No, you lo-lo, not pigeon. Pidgin. You know, da kine. Mo betta. Howzit. Eh.
Back in March, I went to the screening of a documentary called Pidgin: The Voice of Hawaii in HPU’s Warmer Auditorium. Produced by Marlene Booth and Kanalu Young, this documentary covers the history of Pidgin in Hawaii from its creation during the plantation era to its current manifestation in the islands today. It also includes commentary from a number of local, native Pidgin speakers who all view Pidgin as a valid and valuable language. The screening was then followed by a Q&A session with Booth, Lee “Da Pidgin Guerilla” Tonouchi, and a few members of Da Pidgin Coup, a reading by Tonouchi of one of his poems, and a short language lesson with Pidign language professor Kent Sakoda.
Graphic from Pidgin To Da Max by Kent Sakata
I thought that the film was really interesting because although I’ve been around Pidgin my whole life, I’ve never learned about its history and I’ve never had the opportunity to hear what native speakers thought about it as a language. I really liked that Booth and Young chose to use the story about Da Jesus Book as the intro for the film because, in retrospect, its creation serves as a great example of the argument that people like Tonouchi and Kent Sakoda are trying to make with their work as Pidgin advocates, this argument being that Pidgin is a language that can convey complex ideas and emotions in the same manner as Standard English. I also liked that the selection of interviewees was fairly diverse; in addition to hearing the thoughts and opinions of scholars like Booth, Young and Sakoda, viewers are also presented with testimony and commentary from second-generation Pidgin speakers, creative writers and even from a group of local teenagers. I thought that this was a great way of presenting Pidgin, being that it doesn’t pigeonhole (pun intended) Pidgin or Pidgin speakers into any one social, economical or political category.
I can’t remember when, but at one point during the Q&A (or maybe after his reading) Tonouchi asked us what we thought could be done to make Pidgin more prestigious in the Western world, and I answered by suggesting that part of the reason why Pidgin isn’t taken seriously is because it is always used comically in the media, and that a shift away from comedy and into more serious, dramatic acting might help to break Pidgin’s stereotype. Although I felt that this was a good answer at the time, I realized shortly after that my suggestion still subordinated Pidgin, being that it reinforced the notion that Western values are better or more right than Pidgin values. In other words, proving that Pidgin is able to handle dramatic acting is most comparable to Wood’s second rhetorical situation. In order for Pidgin to truly be seen as a valuable and able language, it needs to be proven as such in its own unique context; advocates would have to operate within the third rhetorical situation, which recognizes differences between cultures but is not concerned with power structures between them.
The last activity of this event was Sakoda’s grammar lesson, in which he went over the basics of pronunciation, negation and word stress in Pidgin. Like Hawaiian, Pidgin was also at one point banned in schools. It was seen as “broken English,” and it was deemed to not have a place in polite or educated society. Sakoda, who is a member of Da Pidgin Coup – a Pidgin advocacy group that strives to rid Pidign of its negative stigma and prove that it is a language just as Standard English is a language – uses materials like the ones he handed out during his lesson in his Pidgin language class here at HPU. The purpose of this class, he says, is to provide further evidence of Pidgin’s existence as an actual language, one that can be deconstructed, systematized and studied.
In watching this documentary, I could see quite a few similarities between the way Pidgin speakers are viewed in today’s society and the way the Hawaiians were viewed in the 19th and 20th centuries by the Europeans and Americans. For instance, the assumption that speaking Pidgin is indicative of a low socio-economical status is somewhat of an echo of Mark Twain’s passage about the Hawaiians’ “inbred” characteristics. In both cases, the lifestyles of each culture were seen by outsiders as indicators of each culture’s intelligence or forwardness. Also, the banning of the use of Hawaiian (in the 19th century) and Pidgin (in the late 20th century) in schools indicate that neither language was seen as being capable of conveying complex or abstract ideas, even though the Bible was one of the first texts available in Hawaiian and is now available in Pidgin. Because of these parallels, it may be a good idea for Pidgin advocates and scholars to reach out to those of the Native Hawaiian culture for help and advice, as the Hawaiian revival movement still seems to be going strong.