Deconstructing Pidgin or ‘How Come Stay Li’Dat?’

One of the more frequent compliments the Two Japanee Bruddahs receive is about the use of pidgin English in our columns. Translation: People say plenny good kine stuff wen we write pidgin in our columns li’dat.

Speaking pidgin is something we grew up with and still use it today, especially when we’re around other kama‘aina. Its accents even work their way into our “proper” English conversations, leading more than a few people to ask, “Are you from Hawai‘i?”

The pidgin language is part of the what makes Hawai‘i’s multicultural community unique. For many of us growing up in Hawai‘i, it was our first language and created bonds between us regardless of our ethnic backgrounds. We were “local” and pidgin was a defining part of that identity.

On one of Bruddah Keet’s first visits to Las Vegas, he was walking around in the MGM casino and could easily identify the people there who were from Hawai‘i from hearing their pidgin.

Pidgin English was actually the second pidgin used in Hawai‘i, following Pidgin Hawaiian – both used on the plantations. Experts on pidgin say that Portuguese, Hawaiian and Cantonese initially influenced the language. Later, Japanese, Filipino and Korean immigrants and even Mexicans and Puerto Ricans donated parts of their native tongues into pidgin.

British English also influenced pidgin. As one example, we use the word “rubbish” instead of “trash,” rubbish being a more British word choice. The Hawaiian monarchy had strong ties with the UK: even our state flag, the flag used by the Hawaiian kingdom, has the Union Jack in it.

Kent Sakoda and Jeff Siegel, in their book “Pidgin Grammar: An Introduction to the Creole Language of Hawai‘i,” point out that pidgin retains influences from other languages. The word “stay” in Pidgin has the same meaning as the Portuguese verb “estar,” meaning “to be” when referring to a temporary state or location.

“I stay hungry,” one would say instead of “I am hungry.” Or “She stay at home,” instead of “She is at home.”

The pidgin English entry on points out some interesting characteristics about pidgin.

There is no “th” in pidgin words. We use “d” or “t” instead. This, that, there becomes dis, dat, dere (“dare”). Thing becomes ting. “Good ting dey wen come on time, yah?”

The “l” sound at the end of words is replaced with the “o” sounds. “Peepo can be mento sumtimes, yah?” Mento meaning “mental,” which we use instead of “crazy” or “stupid”.

The “ah” sound replaces the “r” sound at the end of words. Better is bettah. Letter is lettah. Sister is sistah and brother is bruddah.

We a pidgin speaker asks a question, the intonation falls at the end of the sentence versus the rising intonation used in regular English. Apparently, this is similar to Hawaiian, and is shared with some other languages, including Fijian.

Pidgin is a language that changes from generation to generation. Older people used to say “kau kau” in place of the noun “food” and the verb “to eat,” such as in “Eh, we go kau kau” and “Get plenny kau kau ovah deah.” Today, very few pidgin speakers use “kau kau.”

Throughout the years, the use of pidgin, especially in the public school system has generated controversy. Critics of the language claimed that pidgin was a barrier to success and a sign of substandard socioeconomic status.

The state Board of Education approved a 1987 policy allowing only standard English in the schools. In 1999, the chairman of the school board blamed pidgin for the low scores Hawai‘i students achieved on standardized tests.

That ’99 incident drew a response from a group called “Da Pidgin Coup,” comprised mainly of University of Hawai`i faculty and students in the Department of Second Language Studies, who were meeting regularly to work on aspects of pidgin. Their position paper ( defended the use of pidgin and debunked the contention that pidgin was to blame for test scores.

The paper said that no one should be prevented from using pidgin where and when it works in the learning process; that while educators should teach standard forms of English, learning English shouldn’t completely replace pidgin; and that there are social advantages to being able to speak pidgin, just as there are social advantages to being able to speak English.

Classic examples of the beautiful and comedic use of pidgin can be found in Rap Replinger’s album “Poi Dog with Crabs.”

One thought on “Deconstructing Pidgin or ‘How Come Stay Li’Dat?’

  1. Great blog and thanks for writing about pidgin and using it! I think Pidgin English is a language in itself, when spoken fluently it sounds so beautiful to me. I think its repression is symbolic of how the hawaiian people/the land has been repressed. The whole history of Hawaii is so tainted and this stance that pidgin english is bad b/c it isn’t meeting the standardized test scores…f%$# that! Hawaii is not the mainland and should therefore stop continually being treated as if it were. it may have been conquered and seized through lies, deception, and force, but it has not eradicated its people or its culture.

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