UH Hilo’s Jackie Johnson and Suzanne Romaine share their thoughts about Hawaiian Pidgin English

The U.S. Census recently recognized local pidgin as one of Hawai‘i’s official languages. A local reporter asked two UH Hilo faculty for their thoughts on the newfound status.

Pidgin English is now is recognized as one of Hawai‘i’s official languages by the U.S. Census Bureau. The recognition of “Hawai‘i Creole English”—as local pidgin is called by linguists—came from surveying more than 325,000 bilingual Hawai‘i residents between 2009 and 2013. 

Jackie Pualani Johnson
Jackie Pualani Johnson

The Hawaii Tribune-Herald contacted Jackie Pualani Johnson, a long-time professor of drama at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who has written a play based in pidgin, and Suzanne Romaine, an affiliate professor of English at UH Hilo whose area of expertise is creole languages, for their thoughts about the newfound status of the local dialect.

Jackie Pualani Johnson, a University of Hawaii at Hilo drama professor whose original stage play “Hilo: Da Musical” contains more than a smattering of Pidgin, said Friday she’s “thrilled beyond belief.”

“When I did ‘Hilo: Da Musical,’ it was clear the Pidgin that I wrote wasn’t necessarily the Pidgin of this generation. And it was neat because some of the young kids in the show said, ‘Hold on. We have to learn anuddah way to speak.’ I suddenly became afraid that we were going to lose the nuances and some of the beautiful music of the language. So learning we’re moving in that proper direction is thrilling to me.”

Johnson said she converses in Pidgin “usually when I’m relaxed and hanging out with family.”

“We went to a Catholic school (St. Joseph’s) where proper English was spoken, but we also use Pidgin for emphasis,” she said.

“Even in those situations where it’s expected that you’re speaking proper English it still appears because it gives a whole different timbre to what you’re saying and what you mean.”

Pidgin often has been slighted as a substandard form of English. Linguists, including Suzanne Romaine, an affiliate professor of English at UH-Hilo who has studied numerous pidgin and creole languages, are working to dispel that perception.

“It’s spoken by a vibrant community of people as a first language and fulfills all the communicative functions you would expect a language like that to fulfill,” said Romaine, who for 30 years was Merton professor of English language at the University of Oxford in England.

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