LEXIS


ukulele
uke

ウクレレ
(南極(なんきょく))四弦琴(しげんきん)

Obsolete spellings: ukelele, eukaleli, ukalele, uke

Musical instrument with body, neck and (at least) four1) strings whose ancestors were brought in late 19th c. from the island of Madeira to Hawaii and reshaped into what is now known as the Ukulele. Musicologically, it belongs to the family of the short necked box lute.

Pronunciation

/ˈʔukuˈlɛlɛ/


male Hawaiian

female US-American

/juː.kə.ˈleɪ.li/


male US-American

female US-American

Shapes

030.jpg
Japanese depiction from 1937
From left to right an “original Ukulele”, a pineapple shaped Ukulele and a banjo ukulele.
029.jpg
English depiction
www.hhugo.org_s_cc_images_teaserbox_30162516.jpg
German depiction

Sizes

Namescale length (cm)Length (cm)tuning
sopranino2840C6, D6
soprano3353C6, D6
concert3858C6, D6
tenor4366C6, D6
baritone4874G6
bass5376G6 for basses

Sound range and position

The range of a soprano ukulele with 12 frets in reentrant tuning ranges from C4 to A5 and thus corresponds exactly to the pitch of the human soprano. At linear tuning, the lowest tone is G3), which is the same as the human alto. Larger instruments have up to 18 frets, reaching tones up to D6), whereas baritone ukuleles are tuned a fourth or octave lower and are thus at the height of the human baritone (G2–D5).

InstrumentLowest noteHighest note
Soprano, reentrant, 12 fretsC4A5
Tenor ukulele, linear, 18 fretsG3D6
ViolinG3A7
Baritone ukulele, linear, 18 fretsG2D5
Guitar, 24 fretsE2A6

Origins

Manuel Nunes, one of the first Ukulele builders, was long thought to also be its inventor, but the story is more complicated.

The ukulele is a curious hybrid of two Madeiran instruments — the machete and the rajão — and so the notion of invention has some legitimacy although 'adaptation' would perhaps be more accurate.3)
Nunes and his pals had taken the ”My Dog Has Fleas“ sound of the G, C, E and A strings of the rajão, and put them on the body of the smaller braguinha. The braghuinha is the father of the ukulele and gave it its size, but the rajão is the mother that gave it it heart and voice.4)

Prehistory

The guitar is a “multicultural” instrument, and its development towards the Ukulele is quite intricate. When in the early 18th c. the courtly culture of Hanover arrived in England (when Hanover became heirs to the English throne), they brought with them a particular kind of guitar (guittar) later known as English guitar.5) In contrast to the Baroque guitar, it was played with steel strings and tuned rather simply (C2–E2–G2G2–C3C3–E3E3–G3G3). Therefore, it was commonly used for playing parallel thirds, and its lowest tone was C2. British merchants brought the English guitar (which was also often played with the help of a capo) to Portugal and to Portuguese Madeira.6) From there, the Madeiran guitars accompanied the Portuguese immigrants to South America and Hawaii, where finally the Ukulele was born.

Ancestors

Name Ancestor Strings Alias Age Tuning
vihuela 6 x 27) Renaissance
guitarra vihuela 4 x 28) Renaissance
Baroque guitar guitarra 5 x 29) Spanish guitar Baroque e'hgd'a10)
guitar Barockgitarre 6 19th c. e'hgdAG/E
rajão guitar 5 taro patch 19th c. d'g'c'e'a'11)
cavaquinho guitar 4 19th c. d'g'h'd/e”
braguinha cavaquinho 4 machete 19. Jh. d'g'h'd“
Ukulele rajão, braguinha 4 19th c. gcea12) / adf#h13)

Origin of the Name

Uku-lele (ú-ku-lé-le)–a flea; a sort of guitar introduced by the Portuguese.14)
The boys in a certain district school on Hawaii call the weekly head inspection “playing the ukulele” in allusion to the literal interpretation of the name for the native banjo15)
In 1879 Mrs. Emerson, then a young woman, came from Europe to pay a visit to some English friends named Purvis, then living in Hawaii, or the Sandwich Islands. … At the time of Mrs. Emerson's arrival in 1879, the Portuguese were just beginning to come to the islands in fair numbers, and had brought with them three stringed musical instruments, of which the smallest was the model for the now famous ukulele. Those were the days of King Kalakaua, that jovial monarch who gathered around him all the wit and charm in his kingdom. The young army officer, Edward W. Purvis, aside from a natural charm of manner and much social experience, was a gifted musician with a genuine curiosity about, and love of, customs of the folk among whom he found himself. Not only was he a favourite at the king's court, but he became his chamberlain, and was much loved by the Hawaiians. Almost at once he manifested an interest in the quaint little stringed instrument which the Portuguese had, and which, probably because it was small, easily handled, and relatively inexpensive, was becoming popular with all classes. He soon became adept with it, and was always in demand among the Hawaiians to add his music to their fun. In fact, so devoted did he become to his little “guitar” that he was seldom seen without it under his arm.
He was slight and agile, in which respect he offered rather a contrast to the tall, heavy, slow-moving Hawaiians with whom he was so often in company. Humorously and affectionately they nick-named him uku-lele, literally “jumping flea,” a name which stayed with him until his death and which, readily enough, became associated with his beloved little instrument in the minds of all his friends, and has perpetuated his memory.16)
Apparently fleas were introduced from European or American ships sometime before 1809, during the reign of Kamehameha I. [60]
Examination of the word 'uku and its combinations leads us to the conclusion that the word for flea, 'uku-lele, is of post-contact origin. (…) The word 'uku-lele, after it was fixed for reference to household fleas, was adopted as the name of the small 4-string guitar that became a popular musical instrument soon after arrival of Portuguese contract laborers in 1878. The usually accepted version of this adoption, as stated by Webster's dictionaries, is that the rapid movements of the fingers in playing the instrument resemble the leaping of fleas. However, Pukui and Elbert suggest the interesting alternative probability that the ukulele was named for Edward ”'Uku-lele“ Purvis, a small, nimble entertainer who was greatly responsible for popularizing this instrument in Hawaii. [61]17)

References

  • Elbert, Samuel H.; Knowlton, Edgar C.: „?Ukulele“. In: American Speech 1957 Bd. 32. H. 4, S. 307–310.

1) Sometimes also five or six.
2) Louis N. Feipel: “A” and “An” before “H” and Certain Vowels. In: American Speech vol. 4 no. 6 (Aug. 1929), pp. 442-454, here p. 453
3) Tranquada, Jim; King, John: “The Singular Case of Manuel Nunes and the Invention of the Bouncing Flea”. In: The Galpin Society Journal 2007:4 vol. 60. , pp. 85–95; here p. 89
4) Dan Scanlan: The World According to Uke. Ukulele History As Told To Dan Scanlan. 2013 (ISBN 9780962628054) p. 9
5) In France, the same guitar was still named guitarre allemande = “German guitar”.
6) Nuno José dos Santos Anaia Cristo: The Portuguese Guitar: History and Transformation of an Instrument Associated with Fado. MA-Thesis. Toronto: York University, Graduate Program in Music, 2014, S. 16, Fn. 13
9) 4. and/or course in octave interval
14) Emerson, Nathaniel Bright: Unwritten Literature of Hawaii. The Sacred Songs of the Hula Washington 1909, Glossary
16) Helen H. Roberts: "How the Hawaiian Instrument, the Ukulele, Received its Name." In: Journal of the Polynesian Society 40:159 (1931), pp. 175–176
17) Haas, Glenn E.; Tomich, P. Quentin; Wilson, Nixon: “The Flea in Early Hawaii”. In: The Hawaiian Journal of History 1971 vol 5., pp. 59–74