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Where EAST meets the Northwest


PIDGIN PRIDE. Comedian Andy Bumatai gestures during an interview in Mililani, Hawai段. News reports about census data showing the number of Pidgin speakers in Hawai段 have helped spark a sense of pride among those who speak the language in their homes. Pidgin is a mix of the languages spoken by Hawai段an, Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and other workers who toiled in the sugar plantations in Hawai段. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

From The Asian Reporter, V26, #6 (March 21, 2016), page 8.

Data inspires pride for Pidgin, a Hawai段 language

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher

The Associated Press

MILILANI, Hawai段 When Hawai段 comedian Andy Bumatai was searching for a new way to attract the attention of audiences on the internet, his wife suggested he find inspiration in something from the old days: Pidgin, the language of his youth.

Her idea came after a flurry of news reports about how census data included a tally of people in the islands who said they spoke Pidgin, a mix of the languages spoken by Hawai段an, Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and other workers who toiled in the state痴 sugar plantations.

Bumatai put up some videos online doing his routines in Pidgin, and one with English subtitles got 1.5 million views. He said his videos resonated with those who grew up in Hawai段 and were homesick for the sounds of the language.

It is "more than a language. It痴 become a lexicon that congeals the people who are from Hawai段," he said.

The news reports last fall helped spark a sense of pride among those who speak the language in their homes and among friends, and a discussion about its use and the stigma that limits its wider acceptance in the state.

There are other pidgins in other parts of the world, including in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. Pidgin in Hawai段, or Hawai段 Creole English, has long been considered a substandard form of English. Some saw the census numbers as recognition for the language, though the U.S. Census isn稚 in the business of recognizing languages. Census officials have been counting Pidgin since 1990.

Christine Gambino, a survey statistician at the agency, said with more people knowing that it痴 acceptable to write down Pidgin on the federal questionnaires, future data will be more reflective of an accurate number of speakers. Many who speak Pidgin believe there are far more speakers than the 1,600 counted in the census surveys.

While Pidgin may sound like mixed-up English because English words provide a large portion of Pidgin vocabulary, it has its own grammar and sound system, said Kent Sakoda, who teaches a course about Pidgin at the University of Hawai段.

Native Hawai段ans, Chinese, and Portuguese had the most influence on Pidgin structure because they were the earliest plantation laborers. Pidgin borrows phrases from various other languages. "The house is big" in Pidgin, for example, is "big, da house," which borrows from Hawai段an sentence structure.

One of Cantonese痴 influences is evident in the Pidgin word "get," which means both "has" and "have," as well as both "there is" and "there are." 荘Para," which means "for" in Portuguese, influenced how Pidgin speakers use "for" in places where English uses "to."

Pidgin has flourished as the voice of Hawai段 long after the end of the plantation era.

"You池e ranked as to how local you are with how much you understand and are able to speak," Bumatai said.

Television station Hawai段 News Now posted to Facebook a mock traffic report in Pidgin by reporter Lacy Deniz. Hawai段 viewers were enthusiastic, while some outside the state thought it made her sound uneducated, she said.

In "Kapakahi Traffic," Deniz refers to a stalled motorist as "uncle" and roadside assistance workers as "braddahs." Her intonation is characteristically Pidgin, her grammar and vocabulary accurate: "We goin have choke students out on da roadway tryin fo get to school, makin their classes ... It痴 gonna be supa busy."

"We knew that majority people here in Hawai段, it痴 something they connect to," she said.

Colbert Matsumoto, chairman of Island Insurance, Hawai段痴 largest locally owned insurance company, said he doesn稚 always speak Pidgin in the "downtown circle" in which he operates. Sometimes he lets himself fall into the ease of Pidgin.

"I always thought that Pidgin was something of value," said Matsumoto, who grew up on Lanai, which can feel a world away from downtown Honolulu. "It made me feel grounded."

Mike McCartney, chief of staff for governor David Ige, said he痴 proud of his ability to speak Pidgin.

"To me it痴 part of who we are as a people, place, and culture," said McCartney, whose father was an English teacher and would correct him when he spoke Pidgin. McCartney said now he can turn Pidgin on and off fluidly, as many others do.

Former Hawai段 governor Ben Cayetano worries about those who can稚 switch back and forth.

"Hawai段 kids are at a distinct disadvantage if they can稚 speak standard English," he said. "My first year in college on the mainland, I hardly said anything in class ... I was concerned about whether my English would be good enough."

The stigma against speaking Pidgin is strong, despite moments of pride, said Lee Tonouchi, an author and activist who calls himself the "Da Pidgin Guerrilla." He makes it a point to only speak Pidgin.

To him, until the state university system starts offering degrees in Pidgin or if Pidgin joins Hawai段an and English as the state痴 official languages, the language will never gain any true respect.

"I tink still get stigma," he said. "For me, I tink da goal always goin be fo Pidgin to get institutionalized recognitions."

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