The Languages in My Heart

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The Languages in My Heart

A child of the North Shore reflects on her lifelong romance with Hawaii’s many tongues

When you grow up as I did, in the 1960s, on Oahu’s North Shore, amidst cane fields and cattle ranches, plantation shacks and tumbledown beach houses, you don’t realize the richness you possess, especially when it comes to language. I called the annoying kid in class bakatari. I loaded up on Li Hing Mui before stepping onto the bus after school. I sat on the seawall “talkin story” with Mr. Tamura, understanding every word of his Japanese-accented Pidgin as he pulled fish like kumu and manini from the reef. And when my auntie looked at me and asked if I had eaten the last malasada, I said, “No, I nevah.”

My mother and father were raised on the mainland. Both were clear speakers, elegant writers, and somewhat strict grammarians. My father spoke Spanish and dabbled in Korean. My mother had majored in French, studied Latin, and learned a little Italian and Japanese. My parents loved languages and loved Hawai‘i and celebrated the fact that their kids could speak Pidgin English—even if they themselves never could, convincingly.

Years later, I learned that Pidgin is a creole, recognized by some of the world’s top linguists. When people lack a common language but want to talk to each other—as was the case first with the English and American whalers who came to Hawaii, soon joined by Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, and Filipino laborers—they borrow choppy strings of words from various languages, craft a simple grammar, and speak a crude tongue. Pidgins can increase in complexity, and can become the mother tongue. Then they are creoles—languages with their own vocabulary, rhythm, grammar, and style.

I like to say I grew up bilingual—in English. I may have been the only kid on the North Shore who said “This is she” when a phone caller asked for “Connie.” But I taught my eighth-grade social-dancing partner the Foxtrot in Pidgin, and I listened to a DJ who called himself K. K. Kaumanua (pronounce it right and you are reminded of cattle dung). He did a killer rendition of “Little Red Riding Hood” in Pidgin, renaming it “Little Lei Puahi and the Wild Pua‘a.” My favorite line was uttered by the pig (well, the wild pua‘a) when he first sees the nubile girl: “Eh, who’s dis porky little wahine walkin’ down da pat’?”

Many folks attached a stigma to speaking Pidgin, but the more some waxed about the importance of standard English, the more I become enamored of Pidgin’s subversive power. I knew that Pidgin was playful and sometimes eloquent, although I sensed it might be embarrassment in certain company.

By the mid-1970s, a cultural earthquake rocked Hawai‘i. A crusty Hawaiian named Gabby Pahinui—who mastered jazz and swing but never stopped playing slack-key guitar—found his moment. Soon traditional musicians were finding an audience for the old songs, and others were innovating the heck out of tradition. My favorite of the new vanguard was Keola Beamer, who came from a distinguished line of Hawaiian singer-songwriters. A dark-haired Jesus who played the nose flute and danced a virile hula, he was my tropical version of Elvis.

The vivid music of the Sons of Hawaii and the Sunday Mānoa and Aunty Genoa Keawe stoked our hunger. We learned the lyrics to their songs and rediscovered something that had been with us all along, but somehow latent, popping up on street signs, pulled out for May Day Festivals, lingering in our Pidgin English lines. 

The Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance transformed the study of the Hawaiian language. It had come within a hair’s breath of dying, then returned with a vengeance. In 1983, there were only 1,500 speakers, fewer than 50 of them children. Today there are an estimated 10,000 speakers, and thousands of kids are moving through an extensive bilingual-immersion program in public schools. You now get graduation credit for Hawaiian at Punahou and Kamehameha, two private schools, and Hawaiian is the most popular language at UH-Mānoa.

The Hawaiian language itself may be the youngest on the planet, with fewer phonemes, or sound bits, than other languages. The missionaries who gave Hawaiian a Latin alphabet, in the 19th century, assigned it eight consonants and five vowels, but the “w” can also be pronounced as a “v,” the “k” as “t.” In the last century, key diacritical marks have been added. These change pronunciation and meaning: pau means “finished,” for example, while pa‘u means “soot,” pa‘ü means “moist,” and pä‘ü means “gathered skirt.” 

Hawaiian is often described as “mellifluous,” but anyone who has listened to ancient chants knows that it can also be guttural, fierce, and haunting.

My language journey continued at college on the mainland. One day, I asked an English professor why we didn’t talk about the sounds in T. S. Eliot’s poetry. He pulled out a musty volume of Keats, asking me to describe the sound in an ode. I did, somewhat sheepishly, and then confessed my fluency in Pidgin. I recited my favorite line from “Little Lei Puahi and the Wild Pua’a.” My professor loved the story, and I saw that that language is more mysterious and more robust than earlier teachers would have had me believe.

I got my bachelors in English Literature, wrote poetry and short stories, got a masters in journalism, became a reporter, then an editor. The language bug never left me. I wrote Sin and Syntax, and followed that with Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. Both include sections on pidgins and creoles and examples of Hawaiian sentences.

It makes me laugh to imagine what my Hale‘iwa homies would make of the fact that I’ve become known as a “language maven.” When I’m called “Marian the Librarian on a Harley,” or “the sassy Safire,” I know that those offbeat labels are nods to the linguistic richness of my childhood, and to the code-switching I’ve always reveled in.  


In addition to language books, Constance Hale writes about culture, politics, history, and faraway places, for publications like the Atlantic, Smithsonian, Afar, Honolulu, and the Los Angeles Times. Her eight-part series on how to write a sentences is in the “Draft” series on the New York Times’ Opinionator. She covers writing and the writing life at Sin and Syntax.

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