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LG474 Language Rights

Professor Peter Patrick

Daniel Oesterle

The Situation of Hawaiian and Hawai‘i Creole English

A Language Rights Perspective on Language in Hawai‘i 1


The Hawaiian Islands form a unique and immensely rich ecosystem with regard to flora and fauna. But, unbeknownst to many outsiders, the same can be said about languages in Hawai‘i. Due to its history, its geographical location and fertile land, Hawai‘i has developed a remarkable linguistic diversity for such a small area. But while the biodiversity of the Hawaiian Islands has been responsible for Hawai‘i often being called a paradise, the conditions for speakers of some of its languages have been less than paradisiac throughout the history of the Islands.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hawai‘i residents spoke the following languages besides English at home in 2009: Philippino Languages like Tagalog, Llocano and Cebuano (33%), Japanese (16%), Chinese languages, apparently mainly Cantonese (9%), other Asian and Pacific Islands languages like Samoan (15%), Spanish (8%) and other Indo-European languages (6%), as well as, of course, Hawaiian (6%), making “Hawai‘i […] as multilingual a place as one could find in the United States(Lippi-Green 2012, 237). The 2009 statistics quoted by Lippi-Green did not yet record Hawai‘i Creole English (HCE) as a separate language category.

Two of the languages mentioned above are tied to the land (or ‘āina in Hawai‘i) in a special way, because they originated here and are hardly used to a significant extent outside the Hawaiian Islands. These two also happen to be the most interesting from a language rights perspective; they are Hawaiian and Hawai‘i Creole English.

On the one hand, the preservation of the indigenous Hawaiian language or ‘Olelo Hawai‘i is of interest. Hawaiian was “in danger of extinction at several points” (Lippi-Green 2012, 237), and although, with an EGIDS rating of 2 (Ethonlogue 2016b) it is far from being considered endangered, it is spoken today only by a small minority of Hawai‘i residents. As

1 The proper name “Hawai‘i” will consistently be spelled with ‘okina sign, denoting the glottal stop, a meaning- bearing consonant in Hawaiian. In this paper, “Hawai‘i” refers to the geographical entity of the Hawaiian Islands as well as the U.S. State of Hawaii (officially spelled without the ‘okina, cf. government/hawaii). In keeping with English spelling and pronunciation customs “Hawaiian”, used as an adjective and as name for the aboriginal language, will be spelled without the ‘okina for ease of reading.

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mentioned above, only for 6% of people who speak a language other than English at home that language is Hawaiian. As a minority language and as an indigenous language it is worth the attention of those interested in Language Rights.

On the other hand, there is the situation Hawai‘i Creole English (HCE), often simply referred to as Pidgin 2 - although this is technically a misnomer (cf. Wong 2013). It is still strongly stigmatized, associated with poverty and low social status, and called “lazy” and often referred to sometimes even by its speakers – as “Broken English” (cf. Lippi-Green


To understand the situation of both languages I will briefly highlight the relevant points in the history of the Hawaiian Islands. I will talk about how ideology and attitudes toward language have influenced and still influence the life of languages in Hawai‘i. For this, I will among other things analyze a news report about HCE and the ensuing reactions of online commenters. I will go on to point out relevant legal and human rights instruments, especially with regard to education. I will then mention some policies that were implemented in the interest of language rights for the two languages. Finally I will give an outlook on what can and should be done.

Present Issues

‘Olelo Hawai‘i, the native language of the indigenous people of Hawaii is protected under the Native American Languages Acts (NALA), it is a source of pride and identity for the descendants of the indigenous people of Hawai‘i or kama‘āina (children of the land). It is also generally respected by the wider society (in a nostalgic way) and often, like Hawaiian culture in general, romanticized by Mainland Americans, with little regard to “all the issues that follow from annexation and colonization”(Lippi-Green 2012, 235).

HCE, is not protected and also not particularly prestigious (perhaps with the exception of the surfing scene). It has only recently been recognized as a language category separate from English (Nabarr 2015), although its linguistic peculiarities and significant differences from standard English have been documented for a long time (e.g. Reinecke 1935/1969). HCE is also not exactly a minority language roughly 50% of Hawai‘i’s population speak it to some extent, 10-30% use it as their primary language (Lippi-Green 2012, 237). So why is it relevant from a Language Rights viewpoint?

Although HCE uses English as a main lexifier, it incorporates vocabulary from other languages (Hawaiian, Portuguese and Chinese) and, like other creoles, has its own distinct grammar (cf. Lippi-Green 2012). By linguistic standards it could easily be classified a separate language (cf. Wong 2013). Because speaking your own language is a Human Right (), but the use of HCE still stigmatized (cf. Wong 2015, Lippi-Green 2012) and thus effectively discouraged, if not actively discouraged in some contexts. This is what Johnson calls

2 Pidginwith a capital P will be used interchangeably with HCE, pidginwith a lowercase p refers to any pidgin language.

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Unofficial, covert, de facto, and implicit mechanisms, connected to language beliefs and practices, that have regulating power over language use and interaction within communities, workplaces, and schools”(2013, 9).


Understanding the history of the Hawaiian Islands is necessary for understanding the current status of both, ‘Olelo Hawai‘i and Pidgin. The following brief history is based on information by the Smithsonian (n.d.), Hawaii DOE (n.d.) and Lippi-Green (2012, 236ff) if not indicated otherwise.

Around the year 400 AD the Hawaiian Islands were settled by Polynesian navigators who brought their language with them. In 1778 the first European, James Cook, landed on the Island of Kauai. Hawaiian had been the only language spoken in the Islands for centuries and it also thrived in the first unified Hawaiian Empire under King Kamehameha I, who ruled over the Islands from 1791 onward. In 1820 the first Christian missionaries arrived. They created the first dictionaries and developed a writing system for Hawaiian to spread their faith. They were soon followed by traders and whalers. In the following period the native population was diminished by diseases the foreigners had brought with them. Around the same time the pidgin that would form the basis of today’s HCE developed.

Like other pidgins it developed through the contact of several languages, usually three or more. It was made necessary by plantation workers and traders with different mother tongues coming together and needing to communicate with each other, in order to be able to work with each other for a limited time (e.g. when loading and unloading goods in port). Consequently the resulting pidgin had a limited use, therefore also a limited vocabulary and limited grammar. This makeshift language, like all pidgins, was nobody's native language. But when children grow up where Pidgin is spoken, they pick it up and develop it into a full-fledged language system, a creole language (cf. Siegel 2010, Lippi-Green 2012). This is what happened in the case of HCE.

In 1841 King Kamehameha III established the public education system in Hawai‘i, the only system established by a sovereign monarch, and Hawaiian was the main language of instruction. By 1893, however, private English-only schools set up by the white upper class were better funded and more prestigious than public schools with instruction in Hawaiian, the American colonists controlled Hawaii’s sugar-based economy and the Hawaiian king was overthrown. The influence of English continued to increase, until finally Hawaiian was outlawed as language of instruction in 1896. In 1898 Hawai‘i was annexed by the USA, and the Hawaiian Language was further suppressed, leading it to the brink of extinction.

In 1959 Hawai‘i became the 50th U.S. state, opening the way to an ever increasing influx of tourists and U.S. mainlanders. This led to Standard American English being idealized and ideologized as the language of success and upward mobility. (Standard) English-only policies in education prevailed for a long time, which influenced Hawaiian and HCE.

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Only in 1978 Hawaiian became an official language of the State of Hawai‘i along with English and educational programs to promote the use of Hawaiian, and remove the stigma that had been associated with its use. Pidgin however remained stigmatized, and is in fact to this day associated regarded as “a lower-class, uneducated slang dialect” owing to its plantation history(Wong 2013).

2015 was the first time that HCE was recognized as a separate language category from English by the U.S. Census Bureau (Nabarr 2015). This was seen as an important step towards “De-Stigmatizing Hawaii’s Creole Language” (Wong 2015).

The Stigma of HCE

Like most creoles that are still in contact with its main lexifier language, there exists a continuum on which speakers of the creole speaker can move. Depending on r the circumstances of acquisition and the current situation, their speech will be somewhere between basilect, that is the form with the least mutual intelligibility with the main lexifier language (English in our case), and accented standard usage (cf. Siegel 2010; Lippi Green 2012, 238).

Using a similar strategy as Lippi-Green uses to illustrate the complex issues of language and identity in Hawai‘i, I will analyze the original news report that Wong (2015) refers to in her article on de-stigmatizing Pidgin.

The way people speak about the language in the article, as well as the reactions of online commenters illustrate some of the attitudes toward the language and offer some interesting insights for the sociolinguist. Sociolinguistics is a branch of linguistics “concerned with describing language use as a social phenomenon” (Coulmas 1997). The significance of language as an indicator of ethnicity and social status is more significant and pronounced in Hawai‘i than elsewhere (cf. Lippi-Greene 2012, 235), so there are few better places to study language use as a social phenomenon.

The way in which HCE and standard English usage are often alternated is best explained with the concept of diglossia. Diglossia is “a situation where two genetically related varieties of a language, one identified as the H(igh) (or standard) variety and the other as the L(ow) (i.e. nonstandard) variety, have clearly distinct functions in the community. […] [T]he H variety is used in formal settings, whereas the L variety is used in informal interactions(Kamwangamalu 2010). A quote in Nabarr (2015) illustrates this distinction: “The grandmother of nine says there is a time and place to turn Pidgin on and to turn it off, something she's trying to pass on to her family”. Often this depends on the perceived appropriateness of register in the situation, and sometimes an internalized idea of what is “proper” and what is not. This is becomes evident for example in the following statement by the same woman: "There's barriers of when the proper English should come in and when we can be who we are, and I am proud of both,’ Auld said” (Nabarr 2015).

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Reading the comments to this news story reveals a wide range of reactions, from expressions of celebration and empowerment to amusement as well as worrying ignorance. They reveal that people have very different attitudes and show that the stigma is far from being a thing of the past. Especially the idea that proper English is a requirement for economic upward mobility is expressed very drastically, for example in the following exchange between two users:

myauthorizedopinion: Seriously? A lazy language? What's next E_bonics as a valid language for the under educated?

Robert Kendall: It's not "lazy"; the Pacific Rim pidgin languages developed while people with no knowledge of each other's native languages did business with each other. Kinda-sorta the opposite of lazy, chief.

myauthorizedopinion: Explains the absence in a technical environment. Please pay me a 6 figure income while I communicate in a manner that comes across as less than educated.”

It also appears that people struggle to “defend” their language (which they should not have to in the first place) because they are unsure of linguistic facts. For example User Lisa Chantel Hill Wade, after justifiably stating that, “Some of these comments regarding pidgin English are plain stupid.”, makes the potentially misleading remark that “Throughout history pidgen languages have formed. It is the first generation to developing a standard language within a community.

The status of HCE as a potential second language (as opposed to a language variety) is also a subject of the discussion (and some amusement). User Michael McCabe for example says “I'm putting it on my resume hahaha. Oh who dat??? Bi Lingual!!”. To Lippi-Green (2012) this idea is not laughable at all. She quotes an educator saying “[C]hildren who appear to be pidgin speakers to the max, meaning it appears they can’t speak anything else, those same children are sitting in front of the TV set every night r reading standard English […]. They are bilingual”.

Language Rights Instruments

There are many international Human Rights instruments that guarantee people the freedom to speak their own language without being discriminated against. Naturally these also apply to the situation here. First and foremost this would be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), stating in Article 1 that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and in Article 2 that Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (UN 1948).

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In the following I will especially refer to instruments that pertain to education, as this is the most important part of any language policy (cf. Lo Bianco 2010).


An instrument that applies more specifically to Hawaiian is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIPS), asserting the right of indigenous peoples to “ revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons” in Article 13, and in Article 14 “the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning” and that “Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination(UN 2008). While the United States were not among the 143 countries who originally adopted the declaration, President Obama announced that “the United States supports the Declaration, whichwhile not legally binding or a statement of current international lawhas both moral and political force(USA 2010).

In the case of Hawaiian there also exist several applicable instruments on the national and state level. For example the United States’ Native American Languages Act (NALA) makes explicit that it also extends to the indigenous population of Hawai‘i. Section. 103 states that “For purposes of this title(1) The term ‘Native Americanmeans an Indian, Native Hawaiian, or Native American Pacific Islander. The law is intended to ensure the survival of these unique cultures and languages” (USA 1990). The act in Section 104:

It is the policy of the United States to(1) preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages; […] (3) encourage and support the use of Native American languages as a medium of instruction in order to encourage and support


Native American language survival,


educational opportunity,


increased student success and performance,


increased student awareness and knowledge of their culture and

history, and

(E) increased student and community pride;

[…] (5) recognize the right of Indian tribes and other Native American governing bodies to use the Native American languages as a medium of instruction in all schools funded by the Secretary of the Interior;

Another applicable instrument on the state level is the Hawaiian Language Access Law of 2006, which acknowledges that language was a barrier for Hawaiians who identify as Limited English Proficient (LEP) (HI GOV 2016).

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If it is argued that HCE is in fact a separate language, then a range of international laws and conventions would be applicable to HCE. This would have repercussions to its status in education, arguably the most relevant aspect, because this is where it is still suppressed the most. As Christina Higgins, a sociolinguist of the University of Hawai‘i says, Pidgin is just one language among many in Hawaii, including Hawaiian, that have lost out to English-only policies. Language discrimination […] creeps into education policy across the country” (Wong 2013). The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989, UN), which was signed but not ratified by the United States (UN 2016), however states in Articles 29.1 that

The education of the child shall be directed to:

[…] (c) The development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, And furthermore in Article 30 that “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language”.

Efforts and Language Policy

In the following I will give a brief overview on what efforts have been made in terms of language policy, after providing a definition of what language policy entails.

According to Johnson’s synthesis of different accepted definitions, “A language policy is a policy mechanism that impacts the structure, function, use, or acquisition of language and includes: 1. Official regulations often enacted in the form of written documents, intended to effect some change in the form, function, use, or acquisition of language which can influence economic, political, and educational opportunity; 2. Unofficial, covert, de facto, and implicit mechanisms, connected to language beliefs and practices, that have regulating power over language use and interaction within communities, workplaces, and schools; 3. Not just products but processes – “policy” as a verb, not a noun – that are driven by a diversity of language policy agents across multiple layers of policy creation, interpretation, appropriation, and instantiation; 4. Policy texts and discourses across multiple contexts and layers of policy activity, which are influenced by the ideologies and discourses unique to that context” (Johnson 2013, 9).


Language policy and planning have been significant in the development of Hawaiian especially with regard to education. This started with the 1978 State Constitutional Convention, stating in Article X, Section 4 that “The State shall promote the study of Hawaiian culture, history and language…in the public schools.” (cf. HI DOE). The 1980s saw the expansion of Hawaiian studies and Hawaiian being taught in schools, and in 1978 the establishment of the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program (HI DOE). The immersion

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concept is basically a voluntary reversal of the forced English-only requirement of colonial

times, where children were forced to speak nothing but English.

existence of a healthy population of younger speakers along with older speakers and the

language being used in all domains (Ethnologue 2016a).

This has led to the


Ironically, in the same year that the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program began, the Hawaii Department of Education proposed “a policy decision they called ‘Standard English and Oral Communication’” demanding that “Standard English be the mode of oral communication for students and staff in classroom settings(Lippi-Green 2012, 240). This would have technically prohibited the use of HCE and was therefore met with much protest and outrage (as well as some approval). Currently, the “Hawaii DOE doesn’t have a policy governing the use of Pidgin in the classroom” (Wong 2013).

While it is not clear that the recognition of HCE by the US Census Bureau was a deliberate act of language planning, i.e. establishing a policy in order to obtain a pre-defined goal (cf. Lo Bianco 2010), it is definitely an act on behalf of the state that has had an influence on the language. As exemplified by the comments on the report as well as other reactions by the press (cf. Wong 2015) and on social media (e.g. in this entertaining video by Hawaiian comedian and Pidgin advocate Andy Bumatai:, the discourse and social perception of HCE was impacted by the decision. But there might also be some more tangible consequences, after all, Lippi-Green notes, “government funding for all kinds of services is dependent on these [census] statistics” (2012, 238). The recognition could be used to support the claim that HCE is a separate language and thus speakers are entitled to their language being treated as equally valid as standard English. This de-facto recognition was what much of the reaction to the census decision revolved around.

Wong (2015) hopes that this will “encourage educators to integrate it into their teaching, potentially elevating the achievement of Pidgin-speaking studentsand that speakers of comparable linguistic systemsfrom African American Vernacular English, or ebonics, to Chicano Englishmay even see similar changes one day, too”.


In the case of Hawaiian there exist many laws and provisions. The challenge is more that of making sure these laws are applied and that the population continues to use the language. The problem here might be that while “Young speakers are being trained in immersion courses and also very old speakers exist, […] relatively few adult and middle-aged speakers, which results in lack of communication situations for active use. After the forced, top-down decline of colonial times, a lack of active use could lead to a bottom-up language decline.

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Education, especially in schools is probably the single most important factor for the well-being of the two languages discussed here. For Hawaiian, it can only be hoped that the successful immersion programs continue to exist and perhaps will be expanded.

It is also desirable that the success of the immersion model will lead to it being adopted in other places where formerly suppressed native languages are in danger of extinction.

In all this the idea of additive bilingualism as put forward by Lambert (1974) would have to be stressed, that is, the idea that instead of one (second) language being learned and the other (first) language becoming irrelevant, a second language can be acquired while the other retains its value and relevance. The concept could be used to counteract the “belief that one language will overcome and replace others and that that’s a good thing” (Wong 2013) or debunk myths, for example that learning Hawaiian will keep children from learning English, or in the case of HCE, that speaking Pidgin is just a “lazy” way of speaking English.

As the writings by Lippi-Green and Wong show, language rights activists and linguists can help by educating and advocating, and helping people assert their language rights. Sociolinguists in particular can help people understand the difference between a linguistic system and social prejudices that are, although maybe rooted in its history, nothing to do with the language as such.

Perhaps the example of Hawai‘i can also help question counterproductive English- only policies or controversies over the use of African American Vernacular English in schools in the mainland United States, as Wong (2013) suggests.


As it may have become clear the language in Hawai‘i is a very rich topic that could not be discussed here in all its complexity. The issues surrounding Hawaiian and HCE are not the only language- and ethnicity-related sources of tension in Hawai‘i (cf. Lippi-Green 2012, 39). It will be worthwhile for anyone interested in language rights and sociolinguistics to continue to look at language in the Hawaiian Islands from a language rights perspective.

Word Count: 3968

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Ethnologue (2016b). Hawaiian. [online] Available at:

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HI GOV Hawaii, Government of (2016). Hawaii’s Language Access Law. [online] Available at:

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Lambert, W. E. (1974). Culture and language as factors in learning and education. In F. E. Abour & R. D.Meade (Eds.) Cultural factors in learning and education, 91122. Bellingham, WA: 5th Western Washington Symposium on Learning.

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Siegel, J. (2010) Pidgins and creoles. In Nancy H. Hornberger & Sandra Lee McKay (Eds.) Sociolinguistics and Language Education. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters,


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Wong, A., (2015). De-Stigmatizing Hawaii’s Creole Language. The Atlantic. [online] Available at: