Hawaiian Creole English, a Mixed-plate Language

Hawaiian Creole or Pidgin may be “broken” English, but it is the language that created our diverse community

By Cara Fasone

Born and raised in Hawaii, I never noticed my use of pidgin or Hawaiian Creole English. It was only when I moved to the mainland and my roommate asked me why I say “try wait,” and “try look,” did I realize the words, phrases and even intonation I used was different. I explained to my roommate, a Toronto native, that in Hawaii we speak pidgin.

Plantation Talk

 The language came about when immigrants from different countries came to work on the Hawaiian plantations in the late 1800s, early 1900s. The laborers came from all over the world, so short English phrases and commands were necessary.

Although it may be “broken” English, it is the language that united the workers and created Hawaii’s rich mixed plate.  It is also the language many of us speak even today, with fondness, because it makes us feel at home. 

Boogers for Example

Hawaiian Creole English borrows and blends words from the Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Portuguese languages.

For example the word, “hanabada,” means boogers in Hawaiian Pidgin. Broken down, “hana” is nose in Japanese and “bada” comes from the English word, butter. Put together, “nose butter,” or hanabada is mucus. When the word “days,” is added to hanabada, it refers to one’s childhood; the hanabada days when we were snotty-nosed kids.

Communication and Community

Just like with the plate lunch, Hawaiian pidgin made it easier for the different races to mix and mingle on the plantation. Where in other parts of the country, immigrants remained segregated, the close proximity of the plantation fostered friendships. The ability to communicate through Hawaiian Creole created a sense of community, a core value that is instilled in Hawaii residents today.

Try Read Dis

I was still puzzled as to why we use “try” in commands. I turned to talking story--another pidgin phrase meaning to converse casually, or shoot the breeze--with my friend Jackie in Hawaii. We decided that because Hawaiian locals are not confrontational people, we are politely ordering you to “try,” at your earliest convenience and with no obligation.

“Try come,” please attend, but if you can’t, no harm done. “Try wait,” please wait, thanks for your patience.  Or when we ask a favor and follow it up with, “if can,”—as in “I like borrow your bike, if can.”--we’re letting you know that we will still be friends if you say no.  

Language of Aloha

Not just the mixed words, but the laid-back attitude and relaxed intonation that comes with Hawaiian Creole English, welcomed the neighbors. The plantation days are over, but the language and the Aloha spirit it helps create is passed on from generation to generation.

My mainland friends laugh at me when I talk to my grandma, a nisei (second generation Japanese-American,) over the phone. They say my intonation changes and I start using old school words like “ice box,” instead of refrigerator.

Although it does not come out often, my pidgin is not something I want to hide or lose. It may not be grammatically correct, but is a representation of a mixed-culture that is uniquely Hawaiian. And it makes me feel like I’m home.

What is your favorite Hawaiian pidgin phrase?

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