In case you’re wondering: no, I won’t be writing about the language people use while pounding taro. Does such language even exist? Anyway, I’ll be writing about ʻōlelo paʻi ʻai, better known as Hawaiian Pidgin. Pounding-taro language is the literal translation of its Hawaiian name, which – you must admit – is quite fascinating. But then, Hawaiian Pidgin is fascinating. It is as fascinating and unique as the Aloha State itself.

Whenever I think of Hawaiian Pidgin, this image comes to my mind: “Hawaii Five-0”. The great Kamekona standing in front of his shrimp truck and saying to Danny: “Howzit haole!” Those who regularly watch this popular TV series probably know what I mean. Kamekona, as well as a few other characters, can often be heard speaking “bird”. And although some may say it sounds awfully unnatural, it surely contributes to introducing the lingo to people who don’t live on the islands and have never had a chance to visit them. Because, believe it or not, the 50th state is something more than flower leis, grass skirts, and Mai Tais.

The history of ʻōlelo paʻi ʻai is similar to that of other pidgins. The language developed on sugarcane plantations, where labourers from China, Portugal, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, and many other countries came to work in the 1800s and early 1900s. With such a large number of different nationalities, a common tongue was needed to ease the communication. The earliest version of Pidgin was based in Hawaiian and spiked with words and grammatical structures borrowed from the immigrant languages. But over time it began to change. As more and more workers’ children attended English-medium schools, Pidgin evolved into a heavily English-based vernacular, which was used not only on the plantation fields but in everyday situations by people of all ages. For many, it became their mother tongue. That is why, despite its misleading name, Hawaiian Pidgin is actually a creole. So if you ever hear a local saying something about brok da mout Loco Moco… No, that’s not slang. That’s a language.

And what exactly does this language look like? Well, to be honest with you, most people who are not familiar with the topic think that Pidgin reads and sounds like a phonetic version of awkwardly structured English. Hmm… Not sure about that… Maybe a bit? Ok, judge by yourself.

Da boy wen trow one rock.

This particular sentence was presented by Andy Bumatai (“Hawaii’s No. 1 comedian”) in one of his “The Daily Pidgin” videos. As you can see, Hawaiians change “th” into “d” or “t”. They also substitute an indefinite article (a, an) for “one”. And I’m sure you noticed the word “wen”. No, it has nothing to do with “went”. It’s simply a past tense indicator. Future events are marked by go, gon, or gona – just so you know. Here’s another example:

Wea you stay goin?

What??? You’re either staying or going! Is this what you’ve just thought? Well, the verb “stay” has a different meaning here. What I’ve learnt (I’m no expert by any means!) is that Pidgin doesn’t always require “am”, “are” or “is” in a sentence. For instance, “Dat boy, he so lolo” means “That boy is so dumb” and is perfectly correct. But when somebody speaks about a temporary situation, “stay” is used as a replacement for the verb “to be”. So the above question actually means “Where are you going?”.

I could multiply the examples, but I’ve already shown you what I intended. In your opinion then, does Pidgin resemble broken English? Maybe at first glance it indeed does. But if you take into account its grammatical complexity and rich vocabulary, you will quickly realize that it really is a distinct language. It has its own history and is deeply rooted in the local culture. People spoke “bird” even when it was not encouraged. Now they can not only do it freely but also be proud of it – in 2015 Pidgin was recognized as one of Hawaii’s official languages by the U.S. Census Bureau.

I once heard that the locals have ʻōlelo paʻi ʻai in their hearts. That it runs in their blood. That it is in their nature. And you know what? I believe that. Cause when they talk story in Pidgin, you can hear passion in their voices. It’s da real Hawaii!


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