‘I spoke pidgin with a vengeance’

When I’m told that I speak English almost like a native speaker, I reply, “But you should hear my pidgin. It is impeccable.”

For those of you who are grappling with Hawaii’s pidgin (and please, not pigeon, OK?), this is the local lilt that you hear all around the islands. It developed on the plantations in the 1800s when workers, except for the Portuguese, were recruited from Asia. In order to communicate among themselves and the bosses, the immigrants developed their own language.


For a long time, pidgin was associated with plantation families, but today, most of us who grew up here speak it.

When I lived in Seattle, I used to lunch regularly with some classmates from Hilo High. What fun it was to chow and wala‘au about old days and old friends in good ol’ Hilo, Hawaii. Of course, whenever I’m around other islanders, my tendency is to slide into pidgin. It feels weird to say, “This is so delicious!” Instead, I must say, “Ho, some ‘ono!”

My friends always smiled at my local leap, and finally, after many lunches, asked, “How come your pidgin is so much better than ours?”

Without missing a forkful, I answered, “Because I went to English standard school.”

“But you went to Riverside,” they said.

“Riverside Elementary used to be English standard,” and not only were they unaware, they didn’t even know about English standard schools!

So I gave them the short version of a long story, how after U.S. annexation there were parents who didn’t want their children to go to school with pidgin-speaking kids. In the 1920s, after much lobbying, the Department of Public Instruction in Hawaii set up English standard schools around the islands: Makaweli Annex on Kaua‘i, Roosevelt in Honolulu, Holomua on Molokai, Kaunoa on Maui and Riverside in Hilo.

These were still public schools, but students had to pass a test to get into English standard. And testers didn’t care what we knew, only how we sounded — no dat for that, no birfday for birthday, no shoeses for shoes, etc.

Yes, it was discrimination and segregation, and I know you’re shocked … SHOCKED (go ahead and Google it)!

My friends were not only shocked but confused. Now they wanted to know why my pidgin is so good if I went to English standard school?

I sighed heavily. When you attend a haole school but live in a local neighborhood, you betta not forget how fo‘ say dat, birfday and shoeses, or else nobody goin play wit you. But I must have known this early on, because outside of school (and my mother’s earshot), I spoke pidgin with a vengeance.

Across the street from Riverside was another public elementary school, Hilo Union. Our playgrounds were separated by Waianuenue Avenue, and we shared the same recess hour, during which Union School students often taunted us: Riverside, haolefied!

For local kids who somehow managed to pass the oral test for standard school, those were fighting words and in defense, we yelled back, “Union School, onion school!” Take dat you buggahs!

But now that I think about it, what does it say about English standard schools if onion was the best jeer we could come up with …whereas haolefied? Wow!

Pidgin is neither a dialect nor a patois. It’s a language, because after several generations of speakers, there are rules of grammar, syntax and pronunciation. It is difficult to learn and often called broken English, misleading some into thinking that in order to speak pidgin, all they have to do is mangle the English language in any kine way.

But be careful, because we will give you stink eye and suppress the urge to buss you up. Due to its socio-political-economic-roots, it sounds like mockery when spoken incorrectly by a nonlocal tongue.

Plantations are gone, but for many islanders, pidgin is our first language and shows that we have deep roots in these islands. So when people remark on my almost native-like English, then ask why I still speak pidgin, my answer is, “Because I can.”


Mahalo, Riverside (by 1960, English standard schools in the islands had been dismantled.)

Rochelle delaCruz was born in Hilo, graduated from Hilo High School, then left to go to college. After teaching for 30 years in Seattle, Wash., she retired and returned home to Hawaii. Rochelle welcomes your comments at rainysideview@gmail.com. Her column appears the second and fourth Monday of each month.

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