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Sharing Mana‘o

Gunfunnit! I tink so I stay stuck insai one pidgin hole!

Nah, only joke. I jes’ wanted fo’ use da pigeonhole pun.

Like most locals of my generation, I grew up bilingual, learning standard English and Hawaii Creole English (bettah known as “pidgin”) simultaneously. I consider HCE my first — and favorite — language. Of course, back then, none of us knew we were speaking an actual language. We believed the educators and authority figures who called it “bad” or “broken” English. But now we know, dey wuz wrong.

In linguistic terms, a pidgin is a simplified form of a language, with limited vocabulary. A Creole is a fully developed language, created from two or more different languages, and with grammar (ours is primarily Hawaiian). Usually, a Creole evolves from a pidgin and becomes a native language, the first language spoken by a population. That’s what happened here, but we still call it pidgin.

Born in the plantation era, spawned by the need for communication between immigrants of various ethnicities, what we call pidgin is the language of Hawaii’s people — multicultural, unpretentious and powerfully poetic.

Like all living languages, HCE continues to evolve. Some words and phrases have faded with the times: icebox, slop man, garans ball-barans. Kids no longer hemo their clothes fo’ go botcha, nor do they pio da light fo’ go moemoe. Mempachi eyes, daikon legs, chocho lips — all those terms are pretty much ma-ke die dead. But Tita, my storytelling alter ego, does her best to preserve the pidgin of our youth.

Last Monday evening, Tita and I performed two hours of storytelling at The Shops at Kukui’ula on Kaua’i, as part of the Koloa Plantation Days festival. We explained the origin of HCE, then told a variety of folk tales from China, Portugal, Japan, the Philippines, Europe, and, of course, Hawaii.

Half an hour before the scheduled start of the show, the first two rows were nearly filled with early arrivals. They looked like tourists, so I struck up conversations with each group, trying to determine how much Tita-tude they’d be able to handle. Turned out, nearly all were Poipu or Koloa residents.

Ninety-year-old Barbara Waterhouse McCord reached out to grab my hand and said, “Waimea High School, class of 1951!” Eyes twinkling, she continued, “I grew up speaking pidgin, but mother wouldn’t allow it at home. She was a schoolteacher and raised six girls and a husband, with a firm hand. We didn’t dare speak pidgin in the house. But it’s the language of my youth.”

As she shared tidbits of her family history — her grandfather was the last plantation doctor at Koloa; her great-grand-uncle, William O. Smith, planted the Lahaina banyan tree — it occurred to me that she had better stories than I did. “You should be the one on stage tonight,” I told her.

“Oh no, dear, I came to hear you. I haven’t heard or spoken pidgin in so long, I’m going to savor every word!”

And she did. At the end of the evening, she thanked me with a hug and a kiss. “I loved every word! I was saying them right along with you, and now, I gotta go stay go!”

Whether or not you have the same passion for pidgin as Barbara, I think you’ll enjoy the next session of my talk story series, “Yakamashii!,” when my guest will be Lee Tonouchi, Da Pidgin Guerrilla. Presented by the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center, the Zoom webinar will start at 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 6. Please go to nvmc.org or call (808) 244-6862 to register.

Lee is an award-winning author, poet, playwright, educator and food critic. I’m a fan of his work, particularly the poetry collection “Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son” and his longtime campaign to raise awareness and appreciation of HCE. Whatever your pidgin proficiency level, you’re sure to find the session entertaining and enlightening. Garans ball-barans!

* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM and KEWE 97.9 FM/1240 AM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her e-mail address is kcmaui913@gmail.com.

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