Proud of Our Pidgin: The Newest Language in the U.S. Census

When Hawaiian Pidgin Creole joined an official list of 350 languages spoken in U.S. homes, it lifted up communities throughout Hawai‘i and their rich immigrant history.

YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton. Image from UH-Manoa Historical Archives

Pau. I stared hard at the word, written in Magic Marker on colored cardstock and tacked up on the bulletin board of my mom’s first-grade classroom, until it dawned on my 11-year-old brain that it wasn’t English.

It’s a word so common in Hawai‘i that I’d never recognized it as a word, distinct from its meaning (“finished” or “done”), and I’d never seen it written anywhere in any of the English-centric classrooms designed to wash the lo‘i and plantation off of us and make us American. As much as my schoolteacher mother tried to impress upon her children the importance of being able to speak “good English,” there I was, the son of two college graduates, the third generation of my family born in Hawai‘i, and, at the age of 11, unsure when I was speaking English and when I wasn’t.

It turns out that, most of the time, I wasn’t speaking “bad” or “pidgin” English, but Hawaiian Creole, a language all its own. I first learned this in grad school when, after reading a chapter on linguist Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, I half-jokingly, half-defiantly updated my resume and declared myself a native speaker of Hawaiian Creole and thereby, retroactively, proudly bilingual.

This past November, a U.S. Census Bureau survey included “Hawaiian Pidgin Creole,” which some linguists cite as a prime example of the brain’s innate capacity for language creation, as one of the 350 languages spoken in U.S. homes. This simple act gave the Creole, which researchers say emerged with remarkable speed and uniformity from the polyglot multiethnic sugar plantations of the early 1900s, the imprimatur of federal recognition. It may be coincidence that this happened during the watch of our first Hawaiian-Creole-speaking president, but, regardless, the move helps vindicate decades of struggle by local educators, activists, and artists to elevate Pidgin, as it’s commonly referred to in the Islands, from its status as a dialect of the uneducated, “country,” lower classes. And with the stroke of a pen, some anonymous census bureaucrat helped me (and my resume) achieve what seven years of after-school Japanese language classes and many embarrassing oral examinations in college Spanish could not.

I wrote this while home for the holidays in Honolulu, where I found myself, as always, automatically code-switching to my native tongue. Partly because it’s a marker—one could argue the marker—of being local. And in this prideful, injured place, often wary of outsiders after so many decades of land grabs, militarization, and accommodating millions of tourists each year, I want to put people at ease. But partly, when I think about it, to align myself with all the nameless immigrants—the Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, Puerto Rican, Filipino, and my own Japan-born fieldworker great-grandparents—whose children, along with those of Native Hawaiians, invented Hawaiian Creole (not a pidgin, which linguists would say lacks a complete and uniform grammar) out there amid the endless dusty rows of sugar cane. I’ve lived outside of my culture for too long, and I’m looking to get some of that plantation dirt back on me. These laborers and their families, segregated by the haole (white) American plantation owners but united by their shared station in life and inspired no doubt by the openness and generosity of the host Hawaiian culture, overcame their prejudices and grievances from the old country, mostly. And in a single generation, they forged a language. I don’t think they were intentionally trying to create a language—probably more just trying to share a musubi or avoid the luna’s whip—but that’s what ended up happening. Now there’s talk on the continent of building higher walls, religion tests at the borders, mass deportations—as if the problem with our country was freedom, liberty.

We have a language that, as we already kind of know but are reluctant to say, makes us a people. 

I once worked with a carpenter on the Big Island, a haole transplant from the mainland, who sardonically called white-led, anti-development protests on the island “last haole syndrome.” “After me, no more, this island is getting ruined,” he laughed. Too many haoles here, say the haoles. And we do have our problems: Native Hawaiians in the midst of a cultural renaissance but still struggling to find a path to sovereignty and justice in their own land, real estate prices floating ever higher in the backwash of money from the winners of global capitalism, the city and county of Honolulu struggling to come up with long-term solutions for the homeless as they chase people from one makeshift encampment to the next. We’re even grappling with fears about immigrants and terrorism, as evidenced by the furious backlash on social media at the governor’s extending a welcome to Syrian refugees.

Homelessness. Who belongs, who doesn’t belong. Last haole syndrome. The Census Bureau decision to recognize Hawaiian Creole as a language is a good reminder for us: that we have a language, and it is the big tent of languages, accepting all comers. We have a language that, as we already kind of know but are reluctant to say, makes us a people. You taste it in our food, hear it in our names, see it in our faces. Even Native Hawaiians, down to their last 24,000 in 1920, are today a powerful 300,000, mostly of mixed race, saved by this immigrant wave and decision to embrace rather than deny. It’s not an official language, but Hawaiian Creole is our language. And when I say “our,” I mean everybody who’s from here and everyone who chooses to live here. Immigrants to Hawai‘i, howzit, e komo mai, learn our language as soon as you can. It’s crowded here, but we can make room. Try to fit in. And you keiki at Kalihi Kai Elementary, learn English, or Japanese, or Mandarin, the language of whatever dominant power we’re going to have to befriend or fend off in the future; hold on to your native Tongan, Tagalog, or Thai; and by all means learn Hawaiian, our other official language and the mother tongue of the islands. But bus’ out da kine Pidgin or Creole or whatevah, whenevah can. No shame, eh! And no fohget. It’s your language. It belongs here and so do you. Dat’s it. Pau.