There’s an App for That: Pidgin 101

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Hawaii Aloha Travel > Blog > There’s an App for That: Pidgin 101

Ho, brah! Why you when make ladat for? You stey making anykine. Make mo’ humbug fo’ me! Ah, lose money ladat. I tell you, das why hod!

Huh? …

That’s exactly the question many people who aren’t from around here find themselves asking when they come to Hawaii. Wait, what did he just say? I have to hum with the bugs, or I will lose my money?

As good as that guess is, it’s nowhere near what’s being said. But good try! It’s Pidgin English you’re hearing, which comes from various ethnic groups that have worked on Hawaii’s plantations in the 1800s. So think of it as an imaginary bag of words that the Hawaiians, Chinese, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Portuguese (the list goes on) contributed to over time. And today that imaginary bag is still around, except now the words are all jumbled up and have become what most locals use today when speaking – Pidgin English.

Make sense? Or as most locals might ask, You get em or what? And don’t be confused by one of Hawaii 5-0’s episodes from last season. An actor made a very strange reference to the language: “Eh! You speak bird?” That has got to be the weirdest question in Hollywood.Pidgin 101 creator Lanai Tabura helps clear up any language barriers for those not from here.

Most tourists visiting a new place use their smart phones to get around. Googling this; GPSing that. Now with even more help from the tech gods, Hawaii visitors can look up Pidgin words that once baffled them. Download the Pidgin 101 app to your iPhone or Android for 99-cents, and be befuddled no more! It’ll be your hand-held interpreter when exploring the islands. In fact, the app has already been downloaded by people from around the world – Japan, Germany and Cuba, to name a few.

Local comedian and radio personality Lanai Tabura created the app to translate some of the popular Pidgin words and phrases locals grew up saying. The app provides an alphabetized list of 175 words that users may “tap” to get a definition. Each definition includes a pronunciation and an example. Lanai plans to release a Pidgin 102 version, which will have an additional 150 words while the Pidgin 103 version will provide the audio on how to pronounce the words. (I’m sure any of my uncles could easily help Lanai with that one!)

The Pidgin 101 definitions looks something like this.

Lanai, who’s real name is Grant, grew up on a Lanai plantation. He comes from a long line of pineapple pickers; his grandparents did it, followed by his parents and – inevitably – he ended up picking pineapples, too. But little did he know, he picked up a lot more than the tropical fruit. He also picked up loads of Pidgin there that he spoke daily. I’d say that makes him pretty well-qualified to create the Pidgin app!

Today, however, you won’t find Lanai still speaking Pidgin 24/7; in fact, he’s actually very articulate and has become a well-known radio and television personality in the islands. I talked story with him at Kakaako Waterfront Park last week and asked him how he eventually transitioned from straight Pidgin to perfect English…He laughed and responded with, “That’s a good question!” But the real reasoning, he said, is that he traveled a lot as a kid and ended up living in California during part of his upbringing, shaking off his old Pidgin-speaking habits.

VIDEO: Lanai gives us a few lessons in Pidgin 101.

Growing up here, I think I’ve learned to turn the Pidgin ON and OFF. I definitely wouldn’t talk Pidgin during a job interview, but if I’m on the beach, sure, why not! It’s an instant connection we make with our friends and even people we’ve met for the first time. I can credit my exquisite Pidgin vernacular to my relatives. It’s something I grew up hearing and learned to communicate with over the years. Pidgin definitely sounds weird to an untrained ear, but it is what always reminds me that I’m home. Walking off a plane after a long trip away from Hawaii, I can’t help but smile when I hear the flight attendants on the tarmac talking story in Pidgin. It’s almost as refreshing as the crisp Hawaiian air I just stepped into.

So the next time you call the hotel’s housekeeping, and the lady tells you, Bumbye, we going come up and fix your beds. You can look it up! Or if the surf instructor tells you, Da water stey small kine cold, yeah? You can look it up!

K den!

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