The United States Of Accents: Hawaii English And Pidgin

In this installment, we talk about how English came to the 50th state and how Pidgin became central to the identity of Hawaii.
Hawaii English represented by the coast of Hawaii shot from a helicopter.

As far as American accents go, Hawaii is an outlier. For one, it’s the youngest state, only becoming officially part of the United States on August 21, 1959. The interchange between the Kingdom of Hawaii and the United States goes further back than that, though. It became a U.S. territory in 1898 and has an even longer trade history. But perhaps more than any other state, the accent of Hawaii reflects the intermingling of American English and the local language.

On a brief terminological note before we dive in, “Hawaiians” in this article refer only to the native people of Hawaii. Hawaiian is also the name of the language originally spoken on the islands, though there are only about 2,000 native speakers left. Everyone who lives on the island who is non-Hawaiian will be referred to as Hawaii residents.

How Did English Get To Hawaii?

Before the 18th century, Hawaii was home only to Hawaiians, and the only language there was Hawaiian. Hawaiian is a Polynesian language, along with Samoan or Māori, and it descends from the Austronesian language group. If traced back far enough, many of the languages of the Pacific seem to have originated from a proto-language that was spoken on the island that is now Taiwan. The ancestor language of Hawaiian first arrived when voyagers from the Marquesas Islands settled the archipelago around 400 C.E. They lived in total seclusion until the islands were discovered by Europeans in 1778, when explorer James Cook landed on the archipelago he called “Owhyhee.”

Once Hawaii was found by the Europeans, it became a popular spot to stop during long voyages. The Pacific Ocean is huge, and Hawaii provided a convenient place to rest and refuel along the way. The Kingdom of Hawaii became a major point for traders from Asia and North America, and so a lot of languages passed through. And when sugarcane plantations began to open in 1835, people from all over the world arrived to work at them.

As the century progressed, one language began to dominate Hawaii: English. That’s probably not much of a surprise. English’s first foothold on the islands was through Christian missionaries, who came to the island in 1820. The missionaries developed written Hawaiian in order to translate the Bible, which was useful in preserving the language, but eventually they started pushing English on the locals. When Queen Kaahumanu accepted Christianity in 1825 and started enforcing it throughout the Kingdom of Hawaii, English was on its way to becoming the major language of the island.

The other factor leading to the dominance of English in Hawaii was a growing relationship with the United States. Because the United States was the closest country to Hawaii, a number of treaties were signed between the two in the 19th century to ensure easy trade and travel between them. To many Hawaiians’ chagrin, the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 paved the way to the eventual annexation of the Hawaiian islands, and also led to an increase in English-language schools there. By the time Hawaii became a state, English was the lingua franca.

The Formation Of Hawaiian Pidgin

English did not become the primary language of Hawaii overnight. First, the people from all around the world working on the sugarcane plantation needed to create a pidgin to communicate. A pidgin is a rudimentary language created by two groups who don’t speak the same language. By taking words and grammar from the two individual languages, this new language — the pidgin — allows these groups to communicate. In Hawaii, it wasn’t just two groups colliding, however. When the plantation opened, a pidgin formed that combined features of Hawaiian, Cantonese, Portuguese, Japanese and Filipino languages.

At the root of Pidgin Hawaiian was the Hawaiian language, but as English rose to prominence that changed. Slowly, it became more and more influenced by English. It still has a number of features of other languages, but the pidgin sounded pretty American by the end of the 19th century.

While Pidgin Hawaiian has the word “pidgin” in its name, it is actually not a pidgin anymore. A pidgin technically doesn’t have any native speakers; it’s only spoken between two groups that don’t speak the same language. When people start speaking a pidgin natively, it becomes more complex, and it is then called a creole. For that reason, it is better called Hawaiian Creole English, but the word “pidgin” has stuck. In Hawaii, it’s simply called Pidgin.

While Pidgin is heavily influenced by English, the two are not completely mutually intelligible. Pidgin is its own language, with its own speakers, though the numbers on the size of the community are a bit rough. Various estimates have put it at 1,600 and 600,000, which obviously leaves a big gap. Part of the reason for this gap is that some people argue that Pidgin shouldn’t be treated as its own language. It’s highly stigmatized because English is considered “more correct” and better for career prospects. People may be slightly reticent to say they speak Pidgin at home, even if they do.

The reality, according to some researchers, is that most Hawaii residents code-switch between English and Pidgin. Someone might speak English at work, but Pidgin among their friends, or perhaps speak a little of both at the same time. Despite being stigmatized, Pidgin is an important part of Hawaii identity. To speak it is to show that someone is truly a Hawaii resident.

Speaking Hawaii English

As mentioned above, Pidgin and Hawaii English are two separate entities, but it’s somewhat difficult to discuss them separately. A number of linguistic features in Pidgin are also present to a lesser extent in Hawaii English. For example, the vowels of the two are similar, but Pidgin has fewer vowels overall. A Pidgin speaker pronounces the vowels of “kit” and “fleece” both kind of like the one in “fleece,” whereas a Hawaii English speaker separates them. Like with most American accents, the vowel system is the defining feature of Hawaii English, but it is so subtle and complex that it can be hard to notice. And when people code-switch between Pidgin and Hawaii English, they can completely change the way they sound.

Some of the most noticeable sounds of Hawaii English are the consonants. In Pidgin, there are four major features that set it apart from English:

  • The “r”s are generally dropped because the “r” sound did not exist in Hawaiian.
  • The “th” sound is not pronounced in Pidgin, so “the” will be pronounced more like “da” and “with” would be pronounced like “wit.”
  • When there are a few consonants in a row, the sounds will change. The “str” combination is most noticeable, with the word “street” being pronounced like sh-chreet. Also, the word “three” would be pronounced like tree.
  • Pidgin has a glottal stop taken from Hawaiian, which English does not have. The closest English has is the sound between the vowels in “uh-uh.” The glottal stop shows up in many Pidgin words, like in the pronunciation of “Hawaii,” which is hah-WAH-ee. Properly stylized, the state is spelled Hawai‘i, and there is a glottal stop represented by the ‘.

For Pidgin speakers, these features are pretty much non-negotiable. They are used very, very often. And for Hawaii English speakers, they are used, but they are used far less. To oversimplify things slightly, the accent of Hawaii is on a spectrum from Hawaiian to General American, with Pidgin speakers somewhere in the middle and Hawaii English closer to the General American side. Hawaii residents will slide along this spectrum, depending on what they want to sound like. For example, the man in the video above may sound like he’s speaking General American, but he mentions that he decided not to go “full Pidgin” for the video.

Because of the mix of languages, Hawaii is also home to a rich slang that comes from various languages. There are Hawaiian ethnicity terms, like “hapa” meaning “mixed race” and “haole” referring to (usually white) foreigners. One of the most popular Pidgin phrases is “da kine,” which is a stand-in for pretty much any other term, kind of like “jawn” in Philadelphia. Then there’s “brah,” which is a term of address adapted from brother, though that’s now used far beyond Hawaii. And while it’s not a spoken word, the shaka symbol — you can see it in the emoji 🤙 — is widely used as a way of saying “howzit?” (it’s also the “hang ten” symbol when it’s used in California). The slang of Hawaii is constantly changing and evolving as terms move back and forth between Pidgin and English, which keeps the lexical world of Hawaii in flux.

As always with accents, it’s important to remember that Hawaii is far from a monolith. Depending on where a person lives, the people they hang out with and their social class, the accent will be different. In addition to that, young people are constantly changing the language of Hawaii. The pidgin spoken by the workers of the 18th century would likely have very little in common with the Pidgin language spoken on the island today.

Hawaii is the only officially bilingual state, embracing both Hawaiian and English, so it is only fitting that the state’s accent reflects both. The way someone talks is an important marker of identity, and that is certainly true for the people of Hawaii.

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