The malihini was fresh off the plane, on a new job in exotic Honolulu. One step, he thought, from getting a foreign correspondents job. Little did he know Hawaii would be his home for the rest of his life. Everything about living on Oahu was intriguing. Especially what he heard on streets not populated by mostly white tourists.
"I'd like to learn pidgin," he told an island-born colleague.
"Which pidgin," he replied with a grin. "There's Hawaiian pidgin, Filipino pidgin, Chinese pidgin, Japanese pidgin, haole pidgin." He paused for effect. "And each of them are different on different islands." The malihini was nonplussed.
"Besides," the fellow ink-stained wretch added, "there aren't any books to study. Even if there were, you don't learn pidgin, you absorb it." It would be decades before the comic "Pidgin To Da Max" was published by Pat Sasaki, Ken Sasaki and Douglas Simonson.
He let the urge to speak the local patois simmer. In the meantime, he picked up Hawaiian words here and there. He saw "kokua" printed on refuse cans. He learned it meant help, not trash. He was also told the word kama'aina could be applied to anyone who had spent at least seven years in the islands. Kanaka was a pejorative and never to be used in the newspaper. Kapu, he was told, meant the same as tabu but usually indicated keep out.
It was all Greek to the malihini who associated mostly with transplanted haole. Some 40 years later, Hawaiian is used correctly, or not at all. Kama'aina means someone knowledgeable about a given area - the opposite of a newcomer (malihini). In the strictest sense, even Hawaiians can be malihini once outside the area where they spent their small-kid time.
In the days before the rise of Hawaiian language schools and the resurgence of Hawaiian culture, pidgin was the native island tongue. Linguists say pidgin is really a creole, a blending of languages. It was born on the plantations when the luna (boss) spoke English and the workers used something else. Even the bosses who learned Hawaiian used the various forms of pidgin when dealing with immigrant field hands.
An aside: The dwindling number of Hawaiians (kanaka o Hawaii or kanaka maoli or keiki o ka 'aina) were thought to be lazy. Truth was, they didn't see any need to acquire money, a foreign concept. They could exist nicely by using the age-old culture of subsistence farming and fishing. It was hard, but it was the work that made sense to them.
Back to pidgin.
"What? Boddah you?" - a sort of universal challenge. "No stay hu hu" - no need to get angry. "Howzit?" - a corruption of the traditional Hawaiian greeting "pehea 'oe" or how are you? "I stay, staying" - I'm getting along OK. Doing the same ol' same ol'. "When you go holoholo?" - when are you going to take that trip? "Bumbye," - no set date. I'll get to it eventually. "So, like grinds?" - you hungry?
The lilt, a kind of rising inflection that can't be written, is as important as the words and not something that can be learned except by years of listening to it.
In the early 1970s, I shared an office with a malihini haole insurance representative. He was distressed about his inability to sell policies to locals. I suggested he pretend I was local. Granted, given my tenure and island language skills, pretending I was a local took more than a little imagination.
He began his pitch, using what he thought was pidgin. And there was the problem. A little advice. No one objects to a haole sounding like a haole. Using lame pidgin sounds patronizing even to my ears.
There have been times when those ears were confounded by pidgin, particularly when cloaked in a heavy accent. I stumbled on a way to bridge the language gap. "E kala mai, brah" - please excuse me, brother. "Got haole ears, yeah?" That usually gets a laugh and the individual will attempt to communicate with the ear-challenged dummy.
It took decades of listening before I heard some sort of pidgin coming out of my mouth. It's usually triggered by hearing the lilt. Most of the time, it's not true pidgin, just abbreviated sentence structure with the lilt. "You pau hana?" - are you done working for the day? "Yeah. Lots pilikia (trouble). Stay really tired, yeah?"
Not much pidgin around these days. Probably too much listening to haole talk. "Boddah you?"
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.