Gathering Places


Friday, April 27, 2001

There’s a place
for pidgin

GLENDALE, CALIF. >> After leaving Hawaii, my level of English underwent a big change. I always thought I spoke English well, considering that I lived on Oahu for four years after coming from Molokai. But I soon realized people knew I was from someplace else based on my pronunciation and inflection.

For years we have been taught to shun pidgin. Many educators, and especially English teachers, pushed us to speak proper English. But often the people who stress standard English do not have a good command of English themselves. They are able to impress anyone -- except those from the mainland. Dialectal differences, not limited to pronunciation, are noticeable.

Although the educators' intentions were good, their methods had an adverse effect by giving the impression that pidgin is a bastardized speech and was looked down upon. If we compared it to the Hawaiian Immersion Schools, would they teach that English is a bad thing? Would they teach students to gain fluency in Hawaiian by making them feel that speaking English was shameful? That is what happened to most of us with pidgin. We should have been encouraged to speak standard English, not discouraged from speaking pidgin.

Hawaii with its immigrant population, became a place known for language loss. Generations of people grew up not able to speak the language of their parents or grandparents, something many of us regret today as we probably would have benefited by being able to speak multiple languages. Instead, the result was pidgin.

Linguists refer to pidgin as Hawaii's Creole English. Pidgin is basically a makeshift language. It is initiated by groups of people who speak different languages but communicate with each other by using simple parts of a base language. For Hawaii, the base language was English. Eventually each group contributed words from their own language to pidgin thereby enriching the language.

After people who speak the makeshift language (pidgin) have children, their children speak what they learn from their parents and then go to school to learn the common or base language (English).

In turn, these children speak a slightly different version of the makeshift language. Pidgin and creole languages all over the world exist because of the same thing that occurred in Hawaii.

A common misconception is that pidgin is just slang. Slang comes and goes, however, and is limited to certain groups. Pidgin has its own grammatical structure, has tenses and essential words along with words from various languages.

Even its word order is different, patterned after the Hawaiian language. There are ways to form past and future tenses as well as three ways of making a sentence negative depending on the tense of the verb. These complexities are by no means features of slang.

Understanding the history of pidgin and its structure allows us to appreciate what we speak in Hawaii. Pidgin is not a bad thing. It may not have a place in mainstream America or in the business world, but we certainly can appreciate it.

Just as Italians speak standard Italian along with their localized dialect, or Catalonians speak Catalan as well as Spanish, we can speak pidgin and standard English.

Kalani Mondoy, formerly from Molokai
and Oahu, lives in Glendale, Calif.

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