So you’ve just booked your tickets to Hawaii, and your mind is already filling with visions of pina coladas and palm trees and hammocks floating gently in the breeze… Paradise. No matter where you live on mainland US, Hawaii is gonna be way different from home… but that’s why you’re coming, right?!
Although your passport’s not needed (provided you’re a US citizen) and there’s at least a few of your standard US mainland restaurants and stores on most of the Hawaiian Islands, it can, at times, feel like you’re in another country… For example, when you experience a rude awakening in the middle of the night by a hostile centipede in your bed (no worries, that probably won’t happen), encounter wild chickens wandering through the grocery store, see wild boars (and their piglets) rooting in the dirt on the side of the road, or converse with a “local” and hear a bewildering twist on English with words thrown in that you’re quite sure aren’t English. Don’t worry – your jet-lagged brain isn’t completely crazy. English and Hawaiian are the official languages of the Islands, with English being spoken predominantly, of course, but it is typically spoken with a colorful mixture of pidgin and Hawaiian thrown in, giving it a unique island twist and occasionally making it completely unintelligible to those unfamiliar with Island life and Island “speak.”
Hawaiian culture has been formed from a beautiful collage of cultures and people groups, and Pidgin is reflective of that. It is a mixture of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, English, and Hawaiian that evolved through the need of these various groups (and their languages) to be able to communicate and do business together in Hawaii. Typically, enough can be understood to piece together what is being said, although when I first moved to Oahu I was working as a beach photographer at a resort in Waikiki and the local boys would come down from their towel kiosk next-door to have conversations with me, and some of them spoke so “Pidgin heavy” that they might as well have been speaking Greek. (But they gave me a lot of towels, which have been immensely helpful in hot tub crashing at the various resorts on the islands!)
You likely won’t experience too much of a language barrier while here (except, perhaps, with the extensive Asian population on Oahu) but you most likely will be curious about the unfamiliar words you see and hear — at least, I hope you will be — so here is a little guide to common Hawaiian and Pidgin words to help you prepare for your visit to the Islands.
Aloha – I’m sure you already know this one! But you probably didn’t know how broad its meaning can be… Besides the obvious ‘hello,’ it can mean ‘love,’ ‘goodbye,’ ‘thanks,’ and more
Mahalo – thank you
E Komo Mai – welcome
Mele Kalikimaka – merry Christmas
Kane (kah-neh) – Man
Wahine(wah-hee-neh) – Women
Keiki (kay-kee) – child
Haole (HOW-lay) – means ‘foreigner,’ but used specifically to describe a Caucasian
Ohana – family
Kama’aina – local
Mauna – mountain
Kai – sea
Moana – ocean
Mahina – moon
Lani – sky/heaven/paradise
Brah – brother
Ono – Delicious
Pau (pow) – Done, finished. (You might hear before your waiter takes your plate… ‘All pau?’)
Pupu (poo-poo) – appetizers
Saimin – a food staple, just like spam! A flavored noodle soup similar to ramen
Poi – pounded taro root
Puka – hole
Pau Hana – means ‘after work.’ Commonly used to reference after-work drinks (you’ll see lots of restaurants advertising Pau Hana specials)
Makai and Mauka– These words are very frequently used when giving directions or explaining where something is located on the islands. Since we live on islands, everything is located either “mountain side” or “ocean side.” Makai means ‘by/towards the ocean’ and Mauka means ‘by/towards the mountains.’
Slippah – slippers. And in Hawaii, flip-flops are slippers.
Shoots – means “ok,” “let’s do it,” “I agree”
Shoots then – “see you later”
Da Kine – this means ‘the kind,’ but is like a catch-all Pidgin phrase – it can mean literally anything.
Small Kine – just a little
Honu – turtle
Mano – shark
Taco – octopus
Grind – to eat
*If you’re visiting Hawaii, I wouldn’t suggest trying to speak Pidgin to locals other than the basic greetings (aloha and mahalo)… but definitely listen and observe and see how much you can pick up on while you’re here!
It is estimated that 600,000 people on the islands speak Hawaiian Pidgin (so yes, it really is ‘the norm’ in everyday conversation among locals!) Want to learn more? Check out this awesome (and entertaining!) book called ‘Pidgin to Da Max’ by Douglas Simonson.
Want to see a little pidgin in action? Below is an excerpt from the introduction to the book:
“We get special feeling about pidgin. ‘Cause pidgin is special. Local people, dey get togeddah fo’ party, wedding, baby luau, whatevahs, dey gotta talk story, yeah? An’ how you can talk story wid’out pidgin? Cannot! Pidgin someting from da heart! You know, we get hahd time fo’ put da kine down on paper! An’ garans ballbarans, you going look at some da words we get, you going say, “WOW! How dey came up wid’ dat? Da guys lolo!” No beeg ting, brah. Mebbe you jus’ from one noddah neighborhood! We only can try fo’ put down da words people use da most… an’ sometimes Waianae pidgin stay real diff’rent from Kaimuki pidgin, yeah?..We love Hawaii, an’ we love pidgin, an’ dass da main ting we trying fo’ say.”
-excerpted from the introduction to ‘Pigeon To Da Max’ by Douglas Simonson