A.K.A., How To Give Good ‘Okina

I’ve been asked this question so many times I decided it was time to write an article about it. The question (and its many variations) boil down to this:

“What is the ‘okina, why do I need to use it in my web pages, what is the right character to use, what fonts should I use, what should I do if the font I want to use doesn’t have that character, and what other issues are involved in using it?”

OK, this is actually five questions and I’ll try to address them and other issues, and do it using non-linguist language. So you linguists out there, keep it down. I am also going to restrict my discussion of this subject to its use on the web. There are other issues regarding its use in word processing and layout programs that I will (hopefully) be able to address in the future.

1) “What is the ‘okina?”

The ‘okina, or mekona, is a glottal stop. The only time you’ll likely hear it from an English speaker is when they say “Uh-oh”. It’s that break between the two vowel sounds.

2) “Why do I need to use it”

Linguists consider the ‘okina a consonant, because the equivalent in other polynesian languages is “k”. The ‘okina carries meaning, because its presence or absence changes the meaning of a word. Ko‘u is mine, kou is yours. So leaving the ‘okina is not an option if you care about properly presenting the Hawaiian language.

3) The ‘okina character has been standardized in common use. It is not an apostrophe, but looks like a single, open quote characters. Typographers refer to this character as a “high-6”, because it looks like a small number six with the body filled in. Here are some examples of the preferred character using various fons, and some that are not preferred. By the way, the shapes of the characters found in all font sets are known as “glyphs”. These include letters, vowels, puntuation marks and any other symbol found in fonts.

Notice I said “preferred” and “less preferred” and not “correct” and “incorrect”. This is only to be politically correct and so as not to appear as being a prescriptivist. I personally believe the characters above to be correct and below incorrect, but that’s just my opinion.

3) ” What fonts should I use?”

In the CSS definitions of every website I have done, I have used this declaration

font-family: Lucida Sans Unicode,Arial Unicode MS,Lucida Grande,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif;

I am a “function over form” kind of guy, and care more about the ease of reading and proper representation of the Hawaiian language than I do about font style. This declaration assures me that 99%+ of all Mac, Windows or Linux computers that have shipped over the last five or six years will be able to see the Hawaiian language properly. That is simply all I care about.

What what will happen if you use a font that does not have the ‘okina character on Macs and most Windows machines – the browser will simply find another font that has that character, and use that character instead. Sometimes this is very subtle, and you can’t even tell another font is being used. In some cases, it looks like a typographical train wreck.

4) “What should I do if the font I want to use doesn’t have that character?”

This is where things get tricky, and if you thought that the answers to the first two questions are confusing, you haven’t seen confusing yet. But I will try to explain as best I can.

Most fonts have a glyph available that shows right ‘okina character. Remember above I explained that the glyph is the shape, what human eyes see. At this point you need to understand a little about what the computer sees. To a computer operating system, every font contains a number of glyphs, and they are all represented by numbers. You can see a chart that shows the ASCII values of all fonts here. Don’t be shy; go look:


The decimal values in the first column, 0-127, are what the computer sees. A is ASCII value 65, B is 66 and so forth. Older fonts could only handle those values. Later fonts had 256 characters. Now, with the Unicode system, there are sometimes tens of thousands of characters in a single font, and each has a unique value.

All of the fonts that ship with Macintosh and Windows have a glyph with the correct character shape in them. It is most commonly found for the single, open quote I mentioned earlier. Far fewer have the character that we prefer for the ‘okina, which is Unicode value U+02BB. This is the character generated by the Hawaiian keyboard that ships with Apple’s OS X. However, since some fonts do not have this character, we sometimes use the single, open quote in its place. This is generated by holding down the option key on the Mac, and pressing the right bracket – ] – key. It looks the same as the ‘okina character. I don’t know the shortcut for doing this on Windows, but you can use the “Insert Character” option and find it there.

5) “What other issues are involved in using the glottal on web pages?”

If you are someone who is very attentive about search results, you need to know that the use of any character for the ‘okina will possibly affect search results. To what extent I can’t tell you. You can include non-diacritic versions of the words that include the ‘okina in the keywords area of the HTML header.

OK, i’ll add one more question:

5) “Can I use the back-tick – ` – or straight apostrophe – ‘ – character for the ‘okina?”

You can do whatever you wantl. There are some reasons why you shouldn’t. First, it will possibly affect your search results. But in that way it is really no different than using the single, open quote character instead of the U+02BB character. The main reasons I don’t use it and discourage people from using it are first and foremost it is ugly. Second, it hurts readability. Try to print out a document where all of the ‘okina have been replaced with back-ticks. For Hawaiian speakers, it is much more difficult to read for some reason than the regular ‘okina. It puts a bigger gap between the two parts of the word it appears in, and in some cases makes it look like there are two words. Personally I would use the single, open space character before the back-tick, and I have yet to find a font where the back-tick is more aesthetically pleasing or readable than using that or even the apostrophe.


2 comments on “‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i on the WWW

Beth says:

Mahalo for you post! I appreciated your article as I have a client who doesn’t like the roundness of the okina that was displaying on the site I created. I think it was defaulting to a general serif font, but when I changed it to the unicode font in the style sheet that solved our issue. I also appreciate you stating the reasons not to use the straight apostrophe instead. This will be very helpful for many of my Hawaii nonprofit sites.

Mahalo for the kind thoughts. In most fonts, that glyph (the shape of the character) is available in several locations (as an open quote, as the glottal and other), and generally the shape is identical. When I used to customize fonts for us to publish with at UH-Hilo, we often found the shapes unsatisfactory and I would create new ones or borrow that glyph from another font. Palatino was one that no one liked, so we found a different one to use. Glad that the notes help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top