When President Obama gave his December 16th press conference, he ended by saying “Mele Kalikimaka”, which means “Merry Christmas” in Hawaiian. Or does it? It looks suspiciously like the English phrase, doesn’t it? A few extra syllables. And some of the consonants are different. But still almost recognizable.
That’s because “Mele Kalikimaka” is not a translation of the words “merry” and “Christmas” into Hawaiian. It’s forcing the English sounds of “Merry Christmas” through the phonology of Hawaiian. A word that is borrowed, sounds and all, is called a “loan word”. And loan words can often tell us something about the phonology of a language. When the sounds of one language are forced through the phonology of another language, you often end up with something that barely resembles the original word. Hawaiian and English have a different set of allowable sounds and allowable syllable shapes (i.e. whether you can have multiple consonants next to each other, or consonants at the end of a word). Hawaiian is much more restrictive in the consonants is uses as well as the ways those consonants can be used.
Before looking more closely at the Hawaiian version, let’s take a look at Japanese “Merry Christmas”, “Meri kurisumasu”. This looks even more like “Merry Christmas” than the Hawaiian version. What’s going on? In Japanese, “merry” becomes “meri”. Pretty much the same. Perhaps the vowels are a little different, depending how you say “merry”. But “Christmas” becomes “Karisumasu”? First let’s look at “Christmas” itself. It’s generally pronounced /ˈkɹɪsməs/. Notice that at the beginning there are two consonants next to each other. A “consonant cluster”. Japanese phonology is very picky about consonant clusters. So “krɪ” gets broken up into “ku” and “ri” (the vowel changed because the closest Japanese vowel to /ɪ/ is /i/). Japanese phonology also doesn’t like consonants at the end of the syllable. So that explains the extra /u/ after the /s/’s. So, vowels change to something similar if there’s not the exact vowel, and vowels are added to break up consonant clusters and make it so a consonant doesn’t end a syllable.
Now back to “Mele kalikimaka”. We can see something similar happening with syllables in Hawaiian. There are no consonant clusters, and there are some extra vowels inserted. But what is going on with the consonants themselves? Why are they so different from English? For the same reason that vowels change to match the most similar vowel in the new language, since Hawaiian doesn’t use the same consonants as English, consonants with similar properties are used instead. /r/ and /l/ are very similar in both production and acoustics. So Hawaiian replaces the /r/’s that it doesn’t have with /l/’s. But replacing /s/ with /k/?? Those aren’t similar at all. Well, actually, there are so few consonants used in Hawaiian that the closest consonants to /s/ are either /k/ or /h/. And, in some loan-words in Hawaiian, /h/ is used for /s/. So it was really just chance, or maybe good marketing with Bing Crosby that gave us “kalikimaka” rather than “kalihimaha”.
Loan words are a great way to learn about the phonology of a language. How a language treats new words can tell us what sounds are allowed in that language, and how those sounds are allowed to be assembled. It’s always useful to look at native words in the language, but sometimes things really pop into focus when you see the rules work on a foreign word.