Hawaii pidgin: WHAT did he say?

“Choke spinner dolphins playing in Waimea Bay.” If you’re not from Hawaii, this recent Tweet by @OahuAJ may sound like a direction to abuse wildlife. Who would want to strangle innocent dolphins? Are they trespassing and not allowed to play in this bay? Or maybe they’re sick and can’t swallow?

This is one example of where written pidgin looks really different from the spoken dialect. If you HEAR someone say “choke dolphins” as they smile and look toward Waimea Bay, you know instinctively that “choke” means “a lot.” Other expressions are pretty much what you’d guess, like “mo better” or “same same.” I especially like “same same” because it uses the tendency to repeat words to good purpose. It’s as though you made an evaluation. You look at one thing, then the other, and determine they are “same same.” That’s probably fanciful, because repeating words is common. One example that visitors on a Hawaii vacation experience is the “wiki wiki” shuttle that runs between terminals in the Honolulu airport. “Wiki wiki” means “fast” or “quick.” In this case, it could mean that the bus runs at a good speed but I think it incorporates the idea that it arrives frequently – it’s a quick way to get around.

An old academic article (1933) on Hawaii pidgin has some interesting insights. It says most immigrants to a new country are confronted with one language that they learn to assimilate. But Hawaii was visited by sailors of many countries in the early days of contact. More established routes were between the US and China for fur trade, and later Hawaii and China for sandalwood trade, followed by whaling ships. As English-speaking merchants and missionaries took up residence in the islands, a sort of Hawaiian – English pidgin developed that used words from both languages. When plantations were established, laborers from China added their terms to the mix, as did the Portuguese.

“This economically important jargon, Hawaiian – English – Portuguese – Chinese, which was the common medium of communication on the plantations, gradually came to be more or less standardized. When the Japanese came, they fell heirs to it … The Filipinos, the most recent arrivals in the Territory, are now introducing certain modifying elements.”

While the plantations are long gone, pidgin remains as a local dialect. Sometimes, still, it facilitates conversations between people who speak different languages. Often, however, it adds a distinctively colorful touch even for native speakers of the same language. The academic article closes with a lament that is still timely almost 80 years later: “This jargon is heard everywhere in Hawaii. It is common in the schools and the teachers struggle against it. Pidgin and not Japanese or Chinese is the foe of the English teacher.”

Perhaps. But it is the delight of locals (and the accidental confusion of tourists). Visitors should enjoy pidgin by listening, unless they are willing to join in the fun with a good attitude. It is hard to mimic the tone for non-islanders. If you are here on a Hawaii Vacation and try to sound local, you’ll just sound pretentious. But a smile and a sincere attempt often meets with encouragement. So let me grab my camera, choke dolphins, yeah?“Pidgin English in Hawaii,“ by William C. Smith in American Speech, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Feb., 1933), pp. 15-19 (Duke University Press).

6 COMMENTS

  1. Pidgin is actually advantageous when you use it in certain conversations, depending on who you're talking to.  I know so many people who can speak "proper" English around certain people and then switch in a second to pidgin

  2. With Hawaii being the melting pot of ethnic backgrounds and languages, speaking pidgin english makes!
    There is however,  a time & place to use pidgin language.  I was born and raised here and can speak pidgin when I choose to.  When my children were young, I didn't allow pidgin to be spoken in their presence, because it is important for local keiki to have a proper command of the english language before they hear and start speaking pidgin.  It can be advantageous to be able to speak proper english and also pidgin living here, because no matter who who are talking story with, you're able to converse.

  3. I agree with Kalei, there is a time and place to use pidgin language.  When I first moved from California it took a little getting used to, but my kids know when and when not to use it.

  4. I can finally understand most pidgin – unless it's really fast. But I'm still amused by words that have a uniquely Hawaiian twist. It will be much longer before I can use them myself without sounding like a complete malihini (newcomer).

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