It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but this is a debate that can spark a riot at any ukulele convention: how do you pronounce ukulele, YOO-kuh-lay-lee or OOO-koo-lay-lay? The pronunciation of “ukulele” can get surprisingly complicated, and carries with it a lot of interesting history.
So, how do you pronounce ukulele? Well, first, we need to start with how Hawaiians pronounce it!
Ukulele is a Hawaiian word…
The Hawaiian language is a Polynesian language, and is still spoken by thousands of people on the islands today. Besides ukulele, it’s given us words like mahi-mahi (a kind of fish), muumuu (a kind of dress), kahuna (like the big one!), and koa (a wood that ukuleles are often made from).
While you might think “ukulele” would mean “little guitar” or “small strummy thing” in Hawaiian, it’s got a weirder history than that. Most people translate it as “jumping flea,” which doesn’t seem to make any sense!
Supposedly, the name comes from one of the first ukulele virtuosos, Colonel Edward William Purvis. He was a British soldier who moved to Hawaii and served in their military (back when it was still a kingdom independent from the US). Purvis was very excitable and full of energy, and got the nickname “jumping flea” because of his personality. Since he was also a fine player of the little four-stringed guitar-like instrument that didn’t yet have a name, it was named in his honor.
This is a great story, but it may not be entirely true. There’s another translation for the name, but for that, we’ll have to learn another surprising fact.
…but the ukulele came from somewhere else!
That’s right, the ancestors of the ukulele come not from Hawaii, but from Portugal! The machete is a little guitar-like instrument that was commonly played by Portuguese sailors because of its portability. Since Hawaii was a popular stop for ships sailing the Pacific Ocean, this instrument was brought to the islands and spread quickly.
In fact, this brings up another possible translation for the name ukulele, “the gift that came to us.” It certainly makes more sense than “jumping flea!” It also pays tribute to the truly international origin of the ukulele. By now, though, the ukulele is a quintessential Hawaiian instrument, and one of the most well-known parts of Hawaiian culture.
It became popular in the US in the early 20th century
After Hawaii became part of the US in the late 19th century, there was a craze for all things Hawaiian. Everyone wanted to get their hands on the little instrument, which seemed so easy and yet so fun to play! If you look at old sheet music from the 1910s and 20s, you’ll find a lot of ukulele chords written out to help people play the most popular songs of the day on their new favorite instrument.
It’s remained popular ever since, with a big burst of new players coming in every couple of decades. Along the way, the name got Americanized, as so many foreign words do. Do you say “spaghetti” with an Italian accent, or “entrepreneur” like you were raised in Paris?
Now, the ukulele has gone worldwide, introducing many new accents and ways of pronouncing it. You can’t go anywhere without finding an ukulele player, or even an ukulele orchestra!
So, how do you pronounce ukulele?
Many people would say that the one true pronunciation for ukulele is the original Hawaiian one, OOO-koo-lay-lay. This is a great way to pay tribute to the culture that made the ukulele the sensation that it is today. And since it is originally a Hawaiian word, this is probably the best pronunciation for ukulele.
But that doesn’t mean that YOO-kuh-lay-lee is wrong, just different. The ukulele came to Hawaii from somewhere else before Hawaii sent it back out to the world, so it does seem like a kind of poetic justice for the name to keep changing as the ukulele goes international. Most people you meet will probably say YOO-kuh-lay-lee, especially if they’re American.
So in the end, just like how to play the ukulele, how to pronounce “ukulele” comes down to personal preference. You won’t be wrong either way, no matter how much others will argue. And if you spend too much time worrying about how to pronounce ukulele, you might forget to do the most important thing: play it!
Also published on Medium.