For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of encountering the Hawaiian language, it’s a very simple but elegant language. The written form is largely phonetic (cooked up by American missionaries in the 1800s) and makes use of two diacritical marks: the ‘okina, and the macron (also known as the kahako).
An ‘okina usually indicates a glottal stop, which is very important in the pronunciation of Hawaiian words. The name Hawai‘i is a great example: the ‘okina indicates the name is pronounced hahwhy-ee instead of hahwhy. When you hear a native pronounce the name, there’s usually a very short hard pause between the why and ee syllables.
Unfortunately, the two Hawaiian diacriticals are not used by European languages, which means they’re difficult to accurately represent on a standard US qwerty keyboard. In most printed publications, the authors simply omit the diacriticals altogether — the very reason you usually see the name Hawaii, and not Hawai‘i.
Over the last decade, there has been an attempt by many well-meaning locals (Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian) to use substitute characters when true diacriticals aren’t available. While macrons are usually omitted (they don’t exist in most font sets), the ‘okina is often represented by a foot mark ('), sometimes (mistakenly) referred to as a straight or neutral single quote mark.
This brings me to one of my pet peeves and the purpose of this post: misuse of the backtick (`) character. Many of the previously-mentioned well-intentioned folks mistakenly use a backtick to represent an ‘okina, and it drives me absolutely bonkers.
As I mentioned to a friend of mine recently, a proper ‘okina is usually the same as left single quotation mark (‘), depending on the font. The shape of the ‘okina should loosely resemble the number 6. In HTML you can get this character by typing the entity
Granted, using entities is a pain for most people, and practically impossible in email and other electronic documents. Substitutions will continue to be made. I believe a foot mark (') is a more accurate depiction of an ‘okina than the backtick (`). It’s also easier to type and looks nicer.