talkin’ bout barack

The Obamas visiting the U.S.S. Arizona last year.

So, the past few days I’ve been wondering something.

When orator extraordinaire Barack Obama is in Hawai’i, does he ever speak any Pidgin? I mean, can you imagine him saying something like:

Ho, dis haupia cake broke da mout!
We go holoholo bumbai.
No can.

It’s hard to imagine, but I tend to think he must speak some Pidgin when he’s with old friends. I haven’t lived in Hawai’i for 30+ years, and I never speak Pidgin here in Virginia, yet whenever I’m back home visiting family and friends, I naturally begin to shorten my phrases and assume that unmistakable Pidgin "accent." It’s in my DNA, and I think it’s in Barack’s, too. Len wholly disagrees, citing that Barack is too conscious of his public image to utter so much as a syllable in Pidgin, since the press would pick up on every word he says.

Like Pidgin is bad, or something? Not so.

Pidgin, or Hawai’i Creole English (not to be confused with the Hawaiian language), is spoken by most of the local population. If ever a common language anywhere had the power to both characterize and continually unify an ethnically diverse society, Hawaiian Pidgin is it. Dynamic, energizing, colorful, varied and sassy, this homegrown style of talk has persisted in the islands for over 200 years, despite organized efforts to suppress it.

Pidgin evolved out of sheer necessity as outsiders arrived in the islands, from early English traders to New England missionaries to plantation workers from such countries as China, Portugal, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Each group brought its own words, idioms, rhythmic speech patterns and grammatical idiosyncrasies to bear upon a shortened form of Standard English, thereby facilitating communication.

You lolo o’ wat?
Going get plenny kaukau.
Dat guy wen kakaroach me!

In short, Pidgin cut to the chase, and enabled a lot of people, living in a small place, to get along. It continues to evolve today, even blending elements of contemporary slang, as the need arises.

Mosh mosh!
Dis ting stay kapakahi.
Eh, no wear yo rubbah slippahs in da house.

Although Hawai’i Creole English (HCE) embodies the very identity of island residents, there is lingering ambivalence over its use. Some view it as inferior broken English, saying those who speak it are deficient in some way and that it impedes mastery of Standard English in children.

Thanks to the efforts of ESL educators and the use of Pidgin in poetry, songs, essays, and plays in the last few decades, HCE is now recognized as a distinct language — not a substitute for Standard English, by any means, but a language that honors cultural identity. It’s definitely here to stay, and it reflects the inestimable value Hawaiians have always placed on inclusion, cooperation, and finding common ground. Moreover, it’s totally non-hierarchical, the great equalizer that cuts across race, gender, and socio-economic class. 

Sounds like Barack, no?


No doubt Barack heard and spoke Pidgin to some degree while growing up. He might not speak much of it now, but it certainly enabled him, in his formative years, to communicate with and understand people from many different cultures, and to value their differences. As Michelle said, "In order to understand Barack, you have to understand Hawai’i." And, in order to fully understand Hawai’i, it helps to know Pidgin, or at the very least, to recognize the crucial role this particular language has played in its social history. 

So, I’m still having fun imagining Barack hanging out with his old Punahou school buddies and talking story about the old days. Wouldn’t some linguistic flavor from the past subconsciously emerge?

Instead of, "Shall we get a bite to eat?", might he say, "Eh, you guys like go Rainbow Drive Inn?" Or, would he say, "Dat buggah was wrong, man," instead of, "I’ve never agreed with Bush’s decision to invade Iraq."

No, no, maybe not. He’s polished his official image so perfectly that it’s really hard imagining him relaxing his speech. Yes, but he is the most accessible President, the most down to earth we’ve had so far. No, I can’t decide, though I know he’d never say, "No can."  What do you think?

Now, if I could just figure out why he always says "tuh," instead of "to!"

Like learn mo’ ?

Da Kine Dictionary, compiled and edited by Lee A. Tonouchi (Bess Press, 2005). Essential Pidgin expressions and terms, sentence examples, and colorful photos showing local people in funny-kine poses.

Pidgin Grammar: An Introduction to the Creole Language of Hawai’i, by Kent Sakoda and Jeff Siegel (Bess Press, 2003). Details origins and uses, pronunciation, writing system, word classes, phrases and types of sentences. Puts to rest the idea that Pidgin is merely a form of broken English without a structure.

Pidgin to the Max: 25th Anniversary Edition, by Kent Sakata and Pat Sasaki (Bess Press, 2005). Simply hilarious, with situational cartoon drawings. A classic, and essential for anyone who seeks true insight into local Hawaiian culture.

Da Jesus Book: Hawai’i Pidgin New Testament (Wycliff Bible Translators, 2000). And they said it couldn’t be done!

Da links:

Position Paper by Da Pidgin Coup (University of Hawai’i). Discusses the role of Pidgin in education, and the complex relationship between Pidgin and English.

How to Talk Conversational Pidgin: a list of common expressions, their definitions, and audio files on pronunciation. A great primer.

Check out this video to hear a short conversation about Gabby Pahinui, slack key guitar pioneer. Hearing them talk, I feel like I know these guys, even if I don’t. The power of pidgin makes me feel like I’m home.

Pidgin phrases in this post:

My goodness, this coconut pudding cake is delicious!
Let’s go out (cruising) later.
That’s impossible.
Are you crazy?
There’s going to be lots of food.
That man cheated (robbed) me!
Shortened form of moshi moshi (Japanese for "hello" when answering the phone)
This is all mixed up (upside down, backwards).
Excuse me, please don’t wear your flip flops indoors.

Tanks, eh?


15 thoughts on “talkin’ bout barack

  1. My guess is that his grandfather said “tuh” instead of “to”, and he’s deliberately kept it in order to retain a certain folksiness to his speech. Particularly since he doesn’t always say “tuh”. It comes out regularly in phrases like “You’ve got to be kidding me” as something between “gotta” and “got tuh”. But when he’s being commanding, it skews toward the more deliberate “to.”

    I’m sure he must know and must have spoken Pidgin, in the same way that I’m sure he must also know (and have used) slang such as you’d find in the less-affluent neighborhoods of Chicago where he not only worked, but also played pick-up basketball games.


  2. “moshi moshi” is practically the only Japanese I remember from our three years on Okinawa. It still strikes me as a very odd way to answer the phone.

    This post broke da mout!


  3. Interesting. The “tuh” sounds like something he’s always used, but I can’t really trace it to any Pidgin-ish talk. Yes, of course he knows regional slang, etc., from living and working in Chicago neighborhoods. But because Pidgin is so pervasive, the language he grew up with, I was just curious about how much of it he’s retained — whether it still comes as naturally to him as it does to me when returning to Hawai’i. Maybe great orators are programmed differently?


  4. Fascinating. Just learned something new.

    I found it much easier to learn what is called Pidgin Signed English than to learn Signing Exact English or ASL (though I would argue that ASL is the most beautiful and the only one of those manual languages that is a bonafide language in its own right). All things in moderation, huh?

    I didn’t know HCE even existed. Thanks for the enlightenment.



  5. I was a language studies major in college, so I found this post interesting. 😀 Thank you for this informative post! Makes me fondly remember all those readings for class and papers to write….

    I also noticed the First Lady’s belly button and thought she looked sexy in the picture. Heeheehee.

    Into the Wardrobe


  6. It was a major in the linguistics of the English language, but the degree was called “language studies.” So I studied the history, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, VARIETIES, etc. of English. So there was a lot of discourse analysis, looking at the stylistics of literature… and studying the different Creole Englishes! LOL. It was a lot of nerdy fun. 😀 😀 😀

    Into the Wardrobe


  7. Howzit, Jama?!

    Nice post you wen write! Eh, who sez Obama no can speak da pidgin? So wat? Wen he hangin’ with dakine ‘ohana and hannabata friends, wat he gonna do? If he like holoholo to Hawai’i nei and he like talk story in pidgin’ den I say “Go for it, brah!” Case closed. Shaka, sis!

    A Hui Hou,
    Edna 😉


Comments are closed.