Robert’s Pepa (revised 6/07/2011)

Robert K. Arakaki, Ph.D.

Language and Power in Hawaii

(revised 6/07/2011)

The language situation in Hawaii is a very rich and complex one.  This language situation has been shaped by economic and power relations.  Pidgin arose out of this complex situation and its struggle for acceptance reflects the hegemonic power structure of Hawaii.[1] 

The Hawaiian Kingdom

Pre-contact Hawaiians spoke one language: Hawaiian.  Following the initial contact made by Captain James Cook in 1778, the burgeoning sandalwood trade and whaling turned Hawaii into a significant port of call.  English had a limited influence on the Hawaiian people due to the fact  that King Kamehameha I restricted contact between Westerners and his subjects.  As a result of the Christianization of the Hawaiians and the translation of the Bible into Hawaiian, literacy became almost universal among the Hawaiians by the mid 1820s (Reinecke 1969:28).   The Hawaiian government was under pressure to use English as a medium of instruction even though the missionaries opposed this on the grounds that the Hawaiian language was key to the preservation of the Hawaiian nation (Native Hawaiian Study Commission 1983:124).

Hawaii’s extensive contacts with foreign governments and foreign traders compelled the Hawaiian rulers to use English as the preferred medium of communication (Reinecke 1969:32).  In matters of internal affairs the language situation shifted from government documents being disseminated in Hawaiian without an English translation, to bilingualism – Hawaiian and English simultaneously, to English being the original language of government papers (Reinecke 1969:32).  The two constitutions promulgated by King Kalaukaua were issued in Hawaiian with an English translation.  Thus, in the late 1800s while the majority of the Hawaiians spoke only Hawaiian, English had become the administrative language and a prestige language of the Hawaiian kingdom (Reinecke 1969:33). 

The Plantation Economy

In the late 1800s and early 1900s Hawaii’s economy shifted towards a plantation based economy.  The sugar and pineapple plantations were labor intensive and to meet these labor needs large numbers of laborers were imported from all over the world.  The plantations were structured hierarchically along ethnic and linguistic lines.  At the top were the Haoles who owned and ran the plantations, the Portuguese (who supervised the laborers), then the laborers: Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Okinawans, and Filipinos. 

It was here that the genesis of Pidgin can be found.  A makeshift language emerged on the plantation to facilitate communication among workers from the various ethnic groups.  At the public schools their children encountered others from other ethnicities, acquired some knowledge of English, and developed a creole language, Pidgin (Reinecke 1969:163-169).  Initially, there emerged a Pidgin Hawaiian which drew much of its vocabulary from Hawaiian, but after the Overthrow it was replaced by Pidgin English (Sakoda and Siegel 2003:5). 

After the Overthrow — American Colony

With the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom came a shift in language policy.  While the Constitution of the Republic of Hawaii permitted the continuation of Hawaiian language newspapers, a bias towards the English language soon became evident.  In 1896, Act 57 §30 was passed which made English “the medium and basis of instruction in all public and private schools” (Hawaii 1896:189). The privileging of English can also be seen in the requirement that one be able to speak, read, and write in English in order to qualify for citizenship in the Republic (Hawaii 1896:265; Act 77).  This was a novel development in light of the fact that there was no similar requirement for naturalization in the Hawaiian kingdom (Hawaii 1859:93-95; Article VIII). 

Making English the official medium of instruction was far from an innocuous decision.  An educator noted in 1927 that education in Hawaii meant Americanization.  The school system has been one of the most powerful means of imposing linguistic uniformity and promoting assimilation into mainland American culture. On the public school level it meant replacing Pidgin with Standard American English.  On the university level it meant requiring all incoming freshmen at the University of Hawaii to take “American Institutions” (Littler 1929:133-134). 

Like nationalism projects elsewhere Americanization entailed the suppression of linguistic and cultural diversity.  For example, in the 1920s a mock funeral for Pidgin and a mock wedding ceremony for English was conducted at McKinley High School. 

Mock Funeral for Pidgin English

Mock Wedding for Good English

The stigmatization of Hawaiian, Pidgin, and other languages can be seen as a consequences of the cultural assimilation associated with Americanization.    However, the attempt to impose Haole English would meet with resistance from Hawaii’s Pidgin speaking population. 

Percentage of  People Unable to Speak English 1910 1920 1930
Haole 4.3 0.9 0.6
Hawaiian 42.9 19.7 8.3
Portuguese 28.9 11.2 5.1
Japanese 79.0 54.2 29.8
Chinese 63.1 38.1 22.4
Filipinos 81.7 60.4 54.0
Source: Table 13 in Reinecke 1969:124


These census figures suggest that where the Hawaiians and Portuguese assimilated into American culture, the ethnic groups that made up the bulk of plantation workforce a sizable percentage remained unassimilated.  The high percentage of people unable to speak English suggests that for many of Hawaii residents Pidgin was their mother tongue.  The census figures point to the emergence of a language divide between Pidgin and Haole English that would persist till today. 

In the 1920s, the large Japanese population and tensions between US and Japan spurred attempts to suppress foreign language schools, especially Japanese language schools (Reinecke 1969:127-128; Fuchs 1961:273-274; Littler 1929:140-142).  The initial attempt failed, but the onset of World War II led to the whole scale closing of Japanese language schools. 

In the 1920s, Hawaii saw an influx of Haoles from the mainland.  Many were unsettled to find themselves a minority and feared that their children’s ability to speak “proper” English would be hindered by the large number of their schoolmates who spoke Pidgin.  The English standard school system was established as a means of segregating Pidgin speaking children from English speaking children (Native Hawaiian Study Commission 1983:125).   

Hawaii’s highly stratified social structure in the early 1900s combined with pressure to assimilate the immigrant population laid the foundation for language discrimination.  The language of the ruling class – Haole English – came to be viewed as the prestige language, and the language of working class – Pidgin — came to be viewed as a low prestige language by students and teachers creating a linguistic divide between the two groups (Reinecke 1969:175-177).  Reinecke observed:

Thus the use of dialect has come to be largely a matter of class and racial distinction, with attitudes of superiority, contempt, and condescension on the one hand and of group loyalty, defensiveness, and “inferiority complex” on the other.  The use of the dialect, while valuable in unifying the majority of group of the Hawaiian Island population, is a disruptive force between this group and the Haoles (Reinecke 1969:190). 

Statehood – Resistance and Renaissance

Hawaii during the 1950s underwent a number of significant changes that led to the dismantling of the Haole oligarchy and Hawaii’s semi-colonial situation: (1) the longshoremen strike that broke the Big Five’s grip on Hawaii’s economy, (2) the Democratic revolution that led to the non-Haoles controlling the Legislature, and (3) Hawaii attaining statehood (see Fuchs chapters 13 and 17).  The social and political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s destabilized America’s cultural matrix allowing for alternative lifestyles and ways of life.  The Hawaiian renaissance in the 1970s paved the way for the Pidgin revival in the 1980s.  

In 1987, the state Board of Education attempted to pass an English only policy for Hawaii public schools.  This generated a fierce opposition from the community and the policy was defeated.  The controversy was a turning point for the local perception of Pidgin in Hawaii (Sakoda and Siegel 2003:18-19; Sato 1991).  The earlier attitude of silence of resentment or shame was replaced with open pride in Pidgin as a marker of local identity. 

The Future of Pidgin

The future of Pidgin in Hawaii depends on: (1) the attitudes of Pidgin speakers, (2) the extent of social domain in which Pidgin is used, and (3) the extent of communication media in which Pidgin is used.  The defeat of the Board of Education’s English only policy in 1987 is a strong sign of the positive feeling for Pidgin which bodes well for Pidgin’s future.  However, the use of Pidgin continues to be restricted to certain social domains, e.g., construction work sites or auto mechanic shops.  Pidgin is rarely used in formal settings like the classroom, church, the corporate office, government offices as the principal language.  In terms of communication media there are a few occasional television commercials in Pidgin.  There is no television news reporting or print journalism that rely solely on Pidgin.  The emergence of Pidgin literature produced by local writers like Eric Chock, bradajo (Joseph Hadley), Lee Tonouchi, and the late Lois Ann Yamanaka all represent a significant expansion of the use of Pidgin.  Recently, Da Pidgin Coup has started doing email in Pidgin using Odo orthography.  Sales of the Pidgin Bible – Da Jesus Book – are impressive but there appears to be no church group that relies principally on Pidgin for their services.  In sum, the use of Pidgin needs to be extended into other social domains and into formal communication media if it is to be able to more effectively withstand Haole English’s hegemonic presence in Hawaii. 


The history of Hawaii’s language situation reflects power relations.  During the Hawaiian kingdom period, Hawaiian was the language of the rulers and commoners.  Christianization, economic contact, and international diplomacy introduced English as a language of power.  The rise of the plantation economy in the 1800s and its multi-lingual workforce gave rise to Pidgin.  Following the 1893 Overthrow, English became the language of power and prestige.  The close association of English with the Haole oligarchy and Pidgin with the working classes resulted in a social and linguistic stratification of Hawaii.  The cultural assimilation that came with Americanization resulted in the stigmatization of Pidgin.  Attempts to assimilate Hawaii’s population into mainland American culture have met widespread resistance.  The widespread turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s destabilized mainland American culture creating opportunities for the emergence of alternative expressions.  In the 1970s and 1980s, assimilation into mainland American culture was superseded by localization and the assertion of local Hawaii identity through two languages: Hawaiian and Pidgin. 


Fuchs, Lawrence H.  1961.  Hawaii Pono: A Social History.  New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 

Hawaii.  1859.  The Civil Code of the Hawaiian Islands Passed in the Year of Our Lord 1859.  Honolulu: Hawaii Government. 

Hawaii.  1896.  Laws of the Republic of Hawaii Passed by the Legislature at the Session, 1896.  Honolulu: Hawaiian Gazette Company’s Print. 

Kuykendall, Ralph.  1957. The Hawaiian Kingdom 1778-1854: Foundation and Transformation.  Honolulu, Hawaii: The University of Hawaii Press.

Littler, Robert M.C.  1929.  The Governance of Hawaii: A Study in Territorial Administration.  Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 

McCrum, Robert, Robert MacNeill, and William Cran.  1986.  The Story of English.  Third revised edition.  New York: Penguin Books. 

Native Hawaiian Study Commission.  1983.  Report on the culture, needs, and concerns of Native Hawaiians.  Volume I.   Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior. 

Reinecke, John E.  1969.  Language and Dialect in Hawaii: A Sociolinguistic History to 1935.  Edited by Stanley M. Tsuzaki.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Sakoda, Kent and Jeff Siegel.  2003.  Pidgin Grammar: An Introduction to the Creole Language of Hawai`i.  Honolulu, Hawaii: Bess Press

Sato, Charlene J.  1991.  Sociolinguistic variation and language attitudes in Hawaii. In J. Cheshire (Ed.), English around the world:  Sociolinguistic perspectives (pp. 647-663). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] Pidgin is a creole that emerged on Hawaii’s plantations in the 1800s.  It has also been called: Hawaii Pidgin, Pidgin English, Hawaii Creole English, Da Kine.  Haole English is the language spoken by the Haole oligarchy that controlled Hawaii’s plantation and government from the late 1800s to the 1950s.  The term “Standard English” is problematic due to its implicit assumption that non-standard Englishes are inferior languages.  For a discussion of “Englishes” and creoles, see McCrum et al. chapter 9 “The New Englishes.”  The pejorative labeling of Pidgin as “broken English” is based upon poor linguistics, uninformed prejudice, and conformity to cultural imperialism.  See also Sakoda and Siegel 2003:1-3.

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