Pidgin Pt. 1

The view of the back of Koko Head Crater on Oahu

Much like Spam musubi, lei, and the ocean, Pidgin is an integral part of local Hawaiian culture and identity. And while some people, including many locals, still think of Pidgin as merely being bad English, linguists identify it as a creole language (a distinct language that's taken much of its vocabulary from another language but has its own grammatical rules). And because it's so important, I figured it'd be worth it to split it into two separate posts. So today I'll talk about Pidgin, what it is, and how it's thought of. Then later on in a second part, I'll talk a bit about some common words/phrases that you'll hear and their origins in different languages.

So Part One here we go.

From the time Hawaii was first encountered by the West, there has always been a need for the people of different languages and cultures who interacted in the islands to communicate. In the late 1700s, Hawaii was used as a stopover point for ships involved with trade in Asia, which led to the introduction of some words and expressions from Chinese Pidgin English. Later, in the early 1800s, with the rise of the plantation industry, the need for a common language rose sharply when thousands of immigrant workers from countries such as Japan, China, the Philippines, Portugal, and Korea were brought in to work the plantations. Not only did the workers have to communicate with each other, but with their English-speaking overseers as well. Thence grew a pidgin English speckled with the vocabulary and grammar structures of the other languages present in the islands. Over time, this pidgin became the primary language of much of the population, signaling the beginning of Hawaiian Creole English. By the 1920s, Pidgin was spoken by nearly all of the descendants of the plantation workers, who made up the majority of the population.

In Hawaii, as well as many other places that speak creole languages, the language is very much tied to the culture of the place, and if a person isn't able to speak it they are often seen as an outsider. Similarly, if a local person decides to start speaking the ‘high’ language, they are seen as being stuck up ("high maka maka"). And because of this many people (rightly) refuse to give up their native language. Yet at the same time, society is telling them that the way they speak isn't "proper English" despite it being a wholly separate language and that people who speak Pidgin more comfortably than English are less smart somehow. This is a bad thing (duh), especially for children who are taught in schools that their "English" is wrong and that they can't do x or y because of it, which is unfortunately how the education system treats them.

Recently, however, a growing support for the use of Pidgin has emerged. In the last two decades, academics at the University of Hawaii began to embrace Pidgin as an important and necessary part of local culture. Also in support of Pidgin is local printing company, Bamboo Ridge, which prints books and stories by local writers, including many who write primarily in Pidgin. Additionally, a few years ago, Pidgin was officially recognized on the US Census, allowing it as an option for people to select as the language they spoke at home. This upwards trajectory in the treatment of Pidgin is incredibly heartening, and I think it'll be really interesting to see where things go from here.