Pidgin 102: Da Future of Hawaiian Pidgin

Is Pidgin thriving or dying as a language? That’s the focus of the last of our four-part series on pidgin from Da Pidgin Guerrilla Lee Tonouchi.
Books Credit Unsplash Sharon Mccutcheon
Photo: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash


Editor’s Note: This is part of a four-part series taking a look at the past, present debates and future of Pidgin by Lee Tonouchi. Here are the other parts of Pidgin 102: 



Ukuplanny people ask me, “Pidgin stay dying o’wot?” In order fo see wea Pidgin stay going, we gotta try look see wea and wot Pidgin wuz befo time. Pidgin one strong, resilient language, you know. Cuz historically had lotta times in Hawai‘i when had strong public sentiment against Pidgin, and yet Pidgin still manage fo come back even mo strongah each time.


Fo examples, take da English Standard School system dat had in Hawai‘i from 1924-1960. Wuz created cuz had planny pressure by da “main”land haoles who moved hea aftah Hawai‘i wen come one territory and no could afford send their kids go private school. These buggahs nevah like their childrens mingle and go same public school as da Local kids (who wuz mostly persons of non-European ancestry), so dey wen go make separate public schools wea you had to take one English oral test fo get in. As mean if yo primary language no wuz English and wuz Hawaiian or Pidgin or anyting oddah den English, den too bad, so sad fo you wuz. Das like small kine racism, ah, wotchoo tink?


SEE ALSO: Pidgin 102: Who Should Be Allowed to Speak Pidgin in Hawai‘i?


So people those days who look down on Pidgin, dey probably woulda been happy if Pidgin wen come ma-ke die dead, but dat nevah happen. In fack, da opposite effeck wen happen. Linguists tell dat by making da public schools segregated, dey actually helped ensure da survival of Pidgin. Since only da kids talking Pidgin wuz now group togeddah, Pidgin could flourish in da regular public school setting wea had less dilution from English. Das bachi, brah!


Wuzn’t only outsiders looking down on people talking Pidgin. Local people started fo look down on themselves too. Linguistic creolist Charlene Sato [whose study of Pidgin inspired the creation of the Charlene Junko Sato Center for Pidgin, Creole and Dialect Studies at UH Mānoa] said dis attitude wen go start aftah WWII when everybody wanted fo be American. In “Linguistic Inequality in Hawai‘i: The post-creole dilemma,” she wrote, Pidgin wuz “foregrounded as a marker of socioeconomic status in Hawaiian society. Being labeled a ‘Pidgin’ speaker was considered by many a liability in the job market, associated as it was with the plantation and with the minimal intelligence assumed necessary for manual labor. … Many individuals who thought of themselves as American or who simply aspired to the middle class made a conscious effort to suppress their [Pidgin] and their ancestral languages in favor of English.”


You would tink, “Oh, Pidgin going die out den if people who talk Pidgin shame dey talk Pidgin.” But nope. You know why?


SEE ALSO: Pidgin History 102: How Hawai‘i’s Unique Language Got Its Start


Da Hawaiian Renaissance, BAM! In da 1970s with Hawaiian language on da brink of extinction, had one tremendous upswell in pride fo be Native Hawaiian, and fo revitalize da Hawaiian language, and fo perpetuate da Hawaiian culture and da arts. Local people wuz feeling one newfound sense of pride too in our unique Hawai‘i Local culture. During dis time Kumu Kahua Theatre wuz founded fo produce Local plays by Local playwrights. During dis time Bamboo Ridge Press wuz founded fo publish Local literature by Local people. From da ’70s to da mid-’80s had so much da kine Pidgin creative expression coming out. All kine Pidgin comedy albums and Pidgin television specials, li’dat. And no forget da seminal 1981 release of da Pidgin to da Max dictionary, one sales phenomenon dat wen go capture da Local cultural zeitgeist.


Maybe as wuz all one reaction to all da Pidgin pride dat wuz coming out, but da opposing side had to voice one opinion too. So had people writing lettahs to da newspapah li’dat constantly blaming Pidgin fo bad test scores in da schools. In 1987 da Hawai‘i Board of Education even tried fo ban Pidgin at school, but Local people wen stand up fo Pidgin and so da board had fo back down and instead said dat standard English should be da language of instruction. Just about da same time, da oddah big Hawai‘i news story wuz two National Weather Service guys no could get da promotion dey wanted, cuz dey said dey talk Pidgin as why. And although dey wuz supah qualified, less qualified kine guys from da “main”land got da job. So da Local guys wen sue. Da ting wuz, dey had fo read one script dat wuz written in English. Da stuff no wuz even in Pidgin, and their accent wuz only little bit pronunciation kine stuff. Wuz one federal case so dey brought in one judge from California who nevah know nahting about Pidgin. Da Local guys ended up losing their accent discrimination case even though Sato wen go give strong testimony: “In carrying out their professional duties, they could and did use standard Hawaii English of the sort spoken by the majority of highly educated locally born professionals, including the present part-Hawaiian governor and Filipino lieutenant governor of the state and several members of the state Board of Education,” she wrote.


Public sentiment against Pidgin wuz at one peak, but den I tink dis NWS case made lotta Local people who no wuz too fond of Pidgin befo, reevaluate their positions. Cuz when da NWS guys gave interviews on da TV news and on top da radio, Local professional people expected fo hea full on Pidgin, but instead dey had da recognitions dat made dem tink, “Wow, I sound li’dat. Dat could be me!”


SEE ALSO: Pidgin 102: Should Pidgin be Standardized in Writing?


Probably da most recentest time Pidgin made headline wuz in 2015 when Pidgin wuz on top national news. And I remembered I wrote dis back in 2002 inside my book Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture (Tinfish Press), “Do people haff to write-in their own category ‘Pidgin’ on top da census for get da official recognitions?” An’den in 2015 it wen happen! Enough Hawai‘i people said dey talk Pidgin so dat da U.S. Census Bureau added em to da list of official languages dat people talk in Hawai‘i. Dis wuz big news in Hawai‘i and all ova da continent. To me wuz funny cuz it took dat “main”land validation fo get Local people fo tink, “Eh, Pidgin must be one language!”


So wea dat take us today? People tell me dey hea Pidgin less and less. People tell me, “Lee, I took my kids see one Lisa Matsumoto Pidgin play and dey no could understand. Poho money, brah.” I tink Pidgin today stay at risk. I tink if we like keep Pidgin alive we no can jus do nahting and hope going keep going. We need mo efforts fo perpetuate and celebrate Pidgin so dat Pidgin no come endangered. Lucky ting mo and mo Local people today really see Pidgin as one language. And fo me das one bombucha step fo Pidgin progress. Cuz den Pidgin going be seen as being like any oddah language and da mo languages you know, da mo powah to you!


Note: Mahalo plenty to Kent “Yoda” Sakoda who teach da Pidgin Sociolinguistics class at UH Mānoa fo checking dis four-part Pidgin series for me.


Lee A. Tonouchi

“Da Pidgin Guerrilla” Lee A. Tonouchi’s works written in Hawai‘i Creole have gained national recognitions. His Pidgin poetry collection Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son won da Association for Asian-American Studies book award. His Pidgin children’s picture book Okinawan Princess: Da Legend of Hajichi Tattoos won one Skipping Stones Honor Award. An’ den his Pidgin play Three Year Swim Club wuz one Los Angeles Times Critic’s Choice Selection.


Some of Tonouchi’s local prizes include winning da 2004 grand prize in da 21st annual HONOLULU Magazine fiction contest for his story “Seven Deadly Local Sins.” An’ den hana hou, brah, in 2006, he won da grand prize again for his story “Legend of da River Street Gambler.” Be sure for read his HONOLULU Magazine classic “Da Untold Story of Hawaiian Santa.” Even though came out in 2014, it’s even more relevant today.