Hawaiian Pidgin English: A Brief History

The following is a very brief history of how we came to have “Hawaiian Pidgin English” here in Hawaiʻi. It’s basic knowledge for any Hawaiian language speaker, and along with this goes the list of Hawaiian words I have made for you in A Glossary of Hawaiian Words in Hawaiian Pidgin English.

Pidgin languages naturally develop between people who want or need to communicate but who do not share a common language. Pidgins are used to quickly get meaning across in short transactions and there is no fixed grammar or body of vocabulary; thus there are no “native speakers” of a pidgin language by definition.

As the first waves of foreign plantation laborers were arriving in Hawaiʻi in the mid- to late 1800s, Hawaiian was the predominant language of the country, so the immigrants learned rudimentary Hawaiian and added into it many words and grammar structures from their own various languages in a very “loose” and “ad-hoc” fashion.

First arrived the Chinese plantation workers by many tens of thousands. They were followed later by almost 20,000 Portuguese, many of whom became ranch hands known as “paniolo” (from Spanish Español), machinists, and even ranch and plantation supervisors. Along with them came the Japanese, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands by the time immigration for plantation work essentially stopped in the mid-1920s.

The English language of the plantation managers in the late 1800s increasingly influenced the lexical and grammatical choices of the plantation and ranch workers as time went on, but predominantly underlying interpersonal public communication was the Hawaiian language. Thus we call this now extinct form of Hawaiian-language based communication “Pidgin Hawaiian”.

Pidgin Hawaiian died out in the first part of the 20th century, as English supplanted Hawaiian as the language of the new Territory of Hawaiʻi. The language spoken by the laborers at work was still a “pidgin” with many words and expressions coming from the admixing of languages and cultures, but it became increasingly English-language based as time went on. We label this language “Hawaiian Pidgin” or “Hawaiian Pidgin English”, or simply “Pidgin English”.

During this time, vast numbers of Filipino, Korean, Okinawan, and Puerto Rican plantation laborers were arriving, and as time went on, they started families and settled into post-plantation contract life, with many going into business for themselves, as had the previous wave of immigrants.

When the children of these newly “local” families started to use Hawaiian Pidgin to communicate with each other in school, or when they played together out of school and eventually grew up to start their own intercultural families and businesses and so on, the language became more stable in its selection of vocabulary and grammar, and thus it changed from being a “pidgin” to being a “creole” language.

For this reason, we use the technical term “Hawaiian Creole English” (HCE) today to describe this widely-spoken language in Hawaiʻi. It retains its two popular names “Pidgin English” and “Hawaiian Pidgin English”, but the language as it stands today is no longer a true pidgin. It is widely spoken throughout the State of Hawaiʻi by local folk from all walks of life.

Amazingly enough, there are many words from Hawaiian language still in use in HCE today. You should know them all as future Hawaiian language speakers! There are also some sentence patterns based in Hawaiian grammar, as well as beautiful intonational and other prosodical patterns, but we will leave those for another lesson.

Please find the glossary for this article (containing 126 Hawaiian words commonly found in Pidgin English today) at A Glossary of Hawaiian Words in Hawaiian Pidgin English.

Pane mai

Send comments, corrections, or questions about this page to Kumu Kaliko.