“Wat language dis come from?” read the prompt on a large projector at the Farrington High School library Wednesday, as Hawaiian Pidgin phrases flashed across the screen.
“You get chicken skin?” “Where you stay?” “So ono da food.”
Murmurs of amusement rose from the audience at Hawaii’s first-ever “Get Pidgin?: Summit on Pidgin and Education,” which drew about 200 participants from across the state.
While not everyone got the answers right (which are, respectively, “Japanese,” “Portuguese” and “Hawaiian”) during the interactive smartphone-powered game, the spirit of the event was on full display, sparking a dialogue about Pidgin’s historic role and current place in Hawaii society and classrooms.
The day-long event featured panel discussions, talk story sessions with renowned Pidgin authors and playwrights and a keynote address by comedian Augie T, who said he knows he’s “connecting with somebody” when he “turns on” Pidgin in his comedy routine.
It was organized by the University of Hawaii Manoa’s Charlene Sato Center for Pidgin, Creole, and Dialect Studies at the College of Education and the College of Languages, Linguistics and Literature.
“Pidgin is something we have to embrace. It’s something we grew up with,” said Alfredo Carganilla, the principal of Farrington High School, as he welcomed the educators. But, he added, “There’s a time and place for it.”
“Especially if you go to the mainland, you start talking like that, they’ll think you’re crazy,” he said, drawing laughter.
Event organizers said Pidgin is spoken — to one degree or another — by roughly 500,000 people in the state. It was counted for the first time in 2015 by the U.S. Census Bureau as an official language in Hawaii.
With its roots as a shared language among workers in Hawaii’s sugar plantations, Pidgin also reflects a blend of cultures that began calling Hawaii home in the late 1800s and early 1900s, through the arrivals of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Portuguese immigrants.
Known also as Hawaiian Creole English, Pidgin’s use in the classroom has been hotly debated. It has carried a negative perception due to its syntax and unique grammatical structure, Wednesday’s speakers noted, but it’s rooted in Hawaii’s history and culture.
Wednesday’s summit was intended to start “a more substantial dialogue about the role of Pidgin in education” while helping teachers learn how to use Pidgin as a resource, according to the event’s main organizer, Christina Higgins, associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at UH Manoa.
Higgins referred to the event as “pro-Pidgin.”
“There has been more interest and enthusiasm (in the language) among people in the (state) Department of Education,” she said. “There’s a clear sense people have warmed up to it. A lot of teachers teach in the medium of Pidgin.”
Those in attendance said the extent Pidgin is allowed in the classroom varies from school to school. The Hawaii Board of Education’s effort in 1987 to allow only standard English in schools failed after it generated a backlash from educators, parents and community groups.
At Farrington High, students speak 20 languages other than English, including Tongan, Chuukese and Samoan. When it comes to finding a shared vocabulary, even the simple Pidgin phrase, “Howzit,” can reach across the language divide, said 17-year-old senior Sharmaine Pineda.
The language also occupies a place in Hawaii’s legal history. In 1987, two local employees for the National Weather Service filed a federal lawsuit against the agency, alleging they were discriminated against by being denied promotions based on their Pidgin-influenced pronunciation in submitted audiotape. The court ruled against them and they didn’t appeal.
At Farrington, Carganilla said while standard English is encouraged in the classroom, Pidgin can nonetheless be an invaluable tool when discussing with parents student disciplinary matters or other issues.
“The common dialect is Pidgin. It’s a way to communicate with them,” Carganilla said.
Among the misconceptions about Pidgin, said Darrell H.Y. Lum, a panel speaker and the co-founder of Bamboo Ridge Press, is that it is “broken English” or a “language of the stupid.”
“I wrestle a bit when people say there’s a time and place for Pidgin,” said the retired editor and author. “Pidgin is (a language) that is useful, functional, that we can have fun with. It acknowledges a culture that is so built on relationships, negotiation and acceptance — more so, than you would say, English. It’s original.”
Lum noted that Pidgin can be considered a “language of resistance” given its plantation origins.
Wednesday’s summit featured a plethora of Pidgin phrases and imagery. Organizers wore T-shirts that bore the phrase, “Get Pidgin?” Books about Pidgin were on display (including a 2000 Pidgin translation of The New Testament, called “Da Jesus Book.”)
During one interactive game, participants were quizzed on other aspects of Pidgin. “Which one dey was growing on da planatation wen Pidgin wen start?” (Answer: sugarcane). What “Da kine can mean” among the following: “whatchamacallit,” “pregnant” or “weird” (Answer: all of the above).
Pidgin author and playwright Lee Tonouchi said he was interested by the range of perspectives expressed at the event. The author, a former instructor of Pidgin Literature at Hawaii Pacific University, recounted how he recently submitted written testimony as a Pidgin expert in a trademark lawsuit between a mainland company and a local company.
His testimony was written entirely in Pidgin and accepted by the court. The side for which he submitted the testimony recently won, he said.
Conventional wisdom says “a court of law is somewhere you should not use Pidgin,” he noted. But he feels he needs to “challenge those beliefs” as a Pidgin advocate and author.
Doreen Tabe, who works as a librarian at Waimalu Elementary, said she personally feels the language is dying among youths, based on her observations. Tabe grew up in Hawaii, but also lived in California and attended school in Chicago.
She said using Pidgin on the mainland was something “I always tried to hide, I was really self-conscious about it,” she recalled.
Here, “It’s a celebration of the culture. It’s nice to see people are celebrating it. It’s something that’s special about Hawaii,” she said.