encountered much adamant criticism. However sometimes the Hawaiian pronunciation will open the doors for interes ing conversation.

  20. I remember commenting on a forum where someone from the UK claimed that all American spellings and pronunciations that varied from the Queen's English spellings and pronunciations were simply incorrect. I told him that if he is going to take that position, then he needs to make sure he finds the original spelling and pronunciation of each word he uses to make sure that he is spelling and pronouncing them correctly. As an example, I told him he must start using the American spelling and pronunciation of 'Aluminum' because that is the original, and the UK spelling/pronunciation is the alteration.

    Of course, that's not what I really think. I think that any spelling and pronunciation that has been established as a standard somewhere must be considered correct. Otherwise we all have a lot of work to do to go back to old versions of languages from the earliest times that we know of. Every word that we use is pronounced and/or spelled differently now than it once was.

  21. CF - exactly - THAT'S the vernacular.

  22. Although - forgive the pedant in me. Aluminium was named by Sir Humphry Davy (English). He originally called it Aluminum named after the mineral 'alumina', but changed it in 1812 to Aluminium to coincide with other elements like Sodium and Potassium in the ending. The Aluminum spelling was so short lived in the UK it is only ever really remembered and used as Aluminium. The US followed, but in the early 19th Century the US also used Aluminium. There followed a period where both were used but it was only about 1900 that it seemed to change to Aluminum. Between 1812 and about 1850 it wasn't really used in either sense in chemistry in the US as it was so rare. So a mixed history. Even so, I think it only supports the point that there is rarely one definitive source.

  23. That's not completely at odds with the sources of the name that I have read. According to those sources, Sir Davy reportedly considered calling it 'alumium,' but then settled on 'aluminum' instead (before he released his research). However (according to those sources), in the UK, a committee of newspaper editors, when they reported on Sir Davy's research, came up with the 'aluminium' variation for the reason that you cited. Both variations existed for a while, but in the US they eventually generally settled on the originally released variation, while in the UK they settled on the aluminium variation.

    Of course, I don't know which sources may be more accurate, or even if they are really at odds (it's entirely possible that newspaper editors coined the 'aluminium' variation which was later endorsed by Sir Davy). Either way, the point stands. Language gradually alters over time and with location.


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