Afterthoughts: Waipa Who?

Siri has obviously never been to Hawai‘i.

Technology these days is amazing. Everybody is walking around with smartphones in their pockets that are essentially little supercomputers. If you own an iPhone, it takes amazing photos. It connects seamlessly with the collected global knowledge of the internet. You can even ask your iPhone a question, and Siri, its voice-activated personal assistant, will reply, using conversational English. “Hey Siri, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?” “You’ll need an umbrella, tomorrow, Michael.”


One thing has been bugging me lately, though. Siri is hopeless with Hawaiian. I personally don’t need to ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i with my phone, but I do often want to find the quickest route to Kāne‘ohe, or where in Kaka‘ako the highest rated burger spot is.




And Siri is clueless. “Sorry, I couldn’t find ‘Connie OK.’” “I couldn’t find any places matching ‘Cockle.’”


See if you can guess which neighborhoods, landmarks and street names I was trying to search for, based on what Siri came up with:


  • “Leaky Leaky Highway”

  • “Connie on only Highway”

  • “New on you”

  • “Could be on the Boulevard”

  • “Holly Eva” 

  • “Call via how old Church”

  • “Waipa who”

  • “Why and I” 

  • “Nonna Cooley” 

  • “Cahava”


No matter whether I say place names casually, or do my best Puakea-Nogelmeier-on-TheBus pronunciation, Siri draws a blank. And I’m stuck typing out my search with my phone’s keyboard, like some kind of Neanderthal.


OK, so maybe I’m overreacting. If you’re an iPhone user, you’ve probably encountered this situation, too. And maybe you filed it under “Hawai‘i people problems,” along with H-1 traffic jams and the price of milk.


But maybe we shouldn’t just let it slide. Really, the largest corporation in the world (by market capitalization) is shipping a phone that doesn’t recognize the street names for an entire U.S. state?


Representation, and recognition, is important. Hawaiian culture is as strong and vibrant now as it’s been since any of us have been alive, and that’s not only because it’s being lived and used by its practitioners, but also because it’s recognized and respected by others. I just mentioned the carefully correct pronunciation of Hawaiian place names on TheBus, and it’s actually a perfect example of the importance of paying attention to the details. 


Nearly six years ago, I interviewed Nogelmeier about his collaboration with TheBus, and at the time he pointed out that it had helped standardize the way people pronounce common place names. “The announcements have had a giant impact, I think, because they are consistent,” he said. “It’s a reference, which is valuable. Watching local television, you might hear four or five different pronunciations of ‘Wai‘anae’ in a half-hour.”


Today, as we embark into 2017, voice-controlled digital assistants are quickly becoming the new norm. Even if you don’t have an iPhone, Microsoft offers its Cortana assistant, Amazon has Alexa, and Google has Google Now. Whichever tools you prefer, we’re all going to be speaking to our computers more than we ever did before.


And Hawaiian should have a place at that table. Street names at a bare minimum, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if a fluent speaker of Hawaiian could check the weather or order movie tickets in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i?


I think there’s hope that Apple will smarten Siri up. After all, way back in 2002, the company added a Hawaiian keyboard to its OS X software, allowing users to properly include Hawaiian diacritical marks like the kahakō and the ‘okina. As a writer, that simple addition has made my life much easier. I used to have a cobbled-together solution of custom Hawaiian fonts, glyphs and weird keyboard shortcuts, but native (heh) support is infinitely better.


In the age of voice-activated artificial intelligence, life could still be better. What do you say, tech companies?


Until Apple gets its act together, there is one partial solution. I have to say, Google’s voice recognition software is actually not half bad at Hawaiian place names, whether you’re using Google Maps or the company’s stand-alone search app. Where Siri stumbles on Kaka‘ako, Waipahu, Waimānalo—Google nails them. But, just when you think Google must be one real local braddah, it stumbles on Likelike Highway, Hale‘iwa and Ka‘a‘awa.


Eh, baby steps. If can, can. If no can, try Google.