I was 13-years old when I met my birth father. Soon after, we took a trip to O’ahu and the Big Island so that I could meet his side of the family. The minute he stepped into a room full of “aunty-folks” (all of his aunties, uncles and cousins), he relaxed and easily slipped right back into speaking Pidgin English even though he had been living in Chicago for 13 years and had developed a mid-western accent.
I’ve been fascinated with accents since I was a child, and because I really wanted to impress my dad, I thought I’d try my hand at speaking Pidgin English…to my mother. Bad idea.
“When you get back home, you better drop that accent.”
Hawaiian Pidgin English started in the cane fields when a common language was needed between all the different ethnic groups, and continued to evolve with each island having a few of its own colloquialisms. In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau recognized it as one of the languages of Hawai’i. There’s a distinctive lilt to a Hawaiian Pidgin accent that makes locals easily identifiable on the Mainland. It’s like a secret handshake.
When Ric and I first started dating, he would occasionally use Pidgin terms, and I would just smile and nod like I understood what he said.
“Would you like to go for a hike at Wallace Falls?”
“Bumbye. My ankle stay soa.”
Huh? What the heck is a “bumbye“? Google anyone?
Being in Seattle and surrounded by PNW natives, he worked hard at speaking what he calls “regular English.” But surround him by locals and he goes into “moke mode”. If you don’t understand Pidgin, you’re doomed. Hawaiian Pidgin is full of words borrowed from other languages and sometimes those words are shortened and often not fully pronounced. As an added bonus, the sentence structure is incredibly simple. Ric maintains that Pidgin can get to the point typically in four words or less.
Question: “How was the traffic on H1 today?”
English Answer: “It was horrible! There were so many people on the road it took me an hour and half to commute from Town to Pearl City at 2 P.M.!”
Pidgin English Answer: “Brah, get choke cars!”
Over the last couple of years, Emery has asked Ric to teach her some Pidgin, to which he always replies, “I can’t teach it to you, you just have to grow up with it.” There’s a bit of truth to that. Just like learning any foreign language, you need to live among the locals to learn the culture along with the language. Only then can you appreciate all its nuances.
After a year, we understood Ric in “moke mode”, so we had a good grasp on the lexicon before arriving. We were anxious to try our skills, but he said, “Please don’t try to speak Pidgin. Just talk regular. You can understand and that’s good enough. Just be you.” Later I found out that’s because he maintains that I put the accents on the wrong syllables. Apparently I need to study “Local Maddahs” videos by comedian Pashyn Santos to make sure I can speak da kine correctly when the opportunity arises.
At this point, Kahea has the best shot at developing Pidgin language skills and an organically-grown accent that she can take into adulthood. In fact the other day I was showing her sister something on my phone and she said, “I like see…” (translation: Can I see what you’re looking at?). In my best Pidgin accent, I replied with, “Ho Tita, you going talk Pidgin to your maddah?” To which she replied, “Wait, what?” She goes to school with choke (lots) local kids and since she’s only in 3rd grade, she will spend the next couple of years learning PSL (Pidgin as a Second Language). In no time, she’ll be like any other local girl, switching back and forth between languages seamlessly. She may even end up with a Pidgin accent when she “talks regular”, but only time will tell.
If only Siri understood Pidgin, Ric would be a happy man. If he uses “Hey Siri” he gets frustrated at the number of times he has to repeat himself until she understands what he’s saying. Personally I just wish Siri knew about the lack of left turns in Town and the timing of the contraflow lanes. I had to break up with her because of her lack of experience in Honolulu—but that’s a post for another day.
For now, I leave you with Pashyn Santos and Siri. Aloha!