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Language Contact and Hawaiian Creole English

When speakers of different languages come into contact and need to communicate, a (usually) temporary, basic form of language develops, called a pidgin. The speakers of the pidgin typically maintain their native language(s) but use the pidgin language to communicate between the two (or more) groups. Pidgins generally have the following characteristics:


•   Have no native speakers

•   Are the result of contact between two or more languages

•   Have a simple, unique grammatical system

•   Have a small vocabulary (words are borrowed from the contributing languages)

•   Are not mutually intelligible with the contributing languages


The development of a pidgin usually requires a situation that involves at least three languages, one of which is dominant. If only two languages are involved, there is likely to be a direct struggle for dominance. A direct struggle for dominance did take place between English and French after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066—a struggle won, in that case, by the socially inferior language (English) only after two or more centuries of coexistence. More typical is a situation in which the language of the people in power becomes the dominant language, as happened after English speakers came to the New World and the many Native American languages in North America became minority languages.

          The dominant language usually contributes most of the vocabulary of the pidgin; this language is called the superstrate language. The other languages that contribute to the pidgin are called the substrate languages. In Hawai‘i during the early 1800s that dominant language was Hawaiian, but it changed to English in the latter part of the century as the population of haoles grew.

          A creole language is the result of contact involving two or more languages, as with a pidgin, but it develops into a more fully formed, complete language and has native speakers. Creoles often result when the children of speakers of pidgins develop them into complete languages with larger vocabularies and more complex grammatical systems. Because much of the vocabulary of pidgins and creoles is borrowed from one of the contributing languages,  they can sound like a ‘bad’ version of that language. However, they are  unique, real languages with distinct phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics.


Consider the remarks of these two (Hawaiian) Pidgin speakers from a story broadcast by National Public Radio in 2005…[You might consider playing the stories for the students. See the reference at the end.]


When the teachers started to hear us talk, they couldn’t make heads or tails what we were saying because it came from the mainland. Whatever we said, she could not listen to what we were saying at all.

           We were told that it was just bad English. I guess I grew up kind of thinking it was like a bad habit that we had. We would ask to use the rest rooms, you know, like, ‘I can go toilet’ or something, and they would withhold the permission until you got the English part of it correctly. And those things can be problematic. We just see these as things that we're constantly reminded of or reprimanded for.

           The language has a different kind of prestige. It’s like the language of the community and it’s something that you’re proud of because it shows your identity.

           It really makes us very unique because we have this thing that we can interject with each other. We interplay daily in our lives. As soon as we meet each other, you can tell the people that come from Hawaii that know how to speak Pidgin and then switch over to good English, then you know that person has really arrived.


Hawaiian Creole English

Although the language variety known as Hawaiian Creole English does not have a large community of speakers in the Pacific Northwest, it’s an excellent and well-documented example of the genesis of a language, which emerged alongside Hawaiian.

Hawaiian Creole English, known to most Hawaiians simply as “Pidgin,” has a long history in Hawaii and has been influenced by many languages, including English, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Chinese (primarily Cantonese), and, after the first sugar plantation opened in 1835, workers who were speakers of Japanese, Korean, and Tagalog. The Japanese were prevented from leaving Japan until the Meiji Restoration and didn’t arrive in Hawai‘i until 1885, followed shortly by the Koreans. The Filipinos immigrated in the twentieth century after the  Spanish-American War.

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