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Published on October 6th, 2005 | by Greg

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Hawaiiana 101: Pidgin/Language

First, it’s a creole. That’s a tip for all of the kama’aina out there (locals), who continue to refer to the local tongue as “pidgin”. Look it up – pidgin is just a word for any language that’s been mixed with another language, it does not refer to any language in particular! Further, a pidgin that has become the native language of a group of people is a creole!

With that linguistic fussiness out of the way, let’s talk about the “real” Hawaiian language- not to be confused with pidgin. It is very endangered (only a thousand people learned it as a native language), and was even banned for much of the twentieth century. Hawaiian was also an oral language, and didn’t have a written form at all until American missionaries arrived and created one in the 1820s!

Nonetheless, there is still one place where Hawaiian is used almost exclusively and has never been endangered- the privately owned island of Ni’ihau. Unfortunately, and fortunately, the island was until recently pretty much off-limits to outsiders and visitors (hence it’s nickname, the Forbidden Island). Truly Obscure will attempt a visit in the future (the word “forbidden” kind of gets us wela).

Hawaiian has been undergoing a renaissance for the last twenty years, with increasing interest in teaching, learning, and preserving the language. You can even take online courses! Most Honolulu street names (by law) are in Hawaiian. And, chances are, you even know a few Hawaiian words- luau, hula, kahmaniwanaleiya.

But don’t confuse Hawaiian with pidgin- the two share very little! Pidgin uses basic English syntax, grammar, and vocabulary but has borrowed from a host of other languages including Japanese, Cantonese, and Portuguese. To outsiders, it sounds like broken English- “Da book stay on top da table.” This doesn’t stop pidgin from being culturally important- it has its pidgin bible, its own group of linguistic supporters, and even its own fridge magnet set.

You can find plenty of pidgin or Hawaiian dictionaries and quotations online. Clothing designers have co-opted pidgin, and pretty much everyone knows “aloha” (Hawaiian). Even Wikipedia has its roots in Hawaiian (wiki means fast).

By any measure, both Hawaiian and pidgin have established themselves here- but for better or worse, mostly as a fun alternative for tourists or those looking nostalgically at Hawaii’s punctuation-filled past.


About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.



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