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Data inspires pride for Pidgin, a Hawaii language

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    Pidgin books in a library shelf in Honolulu.

When local comedian Andy Bumatai was searching for a new way to attract the attention of audiences on the Internet, his wife suggested he find inspiration in something from the old days: Pidgin, the language of his youth.

Her idea came after news reports showed that recent census data included the number of speakers in the islands who said they spoke Pidgin, a mix of the languages spoken by Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican and other workers who toiled in the state’s sugar plantations.

Bumatai put up some videos online doing his routines in Pidgin, and one with English subtitles got 1.5 million views. He said his videos resonated with those who grew up in Hawaii and were homesick for the sounds of the language.

It is “more than a language. It’s become a lexicon that congeals the people who are from Hawaii,” he said.

The news reports last fall helped spark a sense of pride among those who speak the language in their homes and among friends, and a discussion about its use and the stigma that limits its wider acceptance in the state.

There are other pidgins in other parts of the world, including in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. Pidgin in Hawaii, or Hawaii Creole English, has long been considered a substandard form of English. Some saw the census numbers as recognition for the language, though the U.S. Census isn’t in the business of recognizing languages. Census officials have been counting Pidgin since 1990.

Christine Gambino, a survey statistician at the agency, said with more people knowing that it’s acceptable to write down Pidgin on the federal questionnaires, future data will be more reflective of an accurate number of speakers. Many who speak Pidgin believe there are far more speakers than the 1,600 counted in the census surveys.

While Pidgin may sound like mixed-up English because English words provide a large portion of Pidgin vocabulary, it has its own grammar and sound system, said Kent Sakoda, who teaches a course about Pidgin at the University of Hawaii.

Native Hawaiians, Chinese and Portuguese had the most influence on Pidgin structure because they were the earliest plantation laborers. Pidgin borrows phrases from various other languages. “The house is big” in Pidgin, for example, is “big, da house,” which borrows from Hawaiian sentence structure.

One of Cantonese’s influences is evident in the Pidgin word “get,” which means both “has” and “have,” as well as both “there is” and “there are.” ”Para,” for in Portuguese, influenced how Pidgin speakers use “for” in places where English uses “to.”

Pidgin has flourished as the voice of Hawaii long after the end of the plantation era.

“You’re ranked as to how local you are with how much you understand and are able to speak,” Bumatai said.

TV station Hawaii News Now posted to Facebook a mock traffic report in Pidgin by reporter Lacy Deniz. Hawaii viewers were enthusiastic, while some outside the state thought it made her sound uneducated, she said.

In “Kapakahi Traffic,” Deniz refers to a stalled motorist as “uncle” and roadside assistance workers as “braddahs.” Her intonation is characteristically Pidgin, her grammar and vocabulary accurate: “We goin’ have choke students out on da roadway tryin’ fo get to school, makin’ their classes … It’s gonna be supa busy.”

“We knew that majority people here in Hawaii, it’s something they connect to,” she said.

Colbert Matsumoto, chairman of Island Insurance, Hawaii’s largest locally owned insurance company, said he doesn’t always speak Pidgin in the “downtown circle” he operates in. Sometimes he lets himself fall into the ease of Pidgin.

“I always thought that Pidgin was something of value,” said Matsumoto, who grew up on Lanai, which can feel a world away from downtown Honolulu. “It made me feel grounded.”

Mike McCartney, chief of staff for Gov. David Ige, said he’s proud of his ability to speak Pidgin.

“To me it’s part of who we are as a people, place and culture,” said McCartney, whose father was an English teacher and would correct him when he spoke Pidgin. McCartney said now he can turn Pidgin on and off fluidly, as many others do.

Former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano worries about those who can’t switch back and forth.

“Hawaii kids are at a distinct disadvantage if they can’t speak standard English,” he said. “My first year in college on the mainland, I hardly said anything in class … I was concerned about whether my English would be good enough.”

The stigma against speaking Pidgin is strong, despite moments of pride, said Lee Tonouchi, an author and activist who calls himself the “Da Pidgin Guerrilla.” He makes it a point to only speak Pidgin.

To him, until the state university system starts offering degrees in Pidgin or if Pidgin joins Hawaiian and English as the state’s official languages, the language will never gain any true respect.

“I tink still get stigma,” he said. “For me, I tink da goal always goin’ be fo Pidgin to get institutionalized recognitions.”

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  • WHAT??????

    Hawaiian is the language of Hawaii.

    English is the language of America.

    Pidgin is the lowest common denominator and nothing but a path down the road to mediocrity and even worse educational test scores for the state.

    • It may be the official language of Hawaii, but that doesnt mean its acceptable to only speak pidgin and a lot of people can’t speak english clearly. I see that a lot with inter city kids. Cant get a job that way, then they will blame the white man for it.

    • You are correct “kekelaward “! As you know–that’s the extent of the education THE MISSONARIES and their descendants wanted Hawaiians to know/have. Because, if educated, Hawaiians would be a threat to the TRUE AGENDA’s of the IMPERIALISTIC MISSIONARY POLITICAL CONTROL(S)… ( “BIBLE” for one-hundred (100) acres, ad naseum..)

  • No one understands my good English in Makaha. But if talk Pidgin, like dat, now they can understand what I trying for say. No can hear with the beer in the ear. You like try for yourself?

  • UHM teaches Pidgin? I can learn it free on the West side of O’ahu at the bus stop. You get what I trying for say? Good. I never like say that one more time. I stay tired.

  • Pidgin is unique and should be preserved. It is actually a more complicated language because it combines many into one new language and is regionally specific. There are others in our country – including one island off the coast of New England that speaks their own pidgin language. Don’t judge. Just accept the melding of cultures and languages together. It is special.

    • It worked for the immigrants who needed to communicate with other races. But, if they was alive and you asked them, they would say learn to speak good english and what ever their mother tongue was.

  • I spent 22 years in the military. Whenever I came home on leave,I would try to speak pidgin.It was a total disaster.I could’nt switch back,plus It felt uncomfortable.Trying to say “dis” instead of “this” or “bumbye” instead of “later” really threw me off.So I finally stopped trying.Besides,locals thought I sounded funny speaking pidgin.

  • I once met a guy who spoke such heavy pidgin that I could not understand a word he said. Teaching a course at UH on Pidgin is a total waste of time and money.

  • Ben Cayetano is right. Ask any local kid who studied on the mainland if they felt inferior because they couldn’t communicate properly. Using proper English is a must. People will judge you, rightfully or not, by your use of English. Using Pidgin will be met with amusement and often derision. Employment often depends on how well one can articulate oneself in English.

  • I went to Leilehua HS. We spoke pidgin out of class and English in class. I lived on the Mainland for 30 years after HS. My english is very good but whenever I came home on vacation I fell into pidgin. It is a matter of where and when to use the language. I don’t when appropriate and I do when appropriate. I have to say though, it was hard to give up pau and puka on the Mainland. That is part of everyday language here, pidgin or no pidgin.
    Ah, hunabuda days!

  • What people call pidgin now days is nothing like what my grandparents and their friends spoke on the plantations…and that I used to speak with them. All kinds of words and phases from different languages mixed together. I haven’t heard real Hawaiian pidgin spoken in a long time. The pidgin now days is mostly corrupted English mixed with local slang and swear words… not worth recognizing or preserving in any way, shape or form IMO.

    • Exactly! What Lee Tanoura calls pidgin is just poor English. Tanoura is using fractured English to give himself some credibility in a scholastic environment – and it seems like the others are biting. I was born and grew up in Hawaii way before Tanoura. I played and worked with those who spoke original plantation pidgin and it is in no way what they call pidgin today. Tanoura and some others can say what they want but the world is what it is. If you speak poor English in the wrong venue the rest of the world will think that you are ignorant, because you are!

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