How the heck do you pronounce ukulele?

Before I became interested in the uke, I didn’t even question the way that I was pronouncing the word. Living in Southern Indiana (Columbus), I’d always heard it pronounced as: yoo-ka-lay-lee. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I have been saying it wrong all these years ;) The correct Hawaiian pronunciation is actually: oo-koo-lay-lay.  Who knew right? I do have to admit that it’s been really hard for me to retrain how I say it. Saying it the correct way makes me feel a little silly and almost pretentious. I’m also finding that I tend to merge my old way of saying it with the right way, coming up my own hybrid version as: yoo-koo-lay-lee.

So I’m posing this question to all that would like to answer: How do you pronounce the word ukulele and does it bother you when you hear other people pronounce it incorrectly?

28 Responses to “How the heck do you pronounce ukulele?”

  1. I pronounce it yoo-ka-lay-lee. I think people who insist on ook-koo-lay-lay are being snobs – like ordering a ‘cappuccino’ in an Italian accent.

    What’s really insane is people who pronounce ‘uke’ ook.

  2. Woodshed:
    Now I don’t feel so bad :)

  3. craig robertson on November 28th, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    I agree with Woodshed. yoo-ka-lay-lee is the accepted American pronunciation and has been since the twenties. This is how the english language absorbs new words. The Hawaiian way is not the “correct” way, it is only the correct way for their culture. It sounds precious for a mainlander to use it. I respect the Hawaiian language, but I speak english.

  4. If you’re on the mainland, say yoo-ka-lay-lee. If you’re in Hawaii, say oo-koo-lay-lay. Even if you’re a mainlander. It’s awkward at first, but it’s worth the effort. No one will think you are being precious, only that you respect their culture. But really only when you’re in Hawaii, because, yes, people will think it is very strange if you say oo-koo-lay-lay on the mainland. Unless you’re Hawaiian :-)

  5. This reminds me of Australia and the didgeridoo. Didgeridoo is ‘white man’s’ name for it and though it has many names, one traditional name is Yidaki. I differentiate between the two as being two different types of instruments, though the same, with very different qualities. ‘Didgeridoo’ giving much more of a contemporary sound and Yidaki giving much more of a traditional sound…..both with very different playing styles.
    I realize that this is a ukulele site so let’s tie it all together now ;)
    I wonder: could the same be said of ukuleles and ookeleles? .Is there a OOk-ulele that is more ‘tradional’ in sound and playing style versus a Ukulele that is more contemporary?

    Also, when in Australia and going to Cairns, Australia, pronounce it ‘Cans’ or they won’t know what the heck you’re talking about ;)

  6. For the longest time, I pronounce ukulele as yoo-koo-lay-lee just like the mainland people did. Then when I heard Jake Shimabukuro say Ook-koo-leh-leh I changed the way I said it. I figured Jake, one of the world’s best uke players, would know what he was talking about.

    I’m from Guam and most uke players say it ookoolehleh also. I pronounce uke as “yook”. When people say ‘ook’ thats when i cringe hahaha. To each his own though, it doesn’t matter what you call it we can all still make music together right? :)

    I hardly think that people who say it the hawaiian way are snobs though. Thats a bit much to say. Unless they try to correct the way you say it then that would be crossing the line.

    Didgeridoo from Yidaki? that isn’t even close to the same word! I’ve been to ‘Cans’ Australia. The ‘OZZYs’ there are very friendly.

  7. whats with the inability to make paragraph breaks? lol

  8. Well i sorta agree with strummer but we prenounce it as oo-koo-lele.
    oh and by the way, i live on kauai.

  9. I don’t care much how people pronounce it. I know what they mean either way and I would hate to be “that guy” who corrects people’s pronunciation. There is the Hawaiian way and there the a wider, more common usage. Take you pick. If I was going to be “that guy” I would have to gripe about every other word spoken in the US and Canada by so called “English” speakers. But I am not going to go around correcting people who use common pronunciation when everyone knows exactly what they mean, and almost no one knows there is another “correct” way to say a word. Like schedule. Or vitamin. Or aluminum. Or…

  10. ok so to all who r reading this-i am not from hawai’i, but “yook” really is the incorrect way…altho english is my first language, i think that all of us have ruined the language and cultures of other countries..im from american samoa and americans say samoa “suh moh uh” when really its “sah mo ah” also, knowing some of the hawaiian elders who have grown up hawaiian, they cringe at yook ooh lay lee. personally, i think yook ooh lay lee sounds like a dirty word, and while i dont like the american way, hawai’i is a part of america, so shouldnt we all just say it respectfully instead of making urselfs look like haole (white/american) tourists? maybe something to think about

  11. PolyGurl wrote: :

    PolyGurl, keep in mind that the entire English language is made up of words from other languages, and most of them are not pronounced the same way in English as they are in their previous settings. That is not wrong–it’s the way English works. To insist that other English speakers disregard this shows disrespect for them and for English, much in the same way you are accusing them of disrespect for saying “yook” (an English word) instead of “ook” (a Hawaiian word).

    Is it ruining the Spanish culture to say “guitar” instead of “guitarra” when speaking English? Is it damaging the Bantu language to say “banjo” instead of “mbanza” when speaking English? When speaking English, am I allowed to say “piano” rather than “piano e forte”, or would that be dissing the Italians?

    Or does your rule apply only to Pacific Islands languages?

    How about you stop criticizing others for their use of language, find your shift key, and look up the word “urselfs” in an English dictionary?

  12. Actually, because I’m from Norway I have a very weird way to say it.
    I say “ooh-kooh-leh-leh”. HAH! So for me every pronounciation is a good one.

  13. I agree with PolyGirl. I am part Native Hawaiian by blood, and it always makes me cringe hearing yoo-koo-lay-lee. I think you can say it however you want, but Pacific Islands, myself included, are generally defensive when it comes to their culture. The way you pronounce ukulele usually seperates the haoles from the locals.

  14. LOL. I was born in Hawaii so I say ooh-kooh-lay-lay and I always have. Whenever I hear someone saying yoo-ka-lay-lee or whatever, I want to laugh. It just sounds dumb to me.

  15. Alright well, here’s the thing. Yes, the english language has a tendency of altering pronounciation, but it’s usually because that’s the way it’s spelled (from what i can think of anyway). French words’ “s” is pronounced when they shouldnt and stuff like that. In this case, ukulele is pronouced how it’s spelled, so how the hell did it become “yu-ka-lay-lee?” Furthermore, it’s less for the benefit of all you haoles up there that don’t really care, but you’ll be taken more seriously as a player by true ukulele players, and by everyone here. However, i never really was bothered by shortening it to “uke” (pronouced y-ook)cuz, well idk, but it isnt as strange to the ears as yukalaylee. Anyway, I’d recommend you say it to the correct way instead of the accepted way.

  16. As a haole I cringe at yook-a-lay-lee. I work with a large
    number of polynesian people, and after getting to know the history of the degradation of their culture I just can’t pronounce it as such. It’s not like Asian culture, or Hispanic culture where its still alive and well. Polynesian culture has been systematically and methodically destroyed over the centuries. Now to some haoles and bruddahs alike I sound either pretentious, or to others I sound like im trying too hard. I’m fine with that. I won’t correct people, other than those close friends who I know don’t know any better. But then again I’m one of those wierdos who goes to Oahu and instead of staying at the atrocious hotels, I buy a tent and pull up a spot at Maili Park Beach… Sometimes welcomed, other times not so much. Still got mad love for them.

  17. Palaina Eselu on March 8th, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Well although people can say whatever the hell they want…..Since Ukulele is spelled U-K-U-L-E-L-E and not yukalalee or U-kalalee I say oo-koo-lay-lay. It makes me cringe when stupid palangis pronounce it the way they do because thats like saying A-pple,or A-merican, B-oy,or G-irl.Plus it makes you sound extra stupid when you go to the islands. Tourist are already looked down upon over there.

  18. Well, late to the conversation…but I just wanted to chime in my 2 cents…I don’t think anyone who says YOUkelele is meaning any disrespect and I don’t think insulting “mainlanders” really improves anything. For example we say U-niveral, not Ooniversal…I believe that is why many “mainlanders” would not think twice of the pronounciation.

    In the English language the letter U has 3 sounds: uh (the short sound) U (the long sound as in “universal”)and u (oo like flute or Peru or, according to native speakers Ukulele. I usually say “U (long) kelele. Anyway, not trying to sound like a snob, just trying to share a little about why people might pronounce certain words certain ways…tomayto tomahto.

  19. Well since I stumbled upon this while hearing a person on the TV pronounce the word as yoo-ka-lay-lee, I will put in my two cents.

    Being part native Hawaiian myself, I am partial to pronouncing ukulele as ooo-ka-lay-lay. But as stated earlier, I sort of understand how words from native languages often get altered during the transition to mainstream English.

    Anyway, I am not just part Hawaiian but I am one of the few that can actually speak Hawaiian (which is QUITE rare). The reason why ukulele is pronounced as ooo-ka-lay-lay to the people on Hawaii is because of the fact that ukulele is actually a Hawaiian word; not a word of English origin. Really ukulele is a separation of ʻuku – which means flea – and lele – which means jump. The reason for the name is because of the movement of the fingers is reminiscent of a jumping flea. Anyway if you haven’t realized by now, in Hawaiian, letters are pronounced differently from traditional English. So in the end the proper pronunciation would be ooo-ka-lay-lay.

    Just wanted to state the true reasoning why “islanders” often get mad at hearing the “mainlander” pronunciation. Plus, many “islanders” harbor dislike at the “mainlanders” for the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the near annihilation of the Hawaiian culture…but that’s another story.

  20. We ALL should be more insulted by a song like Hey Soul Sister being played on a ukulele than how someone pronounces it.

  21. I don’t think it matters as long as the hearer knows what you’re referring to.

    However, if you really want to get technical about it, Merriam-Webster, which I and many others would consider an authority on the English language, have the pronunciation as you-ke-le-le.

    After all, when we say the letter u, we pronounce it as “you” not “oo”.

    As an argument against the spelling, I would say it could just as easily be debated that the spelling could be oo-ke-le-le as you-ke-le-le.

  22. I’ll add that, depending on your language, the word has many, many different pronunciations, some even beginning with an “s.”

    In short, if I was Hawaiian, I would say “oo”, but I am not Hawaiian and, referring to the dictionary authorities on my language, they all appear to agree that in English, it’s “you.”

    :)

  23. If your worried about sounding like a snob but still want to respect the traditional name, use a guadal stop (sp)

    like in uh’oh sau y’ook-ka-leh-lee

  24. My friends always pronounced it yoo-ka-lee-lee!

  25. Archie Toledo on May 2nd, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    The Hawaiian pronunciation IS correct! Some responders sound so stupid because they cite examples that have nothing to do with ukulele’s pronunciation. For instance, somebody argued how “universal” is pronounced. How stupid! Universal is an English word. There are other responders citing different words with no correlation to ukulele.

  26. It annoys me sooooooo much when people yell at me for pronouncing ukulele ook-u-lay-lay…I think that I should be able to pronouce anything I want anyway I want a nobody should dictate that. And yes I know I am still a child but I have been to hawaii before and for long periods of time. so what if I start to In herit their accent?Someone just today said that I was “annoying the crap out of them” for “pronouncing it wrong”

  27. Wow, Americans in general are so snobbish. Look at how some of them replied on this post. I can totally understand why Hawaiian would think the mainlanders are bunch of snobs. SMH.

  28. Interesting positions from the “yoo-ka-lay-lee” crowd. If you have eaten a type of sushi, you are calling it “oo-nee” (uni) and not “yoo-nee” because you have heard it correctly from your sushi chef, or you may have even asked someone so that you do not seem uncool. Now that you’ve heard the correct pronunciation from our Islander friends, why would you not show the same respect you are showing to the Japanese culture?

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