Kamehameha | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Photo via Atlas Obscure

What language do modern Hawaiians speak? The answer, as Dan Nosowitz of Atlas Obscura points out, is not nearly as simple as you might think. There are several languages co-existing on the Hawaiian islands: Hawaiian, the Polynesian language of the original Hawaiians that’s experienced a renaissance of late; English, brought to the archipelago by Americans; the various languages brought by immigrant workers, including Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese, and Spanish; and something which is now called Hawaiian Pidgin.

A pidgin, which is not capitalized, is a form of communication that arises when multiple groups of people need to talk with each other but do not have a language in common, and for whatever reason choose not to, or are not able to, teach each other their native languages. They are not considered full languages, in that they generally have limited and simplified grammar and vocabulary.

The majority of pidgins tend to mine the vocabulary of the ruling class’s language for words. In Hawaii, as well as in the Caribbean and other places, that language was English. In Hawaii, immigrants from Japan, the Philippines, Korea, and China all came to work the plantations, but their only option for communication was to create an English pidgin. They did so using English words the workers heard from their bosses. English is the “lexifier” in this case, meaning English lends the words to the pidgin. So this form of pidgin would be “English-lexified.”

Pidgins often have a limited lifespan. Maybe the isolated groups figure out a way to teach each other their native languages, or they just learn the lexifier language. A pidgin is, by definition, not a primary form of communication; pidgins are tools, but they’re sort of blunt tools, not capable of the kind of complexity that all humans need to communicate. But sometimes something weird happens: the pidgin begins to grow. The children of the immigrants who created the pidgin add to it. In a generation or two, the pidgin isn’t a tool alongside a native language: it is the native language. And at that point, it’s called a creole.

When a pidgin Becomes a Creole

A creole has to be more precise and more complex. By the 1920s, Hawaiian pidgin was a creole, but the name, despite its inaccuracy, has stuck. Today it’s capitalized, which goes a little way to indicate that Hawaiian Pidgin is more than a standard pidgin. What it is is a full language.

Hawaiian Pidgin today is made up of largely English-derived words, with some words from the various languages of the Hawaiian immigrants and the native Hawaiians, in a structure that’s sort of like English, sort of like other creoles, and contains some syntax from various Asian languages. It is not really mutually intelligible with English; sometimes an English speaker might understand enough words to kind of get the gist of a Hawaiian Pidgin sentence, but that’s true of, say, a native Spanish speaker listening to Italian, too. What makes a creole so confounding is that many of the words may have originated from another language, but have taken on totally new or different meanings. Even if, as an English speaker, you think you recognize and understand a Hawaiian Pidgin word, you might not really be getting it.

Da Kine

Da Kine sticker – Photo via Atlas Obscure

Da kine is a great example of one of these words. It originally comes from the English “the kind,” possibly relating to the meaning of that English word as “kind of.” But there are not that many instances where you can replace da kine with “the kind” and have any idea what a Hawaiian Pidgin speaker is saying.

The most popular use of da kine is as a stand-in for another word, kind of like “whatchamacallit.” But there’s an added social meaning to that use of da kine. When people use da kine, the expectation is that the other person will be able to recover what is meant. The implication is that you know each other well enough that the person using da kine will not have to explain it. There’s an intimacy to the use of da kine that you don’t really get from “whatchamacallit.”

That intimacy also comes with a darker side. “She’s so da kine” could mean, in the right context, something negative: she’s mean, she talks too much, etc. When da kine is used as an adjective like that, the meaning can often veer negative, but there’s a reason for that: If it’s negative, you don’t want to say it. So da kine is sort of your interpretation, and if you get called on it, well, you didn’t say it!

There are plenty of circumstances in which using da kine as a stand-in isn’t necessarily because you’ve forgotten what you want to say. Instead, it’s because you don’t want to say what you have to say. Here’s another: “Don’t get sloppy with me, before I da kine you.” What does that actually mean? Well, nothing good, but maybe you don’t want to go on the record making a specific threat. So pull out the trusty da kine.

This isn’t to say that da kine is always negative, nor that it always has to have “da” in front of it. You could describe someone as “a smart kine people,” or tell your kid to “make sure you da kine before we go” (referring to doing a chore), or explain where someone went by saying “he wen da kine dem” (referring to going with somebody’s family, or friends, or whatever makes the most sense in context). Sometimes you can get clues: the word “stay,” in Hawaiian Pidgin, indicates an ongoing action. If you say “I stay eat lunch,” that means, basically, “I am eating lunch,” with no need for the -ing ending that English uses. If you talk about a woman, and you say she’s “stay da kine,” that often means that the woman is pregnant.

Pidgin or Dialect?

Las Vegas | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Photo: Wikipedia

Where things get tricky with Hawaiian Pidgin is figuring out what even is Pidgin and what’s more like a dialect of English. With the continued presence of native English speakers—hard to avoid given that Hawaii is an American state—the line between Pidgin and English can sometimes be blurred, or not fully understood.

Take the word “never.” In English, if you were to say “I never go to Las Vegas,” that would be interpreted as meaning “at no point in the past or future do I go to Las Vegas.” There’s a permanence to the English meaning of “never.” In Hawaiian, not so much. In Pidgin, it’s just a past negative, meaning ‘didn’t.’ So, it could mean ‘this year I didn’t go to Vegas.’ In Pidgin, that use of the word “never”—spelled “nevah”—would often be followed by a time period to clarify that. “I nevah go Las Vegas this year,” say. Someone with a keen ear might pick out the differences in meaning between the English “never” and the Pidgin “nevah,” but even the speaker may not realize he or she is speaking one rather than the other. Pidgin’s coexistence with English makes it tricky to tell if someone is bilingual; the overlap between Hawaiian Pidgin and Hawaiian English is fluid and ever-changing. It’s not as simple as switching from Spanish to English.

An Unclear Future

There is a perception of all pidgins that they are broken or incorrect versions of a language. That’s not usually too much of a problem since a pidgin is a supplementary tool. But in Hawaii, where Hawaiian Pidgin is not actually a pidgin but a native language, the perception that this language is a bad form of English is a dangerous one. There’s a stigma attached to it, so there’s a social or educational force to lose the Pidgin and to speak so-called ‘better English.’

Thanks to those forces and the continual presence of English, Hawaiian Pidgin is becoming more English-like. But it won’t necessarily stay that way. There are plenty of creoles and even English dialects that begin at some point to further extricate themselves from the lexifier language. This has happened, to some extent and in some communities, with AAVE, better known as Black English Vernacular.

Maybe speakers of Hawaiian Pidgin won’t want to be associated with mainland American English, preferring to use their language as an identity marker of themselves as Hawaiian. If that was to happen, the trend could reverse: Pidgin could begin to lose some of its similarities to English and adopt words from, say, Polynesian Hawaiian. Whether or not that happens, though, da kine isn’t going anywhere.

For the full post, check out Atlas Obscura.