pidgin post

When I was 14 years old, I lived in Hawaii for a few months. My mother was in a relationship with a man who lived in Honolulu, and in December of 1985, she decided we should all move there: my mother, my sister and me. (Perhaps was in part in response to the impending threat of another bitter Colorado winter.)

While I have moved many times in my life, this move was among the most dramatic.

My mother’s boyfriend, who we’ll call C, had a condo in Honolulu, right around Waikiki, in the shadow of Diamond Head. It was about as different a setting as you could get from the antique log house we’d been renting in Colorado. (Though that house too was in the shadow of a mountainous landmark, being in Manitou Springs, at the foot of Pike’s Peak.) We arrived there a couple of days before Christmas, leaving the biting cold and blizzards behind us for beaches and balmy weather. There was also much greenery, contrasting vividly with the white and grey we’d flown away from, and there were palm trees around town wrapped in red ribbon to resemble candy canes, an almost surreal reminder that the season had not changed. Aside from the transition in climate and surroundings, we went through a bit of culture shock, too. While Hawaii is a state, the 50th to join the union, back in 1959, it is also a place of multiple cultural heritages. European and mainstream American culture are blended with various Asian and Pacific island cultures, including a strong steak of indigenous Polynesian cultures. This is reflected in many of the customs and traditions practiced by those who call Hawaii home: food, clothing and music, for a start. And also language.

One of the first people we met in Honolulu was a young neighbor of C’s. I don’t remember how old he was, exactly. Maybe 13 or so. Close to my age, definitely younger than my sister’s advanced 16 years. I’m sad to say that I no longer remember his name (though I could probably unearth it), but I do vividly remember some of the conversations we had with him. He sort of took us under his wing, these 2 clueless haolie girls fresh off the mainland. While he spoke in English, with the local accent, he’d also sometimes demonstrate for us another type of speech. He referred to it as “pigeon.” At one point, I remember him warning us that if we ran into groups of local teens speaking pigeon, we should keep our distance. Such kids were often looking for trouble, our new friend told us.

It wasn’t till years later, at some point in my formal linguistics education, that I learned that what he’d really been saying was “pidgin,” not “pigeon.” A pidgin is a contact language, meaning a sort of blend of two or more languages, and used to facilitate communication between groups of speakers of different native languages. The pidgin in Hawaii developed from contact between speakers of English and Hawaiian, as well as settlers who were native speakers of Cantonese, Japanese, Portuguese and Filipino languages. The resulting mix sounds, to Mainlander ears, a bit like a foreign language with a few recognizable English words thrown in.

And what I learned even later was that what is colloquially known as Pidgin in Hawaii is no longer technically a pidgin, but a creole. A creole is also a type of contact language. However, a pidgin is generally an “initial” contact language. That is to say, it develops at an earlier stage in the contact between populations. Sometimes, a pidgin will develop into a creole. What this means is that both the language and the population have achieved the stability of having native speakers of that language. Not all pidgins turn into creoles, but it does seem that all creoles developed out of pidgins. (What is known in Hawaii as Pidgin is more formally known as Hawaiian Creole English, by the way. But that’s just a technical term, really, as far as I’m concerned. Those in the know, the locals, know that this language they speak is Pidgin.)

Pidgins, creoles and other contact languages are a fascinating and complex area of study in linguistics.¹ Sociolinguists, in particular, have been interested in their development and use in social context. There are many creoles spoken around the world, such as Haitian Creole (kreyòl ayisyen), which is “based” on French, or Cape Verdian Creole (Crioulo caboverdiano), which is “based” on Portuguese. I won’t get into all the details at this point, but I do feel I should make one point, and explain my “scare quotes.” Many people have assumed, when hearing a creole, that speakers are incompetent users of the (usually European) language from which it takes much of its vocabulary. Eg., that Kreyol is just “broken” or simplified, French. However, creoles are far more complex than this, and often the syntax² is based on an unrelated language, such as an African language. So knowing French will not enable you to produce a sentence in Haitian Creole, even though it may enable you to understand much of the vocabulary. This misunderstanding has historically led to discrimination against native speakers of creoles, especially in the area such as education and employment, based on the assumption that the speakers were merely poor speakers of, for example, French.

So there we have it. My pidgin post. Which is really, as it turns out, mostly about creoles. Sorry about the lack of respectable references. I meant to dig up my sociolinguistics textbook, but it’s managed to get itself buried in the recesses of our home. And seeing as it’s getting late, I should be getting to bed. But those of you who know this stuff better than I do, feel free to jump in and elaborate.

¹ Of course, I’m prone to call just about every aspect of language fascinating and complex. But pidgins and creoles are way cool!

² Syntax, in case you haven’t been subjected to it, is the backbone of the word order and grammatical rules of a language.

9 thoughts on “pidgin post

  1. Don’t forget Kriol, of course, the first language of some 30,000 Australian aborigines.

    I remember recently, a family friend – an otherwise very intelligent and thoughtful man – and I were discussing my work. We started talking about Kriol, and he asked, without a skerrick of euphemy, if Kriol wasn’t just a “bastardised” version of Englsh.

    Arrrghh! Bastardised?! You don’t get much more dismissive than that.

  2. Jangari-
    I actually hadn’t been familiar with Kriol, so I’m glad you mentioned it. And ugh, I know what you mean about the dismissiveness. It’s much like the attitude many have to non-mainstream dialects of English here in the U.S.

    Of course, it always amuses me when people allude to English “purity” in general, since English is itself such a mutt of a language. (Mind you , I like mutts.)

  3. There’s also Chinook, a blended language that is still, to a degree, spoken on the West Coast of Canada. There’s a lovely poem in Chinook which was installed in stainless steel and fiberoptics along the SeaWall in Yaletown, when the new Concord Pacific development went in. It was the first fully fiberoptic-equipped neighborhood in the world, and the poem is about the coming together of all peoples and the interrelationship between thought and light.

  4. Ha! After your pigeon post I was curious about the origin of the word “pidgin” and went and checked it out. Then, I see you’ve written a “pidgin” post! You’ve got everything covered. You rock.

  5. raincoaster-
    I’ve heard of Chinook, but hadn’t heard of the poem/monument. How cool that it uses Chinook.

    Ha! I’m afraid I don’t have it all covered, as I don’t know the etymology of pidgin. Did you learn anything?

  6. The OED cites numerous 19th century etymological sources that agree that pidgin derives from the Chinese/English trade pidgin word for business, that is, the Chinese would pronounce business as ‘pidgin’.

    It goes on to say that originally it was [pizinis], which is pretty damn close to ‘business’, but the [z] before a consonant, as in [biznis] got replaced by a [dzi] (that’s supposed to be a post-alveolar z), giving [pidzinis]. Then finally, the final syllable was analysed as a plural morpheme and chopped off, leaving [pidzin] (again, that z should have a post-alveolar tail).

  7. Sorry, I mis-understood the OED. What it says is that English /z/, where it occurred before a consonant, was regularly replaced with [dzi] – a post-alveolar affricate and a vowel, during the transition into the Chinese/English pidgin. So [biznis] uncontroversially became [pidzinis]. The rest is the same, the analysis of the last syllable as the plural.

    Sorry ’bout dat!

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