Lee A. Tonouchi is known as “Da Pidgin Guerrilla.” He’s a fierce advocate of the language folks on the islands call “pidgin.” As far as I know, everything he does and says and writes is in pidgin. Hawaiian pidgin is a Creole of languages evolved to facilitate communication among the many cultures meeting and mixing in the Hawaiian Islands through the 1800s and 1900s. Various languages merged to make this diverse, musical mix of clipped vocabulary and breezy syntax an effective and attractive means of communication.
Tonouchi is a master of pidgin, as well he should be. He’s been speaking and studying and teaching pidgin all of his life. Tonouchi is also a funny guy, a poet, a performer, editor of Hybolics—the local review of poetry, prose, drama and non-fiction—and now he’s a lexicographer, too. (No, I don’t know what the pidgin for lexicographer is, but I bet he does.) Years ago, Tonouchi got the idea for a pidgin dictionary. Realizing that language is bigger than any one man’s vocabulary, and rather than do the whole thing himself, he decided that the best plan was to get all the speakers of pidgin to contribute to a volume.
Da Kine Dictionary contains many though not all of the words that are part of the vocabulary of pidgin. Some are more recognizable than others. Some are Japanese words. Some are Hawaiian words. Some are Korean. Some are English. Some is American slang, both antique and current to the point of rap. All are “pidginized” to serve within the flexible rules of the grammar and syntax of pidgin. This book is not a scholarly work. It’s for fun, and it’s beautiful—the layout and photographs attract the eye as they illustrate the vocabulary.
Yet there is a serious side to Tonouchi’s unrelenting pursuit of pidgin, and he elaborates on his deeper concerns about pidgin, English and communication in his book Living Pidgin. In these pages, Tonouchi spends a lot of time questioning assumptions about language and re-focusing attention on the purpose(s) of what is known as “Standard English” and pidgin.
For Tonouchi, pidgin is the essence of freedom. Pidgin embraces all variations and vocabularies, out-Englishing English, which has always been a sponge and a sink for words from “other” languages, in its ability to absorb vocabulary from every linguistic well.
“Pidgin is/da language dat we breathe/da words dat we sing,” writes Tonouchi in Living Pidgin, and one of his concerns is the use of pidgin in teaching writing, reading and literature to many local students, a project both clever and wise in the Age of Distractions that is the Third Millennium. He notes that Wayne Westlake considered the language familiarly designated “pidgin,” otherwise known as Hawaiian Creole English, a useful tool for getting “Local kids all excited about language” and “da key fo’ dem fo’ be able for learn standard english.” Tonouchi agrees that its all about access and excitement and, in his classes, proves that pidgin provides an avenue for many local students into producing writing at the college level, composition of both the expository and creative kind.
Looking at the history, Tonouchi writes, “Pidgin was a language born out of diversity and adversity.” That rings true, and if my latest college course on language and society is any indication, pidgin is still a viable source of controversy as well.
We read Living Pidgin in the course of the course, and the number of differing opinions concerning the viability and validity of pidgin in Hawai’i today matched the number of people in the room. You know the range of opposing extreme opinions on pidgin, so I won’t detail them here, but as one would expect, Tonouchi is an articulate advocate of the seething sea of speech that boils around, about, and within pidgin.
He is such a proponent of freedom of and in speech, that he is even an opponent of standardizing pidgin in the manner that many speakers of English, woefully misinformed as they are, believe English has been standardized. Tonouchi writes, “[I]f we do create one standard Pidgin, den doesn’t dat violate da very nature of da language?” Good question. Doesn’t standardization jeopardize the life of ANY language? For you, dear reader, I answer most emphatically, yes!
In a small-minded age where freedom of all kinds is threatened by the short-sighted who think they can preserve and defend it, let us be reminded by Tonouchi’s insightful observations on pidgin. The only way to keep what is alive alive is to respect its own will, its freedom, its choice to go its own confusing, confounding, exuberant, exasperating way, to learn to live with it and to live well. MTW