Did you ever have something that generated feelings of pride and shame simultaneously, depending on your viewpoint? Something you wanted to share but also wanted to hold close? Something good you didn’t trust to others? I remember a friend who grew up in a northern California Pomo family telling me that her grandmother instructed her never to teach basketry to non-Indians, because they would not use the knowledge for good. Whether you agree or not, you know what she was talking about, right?
I grew up in a household where the adults used Yiddish as a secret code. We kids learned a few words that were part of everyday home talk, but without being told, we knew never to use them in school. In fact, at a certain point, I told my grandmother not to make me any more chopped liver sandwiches, because my lunchmates teased me so unmercifully about them. But I always regretted not knowing the language. Later in life, I even took Yiddish classes. But by then I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, and I never became fluent. My husband grew up in Hawaii speaking Pidgin at home and among friends, and Standard English in school. When we visited there recently, he began teaching me a bit of the language. It delights him to hear me trying out my new knowledge, however badly I stumble. But both of us understand that even when my facility improves, there are reasons to keep it private. It will be our secret code.
Broke da mout: incredibly delicious. Dat saimin so good it broke da mout.
Though linguists don’t generally characterize them the same way, it seems clear to me that Yiddish and Pidgin (of which there are many varieties, for example, Nigerian and Filipino as well as Hawaiian) are what are called “Creole” languages, hybrids of other languages that enabled people to communicate across cultural barriers. In Hawaii, plantation workers from China, Japan, the Philippines, Portugal, Korea, and indigenous Hawaiians needed to understand each other, first in the performance of their work, and then in transacting commerce and community. In the Hawaiian language, Pidgin is called “ʻolelo paʻi ʻai,” “pounding-taro language.” In Europe and North America, the Yiddishes spoken by Ashkenazi Jews are hybrids of Near Eastern and European languages written in Hebrew characters: traces of German, Dutch, even French and Italian remain.
Bumbye: later. We going bumbye.
Culture is a bridge and a fortress. When a heritage language is a bridge, people want to share it with the wider world, legitimating it as worthy of respect and capable of carrying all the beauty and meaning any language can bear. When writers like Lee Tonouchi made this claim for Pidgin—Tonouchi wrote his master’s thesis and continues to write prose, plays, and poetry in Pidgin (for example)—he was building a bridge from the kitchen, marketplace, fields, and factories to the universities where he has taught. When poets made the same claim for works in Yiddish (for example), they were staking out territory in the canon for a language originating in the kitchen, marketplace, and study house.
Huhu: angry. You hit me, I get huhu.
When a heritage language is a fortress, it asserts a right to culture for those possessing it and a deep caution—often derived from hard experience—about opening the gates to those who might disrespect, corrupt, or co-opt it. Yiddish has had a big boost from Hassidic Jews who have declared it their lingua franca, annexing a European lineage that acts as a kind of border checkpoint within the Jewish world, where a Sephardic-derived version of Hebrew dominates. In a few New York neighborhoods, Yiddish is the language of trade and social interaction. Religious groups like Chabad want to spread their particular flavor of Judaism among Jews, so reaching out is a priority. As a result, it’s easy to find dictionaries and primers and formal courses of Yiddish study these days. The language isn’t contested anymore as a badge of identity: there is no official policy of suppressing the speaking of Yiddish comparable to the suppression of Native languages in the old Indian schools, and Pidgin and Spanish in many places today.
Kapu: taboo, sacred, reserved. This place mine, kapu fo you.
My friend Marlene Booth made a wonderful film about these issues. Pidgin: The Voice of Hawaii features many Pidgin speakers, those who tell stories of pride, those who tell stories of suppression, those who tell both. The late Kanalu Young, the film’s coproducer, a Hawaiian Studies professor and a key figure in the revival of Hawaiian language and spirituality, explains that when he was young—before the rise of the sovereignty movement and the attendant cultural upwelling focusing on Hawaiian language and customs—to speak Pidgin was a chief marker of belonging in Hawaii. A group of young people in Waiʻanae, a stressed community at the far west of Honolulu County, talk about the doubleness that exists for speakers of so many languages other than English: the kneejerk devaluation of Pidgin, the felt need to speak Standard English to succeed in school or work, the unfairness of those assumptions. Through the film, we see how the role of Pidgin has shifted over time, just as has the role of Yiddish in Jewish life: a necessity, a badge of identity, a contested cultural choice.
Lolo: crazy or stupid. He so lolo, tink he can fly.
When I searched for study resources to learn Hawaiian Pidgin, I discovered two focal points that don’t quite join up. Tonouchi has created a popular and amusing dictionary which is interestingly crowd-sourced (resulting in a different flavor than this older and somewhat longer glossary). These books are the main vocabulary sources in print, supplemented by an extremely interesting book of Pidgin grammar. I was able to discover no audio courses, nor anything like a language-learning workbook.
But there are rich resources exploring Pidgin as a cultural phenomenon and a badge of identity. There is a center at the University of Hawaii, and an ongoing group of faculty members and grad students called “Da Pidgin Coup,” spurred by the publication of a kind of manifesto in 1999, “Pidgin and Education,” asserting the legitimacy and rights of Pidgin and its speakers in educational settings and elsewhere.
Go come back. Leave and return quickly. You go come back, I go stay go.
My husband says that if I practice my Pidgin on native speakers, many will be offended, and I know he is correct. But Tonouchi has taken the bridge position very seriously, saying, “I tink everybody should talk pidgin. So long dey sincere and trying for learn.” So many things in life come down to this same dialectic, two sides of a teeter-totter. As the World Commission on Culture and Development reported in 1996, “people turn to culture as a means of self-definition and mobilization and assert their local cultural values. For the poorest among them, their own values are often the only thing that they can assert.” And as the digital age demonstrates a zillion times a second, there are no longer cultural boundaries that cannot be crossed; the choice is to risk sharing what you love or risk seeing it shared despite your refusal.
What do you think?
Pau: finished, done, over. School pau fo summah.
Jimmy Scott is sadly pau, make die dead. Here he is singing my favorite love song, ”But Beautiful.” May he rest in peace.