The Voice of Hawai'i

By Scanlan, Laura Wolff | Humanities, September/October 2009 | Go to article overview

The Voice of Hawai'i


Scanlan, Laura Wolff, Humanities


Fishy Cake,

Fishy Cake

Fishah man

Catch me one aku

As fast as you can

Cut urn sashimi

Straight from da sea

Wit shoyu and rice

For kekei and me

- Pidgin nursery rhyme

Hawaii Creole, known on the islands as Pidgin, had its genesis in the 1 840s as thousands of laborers from around the globe came to work the sugarcane plantations. Not sharing a common language, but needing to communicate with others and their employers, an amalgam of Hawaiian, English, Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese developed. Today, Pidgin is heard in everyday conversations, advertising, and on school playgrounds. Yet attitudes toward the language has ranged from pride to contempt.

"In general, critics blame speakers of Pidgin for low test scores," says Marlene Booth. "They caution that speaking Pidgin will impede getting good jobs and advancing in life. On the other hand, speakers of Pidgin call it the language of their hearts while at the same time, they often feel discriminated against for speaking it."

Booth explores these varied attitudes in Pidgin: The Voice ofHawai'i, a documentary she coproduced with the late Kanalu Young that airs nationally in September. The film includes subtitles written in Pidgin instead of standard English.

How Hawaiians speak has been a hot topic since the early twentieth century. By the 1920s, children born on Hawai'i's sugar plantations began entering school in large numbers, many hearing standard English for the first time. By this time, Hawai'i Pidgin was spoken by more than half of Hawai'i's population.

Like other forms of nonstandard English in the United States - Gullah, Louisiana Creole, Appalachian English, and African American Vernacular English - those who spoke Pidgin were told they were speaking "bad" or "broken" English. …

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