Published on October 6th, 2005 | by Greg0
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.