From “the diverse motions of the tongue, palate, lips and other organs of speech,” writes Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, Part 1, is birthed humanity’s “most noble and profitable invention of all other… whereby men register their thoughts, recall them when they are past, and also declare them one to another for mutual utility and conversation; without which there had been amongst men neither Commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace…[This] mother of all inventions, taught them, and in the tract of time grew everywhere more copious.”
Here in Hawaii, the culmination of this copiousness is evidenced in our speech; specifically, in a special brand that has come to be called, simply, “Pidgin.” But this Pidgin, by definition “Hawaii Creole English” (HCE), is a Creole language unto itself, and whether spoken by those locally born or learned by transplants, it’s much more than a way of speaking. It is more than mere accent (pronunciation), and differs from dialect (by most linguists’ standards, in that dialects are not codified).
It is heard in our homes and in our places of recreation and commerce (the term “pidgin” supposedly stems from a bastardization of the phrase “business English”). It is the subject of a growing body of literature, is familiar to our visitors, recognized by the media and even portrayed by Hollywood. Yet Creole languages worldwide are broadly misunderstood, even by those who speak them, and are often the targets of criticism and disparaging connotations.
In Hawaii, Pidgin is a vehicle for local identity, a badge of honor. Kent Sakoda and Jeff Siegel, authors of Pidgin Grammar: An Introduction to the Creole Language of Hawai’i, argue that “the desire to project a separate local identity will most likely ensure that the language remains distinct from English. Nevertheless, there is no general agreement about what really constitutes Pidgin in Hawaii.”
Emerging linguistic studies of these misunderstood Creole languages are as necessary as they are exciting. Until the turn of the new millennium, “studies in semantics and pragmatics are scant,” reads the International Encyclopedia of the Social Behavioral Sciences. “There is much more literature on the genesis, sociology and morphosyntax of Pidgin Creoles.”
If our speech has the capacity to teach us, what can we learn from our modern usage of Pidgin? By exploring centuries of evolution in how this language lilted to life, perhaps we can reconcile the meaning of its heritage—and ours. Through shared understanding and open dialogue, we can assess how our language defines us today and choose how it will define us in the future.
The list of unique languages born of colonialism and industry is a long one. “In total an estimated 41.7 million people speak Creole languages [today],” say Sakoda and Siegel. From Gulluh on islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia to Creoles spoken in Louisiana or Haiti, from Jamaican patois to Mauritius on Indian Ocean islands, from Guyanese Creole in Guyana to Krio in West Africa, these languages are diverse and far-flung.
If our Pidgin is in fact a language, and that language is classified as a Creole, then how are Creoles defined and how do they come to be? To understand this, we must first understand the seed of a Creole, or “a pidgin” (without capitalization).
Darrell T. Tyron and Jean-Michel Charpentier, authors of Pacific Pidgins and Creoles: Origins, Growth and Development, explain that a pidgin develops when “contact occurs in a restricted environment, usually for the purposes of trade of commerce, or on ships or in plantation situations where speakers of many languages live and work together.” They also note “a pidgin language is not the first language of [any] group, but is born of necessity.”
At the pidgin level, the dialect is isolated to a single generation of speakers in a single time, and cannot yet be defined as an actual language. It is speech at its basic level, a shared understanding among a community of speakers that serves its purpose but often lacks fluidity.
In Hawaii, it began with harvest. In the years immediately following Captain James Cook’s arrival at Kealakekua Bay in 1778, the Hawaiian islands became a stopping point for fur traders between the Western Coast of the United States and Canton. The traders were quick to realize the mountains were covered with another resource coveted by the Chinese: sandalwood.
“In the forests of the Hawaiian Islands grew a tree that the natives called iliahi. Under the ax and the adze it yielded a yellowish aromatic timber, laau ala or fragrant wood,” writes Gavan Daws, author of Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands. Early attempts to establish trade were unsuccessful. But after 20 years endeavors were resurrected and traders “gave up their voyages to the fur grounds of the American northwest in favor of taking a convoy of ships to Canton in 1812.”
Sandalwood trade flourished until the forests did not. Within a century, it began to be said—and is still said—that Hawaii (namely, Upcountry Maui) is the epicenter of extinction in the Americas.
Almost simultaneously, in the early 1820s, Hawaii became the heart of the whaling industry, “as the whole industry moved northward from the equatorial hunting grounds… to the Japan Sea and finally to the Arctic,” writes Daws. Hawaiian ports would host hundreds of vessels a year. But as harpooning Hawaii’s waters hit its peak, “in the late fifties the industry entered a long and irreversible decline,” says Daws, being crippled by both the U.S. Civil War and when “an oil well was brought into successful production in Pennsylvania, [where from] then on a new kind of oil lamp lit up the writing on the wall for the whaling industry.”
Meanwhile, the sugar industry had already begun to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of business owners who watched as their profits tanked. Companies like C. Brewer & Co.—a future the Big Five sugar plantation—which had gotten its start with sandalwood and expanded to specialty whaling supplies. That “which crippled whaling in the Pacific, made the Hawaiian sugar industry,” says Daws, of the demand for sugar when southern U.S. crops were decimated by the Civil War.
“The symptoms had been evident for some time [as] one whaling ground after another was exhausted,” he writes. “Each time the whaling fleet betrayed the islands by its absence, voices were heard arguing that the kingdom should look for ways to take wealth from the soil instead of the sea. If agricultural products could be developed and marketed the instability of the whaling industry would no longer be a problem.”
Sugar cane took root and became the most lasting industrial legacy in Hawaii. The growing conditions were good, but there was a problem: the native population—and primary workforce source—had experienced drastic death rates due to introduced diseases. Some estimates put the pre-contact native population in excess of one million. By the early 1870s, they numbered less than 50,000.
A massive migrant labor force was needed to build and maintain the sugar industry. And so the life of Hawaii’s Pidgin continued and grew. Within 100 years of sugar’s modest beginnings—just 12,000 acres in 1835—nearly 200,000 Japanese, 100,000 Filipino, as many as 57,000 Chinese and over 20,000 Portuguese arrived, as did numbers of Scandinavian, German, Russian, Spanish, Puerto Rican and other Pacific Islanders.
The same necessity that birthed a pidgin speak during the era of sandalwood trade and whaling, was heightened when so many nationalities—in so short a time—converged to work the small but fertile earth of the Hawaiian islands. No longer just between a native tongue and transient traders, the population was now bigger and much more diverse. And thus, from a pidgin, a Creole was born.
When the migrant population married and intermarried, “[c]hildren in these families learned the pidgin at an early age and used it with other children who still spoke their parents’ language at home,” write Sakoda and Siegel. “When this generation grew up, the pidgin became their dominant language and they passed it on to their own children. Gradually the pidgin became the mother tongue of most people born in Hawaii.”
“Since the language was no longer spoken only as a second language with restricted functions, and now had a community of native speakers, it was by definition no longer a pidgin language,” Sakoda and Siegel continue. Through what linguists call “nativization,” this pidgin was now a “Creole language” or, more concisely, “a Creole.”
Every Creole has what’s called a lexifier, or root language. More often than not, with trade/plantation Creoles, these lexifers are English, French and Portuguese (there are many other non-European lexifiers, notably Arabic, Malay and Ngbandi from central Africa).
In Hawaii, the first Creole spoken had Hawaiian as its lexifer. Sakoda and Siegel provide examples of the unique word combinations in Pidgen Hawaiian, like this, from a court transcript of testimony by a Japanese immigrant in 1892: “‘Kela lio oe hele hauhau lela palani wau ma ka ponei.’ (Literally: ‘That horse you go eat that bran I in the last-night.’)” Meaning: “‘Your horse went to eat my bran last night.’ In Hawaiian this would be, ‘Ua hele kou lio e ‘ai i ka’u palani i ka po nei.’”
Among many subtle differences, they point out that “the order of the other words is also different—in Pidgin Hawaii it’s horse your went but in Hawaiian it’s went your horse.”
This structural difference is key in defining a Creole, along with “develop[ing] its own sound system, meanings and structure, which are quite different from those of the lexifier. So it has its own grammatical rules,” say Sakoda and Siegel.
But everything changed under the swelling shadow of big sugar, with the ratification of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1875. It guaranteed free trade between Hawaii and the U.S., and ushered in a new dominant language.
English was the lexifer of a new pidgin, which became a Creole through nativization and is the source of our modern Pidgin. Scholars generally agree that this culminated in the early 1920s as the industry and immigration began to level out. Though Hawaiian was no longer the lexifer—and was rapidly becoming less and less spoken in general—it remained the primary source of non-English vocabulary in pidgin.
According to Sakoda and Siegel, over 100 Hawaiian words were incorporated into Pidgin.
As is common with most Creoles, the term “Creole [was] applied widely to language varieties initiated by metropolitan Europeans to disenfranchise particular colonial varieties of their language,” and what was interpreted as “bad English” came to be known as bad things, explains the Social and Behavioral Sciences encyclopedia. Creoles are often viewed as “primitive” or “baby talk.”
As soon as Pidgin became nativized, it was branded as a lesser form of language. The now primarily English-medium schools issued lessons comparing the “broken English” of Pidgin against “correct” English.
Consequently, not only were first-generation speakers bilingual with their mother land’s tongue and Pidgin, but new generations of speakers became bilingual themselves—as is the case today—able to flip as quick as a light between their primary Pidgin and schooled English.
If Pidgin wen hanai (adopt) da Hawaiian word “make” fo’ mean “dead,” den “make die dead,” means “really dead.” So wen Lee Tonouchi wen ax da question, “Is Pidgin going be ma-ke die dead?” in his book Da Kine Dictionary, you know what he stay talking about. ‘Cause fo’ real kine, wot does Pidgin mean fo’ us guys anymo’? Jus’ one sandcastle on da shores of time, dat going melt back into da sea? Or is dis going be one hale built of stone? An’ mo’: going be da kine hale we live in? Or da kine hale da Historical Society take ova (hopefully), and we jus’ take da keiki fo’ visit in da Summah?
Eh, if anyone going ax and answer dat question, Lee Tonouchi is da man fo’ dat. Dey no call him “Da Pidgin Guerrilla” fo’ nuting, per’haps bes’ evidenced in his collection of essays, Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture. At da forefront of da way Pidgin stay recorded and studied today, Tonouchi is one inspirational voice fo’ da way it going be perceived in da future.
“Lotta people tell me Pidgin is dying,” he writes. “So dey ask why I doing dis projeck [Da Kine, et alia] fo’ since Pidgin is pretty much dead.” To dat, Tonouchi says dat even wit da influence of “MTV hip hop speak,” dat “if Pidgin has always had da ability for incorporate all dese oddah languages into it and call it its own, den why would it be any diff’rent today?” If das da case, den Pidgin is no’ only alive, but stay evolving still yet.
Fo’ shua, peoples still get beef dat Pidgin was neva one language—an’ even if was, according to R.A. Hall’s hypotheses, da stage of da Creole life-cycle our Hawai’i Pidgin stay right now, is dat da Pidgin stay fading back to da lexifier, English. But deas theories out dea too, li’ by David DeCamp, who says dat no mattah da way da structures of da language are diff’rent—or no longah diff’rent, fo dat mattah—since da Creole language came about ‘cause da “sociohistorical ecology of its development,” den it never not stay one Creole, jus’ ‘cause tings wen change (li’ dey always do).
“For Pidgin, da academis get lotta disagreement on da orthography,” he writes of his book Da Kine. “By not standardizing da spellings, da hope of da projeck is for maintain one sense of all da diff’rent variations of Pidgin voices,” says Tonouchi.
“Besides, basilectal and mesolectal features continue to coexist in these communities,” continues da International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, on DeCamp’s theory.
Eh, admit ‘um. Even if you still stay on da plane, dat last one need some explanation, yeah?
Try fo’ imagine two walls facing one anoddah. If you stay between day walls, you can only go so far as each wall going allow, yeah? For sociolinguists, dis is da parameters for da post-creole continuum of da language—wit one wall called da “basilect,” and da oddah called da “anolect.” So den you can guess what da “mesolect,” mus’ mean. Yep, das righ’! Is da middle space between.
So da guy DeCamp is trying fo’ say dat so long as something remains of da language den jus’ da frayed ends, den one language going stay one language, no’ mattah what changes. But den get da guys called “Exceptionalismists” dat say dat Pidgin’s uniqueness stops at da “sociohistoric” context and is not one legitimate linguistic concept, even small kine.
Regardless, da issue still remains fo’ how fo’ captcha da new ways Pidgin stay evolving, an’ assess da way da language has changed. Tonouchi along wit his contemporaries have and continue to make big kine strides in da area, as Tonouchi says of Da Kine, “I figgah da bess way is for include as many peoples as possible insai da dictionary, because Pidgin belongs to da people.”
Aftah all, maybe dats da bes’ part of all language. An’ fo’ us wit Pidgin in particular, our international ‘ohana of ancestors when lay da ground—bot’ literally and linguistically—for da landscape we exis’ in today. Dey came—or survived dat—from afar, in ordah fo’ give us something bettah. Collectively in so doing, dey gave us dis language. How we going bot’ honor dem and move forward into our own future, is how we make something bettah for us guys and fo’ da generations to follow. Da fack it belongs to us now, gives us da righ’ fo’ make ‘um our own. An’ what is “our own”—now, as was den—stay jus’ up to us.
SIDEBAR: MORE THAN WORDS
You can take the girl out of Maui…
Local brethren. In da Midwest, I could spock ‘em city blocks away. I not talking ‘bout da braddahs wit da blalah builds an’ Maui Built shirts (dats too easy, brah). No, like picking green bittah melon amidst look-alike leaves, I could spock even da no mo’ tan Hawaiians, long-lost to da mainlan’—an’ dey too, could spock me. Wit one hearty “HUI!” I’d call out to dem, an’ though strangers in da city, we’d exchange a homesick embrace, say wen an’ where we wen grad, an’ end up on da topic of da grinds we miss mos’.
During my stint living in the Heartland, crossing paths with another Hawaiian was a rare event. Nonetheless, those occasional thrills were inspiration enough to make keeping-a-lookout for “locals” a game of mine. Then there was the advantage of working at Tommy Bahama, which for all its homogenized interpretation of island life still proved a magnet for islanders abroad.
On slow days at the shop, I’d stare out the window in hopes that a “local” might appear on that Kansas City street corner. Somehow, they sometimes did. My co-workers greeted my uncanny knack for “spocking” my countrymen with amusement.
But dey thought I was one clevah buggah, wit some trick up my sleeve! Was small kine confusing fo’ dem, ‘cause some of da guys I wen spock as local was Polynesian-looking, mos’ was Asians, an’ get some Filipinos an’ haoles, too. Fo’ my confuse’ co-workahs, dese locals all wen look majah-ly diff’rent from each oddah, yet (‘cept fo’ dose blatant blalahs), no mattah if was Asian, Filipino, haole o’ whatevas, dey neva look any diff’rent den any oddah Asian, Filipino, haole o’ whatevas. How den I could tell dose guys was from da 808?
I did my best to explain the subtle clues, the distinctly local punctuation in their poise and inflection in their swagger—but these intangibles, when poi dog profiling, were lost in translation to my co-workers. The only thing that was clearly unifying, to them, was the way we spoke.
‘Cause soon as da Rainbow State connection was made, bot’ me an’ da oddah locals would slip into (an’ between) Pidgin some fas’. Our tongues was happy wit da cadence, an’ mo’ovah, da tone. An’ especially fa’ away from home, was li’ being in one special club, wit one special way fo’ talk dat only da insiders going know. Even at home, sometimes stay li’ dat, yeah?
But my co-workahs wen get even mo’ confuse’ wen even da “haoles” wen talk pidgin too—li’ wen my blonde-and-blue-eye moddah came fo’ visit, or da freckled surfah who went Paia Schoo’, but look li’ he from Malibu.
An’ when one co-workah would ax why I wen bus’ da kine accent li’ dat, when I no speak li’ dat all da time—I’d educate ‘um dat Pidgin not one accent, but one language, and language li’ dat is hard fo’ speak if you no mo’ nobody fo’ speak wit.
But that got me thinking. Maybe the Pidgin I spoke was merely a heavy accent. Did my syntax and vocabulary differ so much as to be lost on untrained ears, as if speaking Hawaiian itself? Heck, some people thought Pidgin was Hawaiian. The fact it was not—and furthermore that I could not speak “actual Hawaiian”—became as confusing to me as it had been to them.
Wot all dis’ mean, den? How come da locals I wen be so good fo’ spock and so quick fo’ love, look li’ any kine guy from any kine place? An’ is Pidgin da prop-ah vehicle fo’ identifying—an’ defining—what stay local?
Wot I know fo’ shua is dat though I may not speak Pidgin predominantly, when I do, it stay wit da people I love, in a context that is uniquely “local.” Even wen I stay smack da middle of da mainlan’, speaking with people I do not know and do not necessarily share ethnicity with, what spoke to our spirits and expressed our shared island roots was our use of Pidgin.
Of course, I no li’ jus’ ack li’ I’m one Hawaiian, and having to define both what is Pidgin and what is Hawaiian to Midwesterners made me realize dat I li’ undahstand bot’ languages mo’ bettah. So now, I get plene mo’ fo’ learn and have more questions than answers—but nuting mo’ bettah den da road fo’ find out.