De-Stigmatizing Hawaii’s Creole Language

Why the decision to recognize Hawaiian Pidgin English in U.S. census surveys matters

Jennifer Sinco Kelleher / AP

“You don’t know how happy this makes me,” I wrote a colleague after she casually sent me a link to a recent news story reporting that the U.S. Census Bureau now recognizes Hawaiian Pidgin English as a language. “Oh really?!” the colleague responded, surprised at my excitement.

After all, how could a seemingly silly decision to include the local, slang-sounding vernacular on a language survey listing more than 100 other options cause so much delight? It’s not like the five-year American Community Survey gleaned accurate data on how many people in Hawaii actually speak Pidgin at home. (Roughly 1,600 of the 327,000 bilingual survey respondents said they speak it, while other sources—albeit imperfect ones—have suggested that as many as half of the state’s population of 1.4 million does.) So why was I reverberating with a sense of, to borrow a Pidgin phrase, chee hu!?

The significance of the gesture is symbolic, and it extends far beyond those who are from Hawaii and/or those who speak Hawaiian Pidgin. It shows that the federal government acknowledges the legitimacy of a tongue widely stigmatized, even among locals who dabble in it, as a crass dialect reserved for the uneducated lower classes and informal settings. It reinforces a long, grassroots effort by linguists and cultural practitioners to institutionalize and celebrate the language—to encourage educators to integrate it into their teaching, potentially elevating the achievement of Pidgin-speaking students. And it indicates that, elsewhere in the country, the speakers of comparable linguistic systems—from African American Vernacular English, or ebonics, to Chicano English—may even see similar changes one day, too.

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.

But critics didn’t—and don’t—see it that way. They say allowing it in school undermines kids’ prospects in a globalized workforce, with many citing Hawaii students’ below-average writing and reading scores. This has been a long-standing view, and the state Board of Education even sought to outlaw Pidgin in schools in the late 1980s, though pushback from the community prevented that from happening. “If you use Pidgin, it can really affect your grammar,” former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano, who spoke the language growing up, once told me. “I think it does the kids a disservice if you allow them to continue to speak Pidgin.”

Policies discouraging the use of languages other than standard American English are commonplace across the country, and for similar reasons. As Melinda Anderson recently reported, the influx of Spanish-speaking students from Latin America, for example, has prompted a wave of English-only education policies, including one in California that’s still largely in effect. An effort in Oakland in the 1990s to integrate ebonics instruction in schools was met with widespread pushback. “There’s a belief that one language will overcome and replace others and that that’s a good thing,” Christina Higgins, a University of Hawaii sociolinguistics professor, told me a few years ago. “And I think that’s an ideology of many contexts … the history of this country is not that great in terms of maintaining or preserving any kind of heritage.” Fortunately, as Anderson explained, “a reversal is underway.” And the U.S. census decision attests to that.

The students in Hawaii and elsewhere who are struggling are often struggling in part because what they learn in class and are tested on is incompatible with their world views. That’s why some advocates have sought to embrace elements of their cultures—their languages and backgrounds and interests—by adopting things like creole literature and ethnic-studies classes. In 1996, the Oakland school board passed a resolution recognizing African American Vernacular English as a valid language in part to affirm its cultural value but also to help its speakers master standard English-language skills. Advocates and academics in Hawaii have similarly encouraged teachers to integrate Pidgin into instruction—as both a tool to teach kids about the state’s unique sociology and history and to help Pidgin speakers improve their standard-English skills. The idea is that, by teaching those students the grammatical rules that underpin Pidgin and distinguish it from standard English, they’ll better grasp and engage with the conventional language-arts skills expected of them. Efforts to promote dual-language instruction with English-language learners rely on the same philosophy.

When I asked Laiana Wong, a Hawaiian languages professor, whether speaking Pidgin puts kids at a disadvantage, he said that, given the way I had “couched the question, it’s obvious that we recognize that Pidgin is the subaltern language and English has got superiority.”

“Now,” he continued, “if we turn that around and say, well, what about the person who speaks a more standard form of English who cannot speak Pidgin—are they handicapped in Hawaii? And I say yes.”

Higgins and her team at UH developed a guide for teachers a few years ago with materials for literacy and language-arts, social studies, and even math classes. The materials were even designed to meet what were then the state’s education standards. (Hawaii has since adopted the Common Core.) It includes grammar quizzes; a lesson on the differences between dialects, accents, slangs, and jargons (“and why Pidgin isn’t any of these”); and a sheet listing civil-rights cases relevant to the debates over Pidgin’s role in Hawaii’s linguistic landscape. “Why should you know ‘bout Pidgin? Cuz das da language of so many students in Hawai‘i,” the intro reads. “If you like connect wit da students in yo class, mo betta you know all about dea cultures and languages at home. If you like learn moa ‘bout yo community, mo betta you learn ‘bout Pidgin. Pidgin not only one language; ees da way plenny peepo in Hawai‘i tink.  Ees one vital form of expression.”

And if the move to include Pidgin on the census survey is any indication, people are starting to realize that. “As you look over dese resources, I like fo yo to tink about Pidgin as one elegant language,” the guide continues. “Not in da high maka-maka kine sense, but in da scientific or mathematical sense. Da economy of words. Da efficiency in expression. Language so concise, so succinct, dat it’s ingeniously simple. Dis is da gift of Pidgin.”