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.

An 'okina. Credit: Wikipedia ( 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.

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  1. Bravo for your teachings on diacriticals. I have learned from this. I’m not too skilled in typography or linguistics, so there’s lots for me to learn. That said, in the late 1990s I went crazy for using ligatures, but fell off the wagon sometime in the last decade.

    We work in a modern, global digital world. Why are tools, and especially spellcheckers, still ignorant of ligatures for things like “fi” and diacriticals?

    Between you and John Gruber, I’m starting to get better about my HTML now too. I find myself using proper “ quotes ” instead of simple straight “quotes” when I can. Details can be appreciated.

  2. …mostly Pip has been known to drive others bonkers, not the reverse. 🙂

    Nah, you’ve got the point here Phil…details like this DO matter.

    My only opinion is this in regards to online content specifically – when has anyone ever seen a search term log typed with any diacriticals? I don’t think I ever have, and I managed dozens of sites.

    IMHO, if SEO matters to any site owner, and it should, I think they should leave out diacriticals altogether as much as possible. Unless it’s totally offensive not to use it.

  3. I’ve been dealing with issues regarding Hawaiian display in email and on the web for about 16 years. You can see this document for a discussion of Hawaiian characters.

    For web use ‘ is fine since more fonts have it that U+02BB.

    Hawaiian email is not difficult, but can be complicated depending on what client people are using on both ends. We use these regularly with the Hawaiian keyboard built into OS X and an identical one I did for Windows using Unicode:

    I use these with people on GMail, Yahoo, and our mail system with no problem. Some people using older web base clients sometimes have issues, but we use it anyway.

    For those of us involved in the language, given the choice of representing the language properly and SEO results, we’ll pick the first.

  4. I should add that I don’t care for the back-tick as a substitute for the ‘okina either. But my objection has more to do with readability than anything else.

  5. What drives me crazy is the lack of easy access to *any* accented characters on an American keyboard. On a UK keyboard you can easily type an accented e (or whatever) by pressing the control key or the alt-gr (right Alt key). Don’t ask anout the german keyboard though – thats a nightmare!

  6. also, i believe the ‘okina is not a diacritic (diacritical mark), it is one of the eight consonants.

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