Let’s Talk Pidgin




©Steve Czerniak

Linguistics professor shares his thoughts about the controversially misunderstood academic subject: Pidgin grammar. 

It was during Kent Sakoda’s pre-freshman year at Iowa’s Drake University that got him to quickly remember: he wasn’t in Kaua‘i anymore.

“My friend and I flew in that day to register,” says Sakoda as he recalls a time when there was no such thing as online registration. The school wasn’t ready to register students at that time so Sakoda and his friend left only to come back and noticed a bunch of people walking away from the building.

“I shouted, ‘Eh, what, registration all pau already?’” Sakoda says, his eyes close from laughter. “And the guy just stared at us and I remember thinking, ‘Oh yeah … I forgot.’”

Born and raised in Hanapēpē, Kaua‘i, Sakoda attended ‘Ele‘ele Elementary School where his classmates were Japanese, Filipino and Native Hawaiian. Like many youths growing up during that time in Hanapēpē, Sakoda’s first language was Pidgin – a common language that’s spoken among locals in Hawai‘i, often referred to as a “broken” form of English. When Sakoda attended Waimea High School, he noticed many of his teachers would “correct” them if they spoke Pidgin in class.

“There was, and there still is a bit of, a stigma that comes with Pidgin,” Sakoda says as he goes on to explain the origins of Pidgin, which started during Hawai‘i’s early plantation days when immigrants of different backgrounds would try to find a commonality in communication. “Because people would categorize Pidgin as a ‘simplified’ way of talking, it would go down the line of assuming that it doesn’t require a lot of an education background; that it represents a low socioeconomic status; that you must do menial labor because that type of profession doesn’t require you to communicate as well.”

Sakoda states that it was the 1930s and 1940s when job openings in white collar businesses started to flourish in Honolulu, and the divide between upper and lower class locals of the plantation fields began to merge. Soon a middle class of workers was created and use of the Pidgin language started to slowly subside.

“People had to learn how to switch it on and off,” Sakoda says. “They believed in the stigma, that you can’t speak Pidgin if you’re going to be doing that kind of job. That Pidgin is meant for the plantations and if you want to go far in life, you cannot speak Pidgin.”

Today, Sakoda says, the use of Hawai‘i’s Pidgin language is far more accepted than it was when he was growing up. As a professor within the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Sakoda teaches “Pidgin and Creole English in Hawai‘i.” What’s interesting to him is that he would get reports from his non-pidgin speaking students that local pidgin speakers would get upset when they would attempt and try to learn Hawai‘i’s native tongue.

“Logically, I couldn’t put it together,” Sakoda says. “If someone is trying to learn more about your language and your culture, why would you get upset? I then had to really look deep into this subject and I realized that it’s an identity thing. So if it’s a part of your identity and you’re kind of uneasy about it, and you believe that there’s still a stigma attached to it, then people get offended because they think they’re being made fun of. That they’re taking their identity away.”

Sakoda says he hasn’t heard confrontational experiences from his students in a while, showing an improvement that times are slowly changing. When Sakoda heard the news that the U.S. Census Bureau had declared “Pidgin” as an official language, he was “elated” yet thought it was funny because it was something locals from Hawai‘i have known and have been speaking for “a very long time.”

“It’s funny how things come full circle yeah?” Sakoda smiles. “Back then our ancestors used (Pidgin) in the plantation fields, then the first generation cannot use it in the workforce … by the time you get to the third, fourth and fifth generation – they have to go back to school to learn it.”

Professor Kent Sakoda is a part of the Charlene Sato Center for Pidgin, Creole and Dialect Studies, also known as the Sato Center, which aims to conduct research on Pidgin and creole languages as well as stigmatized dialects. Sakoda, along with Jeff Siegel, is co-author of the book “Pidgin Grammar – An Introduction to the Creole Language of Hawai‘i.” For more information about the Sato Center, go to www.hawaii.edu/satocenter/

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