In late March 2017 the Shotgun Honey imprint of Down & Out Books published my novella The Place of Refuge, which is the result of a dozen visits I have made to the rain forest side of the Big Island of Hawaii. The region known as Puna struck me from the beginning as a natural setting for noir crime fiction. It is home to marijuana farmers, meth cookers, fugitives, survivalists and Sixties holdovers. The Hawaii County Police are stretched thin over this enormous island, and much of the time Puna feels barely under control.
The place can also sound strange to mainland ears because of the local language called Pidgin. While many people in Hawaii call it endangered, and it is increasingly rare to find people who speak only Pidgin, I have met several speakers in their twenties. Some of them have been eager to share the finer points with me.
Despite its name, Pidgin is more of a creole. As I understand it, a pidgin is an improvised language with limited vocabulary and simplified grammar that serves a specific purpose, often trading goods or giving instructions to laborers. A creole is a full-fledged language that grows out of a pidgin over time. Haitian Creole is a well-known example.
The nineteenth-century planters and ranchers in Hawaii recruited laborers from all over the world, and the pidgin that arose among them draws vocabulary and grammar from the original Hawaiian language, Japanese, Chinese, English, Portuguese, Tagalog, and Samoan. In college I studied Chinese, and it came back to me when I heard a young man on the Big Island say, “Don’t I know one cop, I see one?” It seemed to me that the use of “one” in place of the indefinite article “a” might come from a Chinese grammatical construction sometimes called the “measure word.”
I hesitated to write this post, just as I hesitated to insert Pidgin into my story. I am neither a fluent speaker of the language nor a trained linguist. On the other hand, I am a writer of fiction, which means that, whatever the topic, I can fake it pretty good. It also means I have an insatiable urge to push my luck, which is also why I have dropped some Pidgin into my Hawaii stories.
I have picked up some expressions that I can use with reasonable confidence. One is the ubiquitous “Da kine.” Sometimes it seems that everyone in Hawaii claims to have personally witnessed the utility worker who pops up from a manhole and asks his colleague, “Hey brah. You get da kine …?”
He mimes using a tool.
“You mean da kine …?”
Colleague also mimes.
“Yeah, da kine.”
A tool is handed over, and work continues.
The phrase is adaptable. “Da ono kine grinds,” for instance, means “Good eats.” It’s seen on restaurants everywhere in Hawaii, and in the home of the original Pacific Rim fusion cuisine, it’s often the truth.
“Moke” and “tita” are also useful. They are, respectively, a local tough guy and a local tough chick. I have been advised, as an outsider, to avoid using the terms in conversation.
“Bumbucha” (also bambucha or bamboola) means “big,” and it can be used to mean certain anatomical features, male or female, provided they are in fact big.
Complete sentences are harder, because the grammar is distinctive. Tense and chronology can be especially tricky. I have this verbatim: “You go stay go, I go stay come,” which translates to “You go ahead, and I’ll come later.”
Back to my title, Da moke wen’ karang my ‘alas. “Moke” we already know. Add “wen’” for past tense, “karang” meaning to apply blunt force, and as for “’alas” (pronounced “ahlahz), think male anatomy, and plural.
Where else is a tough guy going to apply blunt force?
And so I fake it, sparingly. Some local authors write fearlessly in Pidgin. See the great Kathy Collins, whose column “A Liddo Bitta Tita” has appeared in Maui magazine. For the reader who would like to hear the language spoken, I have found an example on YouTube, called “How fo’ speak Pidgin.” (Later in the video the word “choke” comes up several times. In Pidgin “choke” means “a lot of.”)
Enjoy. It certainly took me back.