Crossing East: Proud to Speak Pidgin, Brah Producer Dmae Roberts shares an audio postcard of some Hawaiians who are proud to speak pidgin — a home-grown version of English with words and phrases borrowed from other languages brought to the islands over the centuries.
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Crossing East: Proud to Speak Pidgin, Brah

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Crossing East: Proud to Speak Pidgin, Brah

Crossing East: Proud to Speak Pidgin, Brah

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In Hawaii, islanders have a language they call Pidgin English. It's actually a mixture of several Asian languages as well as Portuguese and Hawaiian. Producer Dmae Roberts brings us this audio postcard.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: What you want to talk about?

Unidentified Woman #1: Talk about maybe what ...(unintelligible) this morning.

Unidentified Man #1: This morning I had egg and bacon.

Unidentified Woman #1: Egg and bacon.

Unidentified Woman #2: When the teachers started to hear us talk, they couldn't make heads or tails what we were saying because it came from the mainland. Whatever we said, she could not listen to what we were saying at all.

Unidentified Woman #3: We were told that it was just bad English. I guess I grew up kind of thinking it was like a bad habit that we had. We would ask to use the rest rooms, you know, like, `I can go toilet' or something, and they would withhold the permission until you got the English part of it correctly. And those things can be problematic. We just see these as things that we're constantly reminded of or reprimanded for.

Unidentified Man #2: The language in Hawaii is a creole language, which is a Pidgin language which has become the community's mother tongue. It's a bit confusing here in Hawaii because everybody calls it Pidgin, but we just call it a creole language, and it's a creole language like other creole languages from Jamaica and in some of the French-speaking ex-colonies.

Unidentified Woman #4: It's, for instance--like I'm going to say (Pidgin spoken), `You go over there.'

Unidentified Man #3: (Pidgin spoken) I would say (Pidgin spoken), `Come to me.' Let's say a bunch of friends and I were going to go to a movie or something close to where I'm living, and they'd come by to pick me up, and I'm not really done the shower yet, and I'll yell out to them (Pidgin spoken) `You be going, and later I'll be coming.' (Pidgin spoken) `Otherwise you will be late.'

Unidentified Woman #5: When we say the word (Pidgin spoken), you know exactly what the meaning when we say, `Oh, did you see (Pidgin spoken)?' The word (Pidgin spoken) is universal. We mention that for everything. That's how we talk.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Pidgin spoken) means `to eat' or food itself, and it actually comes from Chinese Pidgin English brought over by the sailors. The original word was (Chinese Pidgin English spoken), in American slang, `chow.' But it was brought over by the sailors to Hawaii, and then (Chinese Pidgin English spoken) then becomes (Pidgin spoken).

Unidentified Woman #6: That's how we talk. But we had to learn good English eventually because that was a detriment to us.

Unidentified Woman #7: Pidgin was associated with a working class. It's a language that was enough to do menial labor around the plantation. But in the urban setting for the middle class, they thought that wasn't appropriate, that we need to speak standard English to get ahead.

Unidentified Man #4: They say if you talk Pidgin, you don't care. Be smart. Be important. Be successful. Be professional. Be taken seriously.

Unidentified Man #5: Pretty much all when you're growing up, people tell you, `Oh, if you do this in Pidgin, then where can you go?' People always say, `Oh, you can't do this, you can't do that, you can't do that.' The perception is a Pidgin talker is going to be perceived as less intelligent than the standard English talker. When I was in college, after I discovered that guys writing in Pidgin, I said, `Heck, yeah, I can do this Pidgin creative writing.' Eventually I did my 20-page research papers in Pidgin, master's thesis in Pidgin.

Unidentified Man #4: Be one teacher. Be one doctor. Be one lawyer. Be a big businessman. Be the pope. Be the president. Be the wife of the president. They say if you talk Pidgin, you don't care.

Unidentified Man #6: You have more and more people who are bilingual here. In the past, you had a lot of people, and the only language they spoke was the creoles. But now, especially in Honolulu, a majority of people would really be bilingual, and they switch back and forth.

Unidentified Man #7: The language has a different kind of prestige. It's like the language of the community and it's something that you're proud of because it shows your identity.

Unidentified Woman #8: It really makes us very unique because we have this thing that we can interject with each other. We interplay daily in our lives. As soon as we meet each other, you can tell the people that come from Hawaii that know how to speak Pidgin and then switch over to good English, then you know that person has really arrived.

BRAND: Hawaii residents Domingo Los Banos, Espy Garcia and Lee Tonouchi. They spoke to producer Dmae Roberts. This piece is part of the Crossing East Asian-American history series, and you can hear more at our Web site, npr.org.

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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