Hawaii is one of those rare places where immigrant groups married freely with the locals, eventually merging into one unique island society. Today, this true blending of Eastern, Western, and Polynesian cultures can be tasted in our food, seen in our physical features, and heard in the language we speak.
Pidgin, officially known as Hawaii Creole English, is the language on the street, and the one that most of us speak at home. Initially created by Native Hawaiians and Chinese plantation workers who intermarried, Pidgin was further influenced by other immigrant cultures such as the Portuguese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Americans. Today, this islander language is a blend of Polynesian and Asian grammar with a strong English vocabulary.
Below are some examples of commonly used Pidgin phrases that you may hear1 during your visit to the islands. Keep in mind that each island has it’s own dialect. Mine is a mix of Molokai and Lanai Pidgin.
“Eh, hazzit braddah?” or “Hazzit cuz?” meaning “How are you, bro?” This can be said to anyone that is a peer, even to complete strangers whom you want to be friendly to. Alternatively, “Sup brah!” or “Sup cuz!” is also commonly said. To respond to any of the above greetings, you could simply say, “Sup!” or “Hazzit!”
If you’re addressing someone older than you, do not use the above greeting, it would be disrespectful. Instead you should say, “Aloha Tutu, how you?” or “Hi Aunty, how you?” Note that the tone of voice even changes to show more respect. Because the family unit is more important than the individual in local Hawaiian culture, your elder may say something like, “Good, good. Hows yoa maddah guys?” In response you could say, “Good, Tutu. Dey okay.” or “Good, Aunty. Dey okay.”
“Wea you guys was?” means “Where were you?” “Wea you guys ste?” means “Where are you?” and “Wea you guys gon go?” means “Where are you going to later?”
“Wat you guys wen do?” means “What did you do earlier?” while “Wat you guys ste doing?” means “What are you doing now?” And if you want to see what the plans are for later, just say, “Wat you guys gon do?”
Note: Questions in Pidgin are asked with a falling intonation.
Asking a favor
“If can, can…if no can, no can.” This is a very common phrase that means, “If it’s possible, then great! But if it’s not possible, well that’s fine, too.” Hawaiians tend to like things open-ended and non-committal, so if you want to ask a friend for a favor, this phrase is very useful.
The multiple purposes of “bambai”
“Bambai” or “mambai” is one of the most common words used in Pidgin. If someone asks you to do something but you’re too lazy to do it, just say “Bambai.” That could mean “Yeah, I heard you,” “I’ll do it later,” or “Leave me alone already.”
If your friend wants to tell you they’re going for a ride across town, they might say “We gon cruise Waimanalo bambai.” This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re inviting you. It’s simply a statement. Then again, they may be asking you to go. Pidgin is a very contextual language.
“Bambai” can also mean “otherwise.” If your friend is pigging out on junk food and you’re worried for their health, you could say, “Ho, no eat choke candy yah, bambai you gon get puka teeth” which means, “Wow, don’t eat too much candy, otherwise you’re going to get cavities.”
Inviting someone to socialize
If you want to do something fun and relaxing with your friends, just tell them, “Wat brah, we go cruise?” or “You guys like go cruise town side?” If they’re up for it, they’ll say, “Shoots! We go!”
Inviting someone to a meal
Sometimes, Hawaii locals will make meal plans by being indirect. For example, if a friend says to you, “Ho, I ste ono for one locomoco,” they may be telling you they want to get something to eat with you, in this case a local dish called “locomoco.” If you’re up for it, just say, “Shoots! We go!” However, there’s a chance your friend may just be telling you they’re hungry, so be careful about jumping too quick on the social plans. Again, it’s all about the context.
A more direct way to make lunch plans with friends is to say, “Eh, you guys like go grine o wat?” or “So wat, we go eat o wat?” If someone says that to you, their intent is very clear.
Note: When inviting someone to do something, very rarely will you ever get a flat-out “No.” You’re more likely to hear “Yeah, yeah…maybe.” Depending on the tone, that could mean no. In fact it probably does. A definite “Yes!” would be “Shoots!” “Awwrite!” “Right on!” or “Rajah!”
Compliments on the meal
Food is an important part of local Hawaiian culture, and it’s extremely important to be gracious and full of compliments during mealtime. When eating, your friends will ask you how it tastes. Just say, “Ono,” which means “Delicious.” Say this even if it wasn’t. Trust me.
If the meal was extra tasty, then saying, “Ho da malasada was broke da mout!” or “Ho hows da malasada? Meeeean, ah!” will help you express your appreciation for the dish, in this case a local Portuguese inspired dessert called “malasada.”
Tone of voice, common interjections, and the word “pau”
“Pau” is a useful word meaning “Done” or “Finished.” The sentences “Ho, you pau eat?!” “Wat, you pau surf?” and “Eh, you pau do yoa homework o wat?” means, “You’re finished eating already?!” “Are you done surfing for now?” and “You haven’t finished your homework yet?!” respectively. Notice how the tone of voice and use of interjections such as “ho,” “wat,” “eh,” and “o wat” can change the whole meaning and emotion of the sentence.
And last but not least, if you’re done doing whatever it is they’re asking you about, just say “I pau awready.”
“K-den! Shootz den! Shootz! Aloha!”
- Hawaii Creole English is a language that truly belongs to the Hawaiian Islands, with specific tones and a hard-to-grasp lilt to it. There’s definitely a sense of community and belonging amongst those who are born and raised speaking Pidgin, so much so that they’ll hardly ever use it around those who aren’t native speakers. As such, only those with years of knowledge and a deep familiarity of the language should attempt to speak it at all. Otherwise, you are sure to be met with some very awkward, face-palm, cringe-worthy moments.