I reported extensively on the disputes over Pidgin and its role in classrooms when I was an education journalist in Hawaii, where I’m from. It was through this reporting experience—the interviews, the historical research, the observations of classrooms—that I realized how little I understood the language and what it represents. Until then, I didn’t even consider it a language; I thought of it as, well, a “pidgin”—“a language that,” according to Merriam Webster, “is formed from a mixture of several languages when speakers of different languages need to talk to each other.” It turns out that “Hawaiian Pidgin English” is a misnomer. And it turns out that resistance to the misunderstood language helps explain some of the biggest challenges stymieing educational progress in the state.
Pidgin, according to linguists, is a creole language that reflects Hawaii’s ongoing legacy as a cultural melting pot. Hawaiian Pidgin English developed during the 1800s and early 1900s, when immigrant laborers from China, Portugal, and the Philippines arrived to work in the plantations; American missionaries also came around that time. The immigrants used pidgins—first one that was based in Hawaiian and then one based in English—to communicate. That linguistic system eventually evolved into a creole, which in general develops when the children of pidgin-speakers use the pidgin as a first language. To give you a sense of what Pidgin sounds like, this is how a project about of the University of Hawaii known as Da Pidgin Coup describes this history using the language:
Wen da keiki wen come olda da language wen come into da creole dat linguist kine people call Hawai‘i Creole. Us local people we jus’ call um “Pidgin.” Nowadays kine Pidgin get all da stuff from da pas’ inside. Plenny of da vocabulary for Pidgin come from English but plenny stuff in da gramma come from Hawaiian. Cantonese an’ Portuguese wen also help make da gramma, an’ English, Hawaiian, Portuguese, an’ Japanese wen help da vocabulary da mos’.
It may read like a phonetic interpretation of a really broken version of standard American English, but linguists insist it isn’t. It has its own grammatical system and lexicon; it doesn’t use “are” or “is” in sentences, for example, and incorporates words from an array of languages like “keiki,” which means children in Hawaiian. The renowned linguist Geoffrey Pullum offered a helpful way of thinking about the difference between a language and a slang in a 1999 paper criticizing a New York Times editorial for describing ebonics as the latter:
We call an expression a slang when it represents a vivid, colloquial word or phrase associated with some subculture and not yet incorporated as part of the mainstream language. No subculture’s slang could constitute a separate language. The mistake is like confusing a sprinkle of hot sauce with a dinner. Slang is by definition parasitic on some larger and more encompassing host language. It has no grammar of its own; it is a small array of words and phrases used under the aegis of some ordinary language and in accordance with its grammar.
According to linguists, the many people in Hawaii who speak both Pidgin and conventional English—whether it be 1,600 people or 700,000—are actually bilingual. “If you don’t treat it as a language, then you get all kinds of problems that come with the stigma,” Kent Sakoda, a professor of second language studies at the University of Hawaii who’s written a book on Pidgin grammar, has explained.