Talking Story

Island Style

People often ask me what their name is in Hawaiian. The request isn’t as odd as it sounds; if you’ve ever traveled to Hawaii, I’m sure you were overwhelmed with all the kitsch offered in stores personalized with Your Hawaiian Name Here!, everything from cheap plastic placemats to high-end solid gold jewelry. It’s a source of endless fascination for tourists who want to make a connection with something exotic.

Unfortunately, the idea of plug and go translations of non-Hawaiian names into Hawaiian is also among biggest shibai exports about Hawaiian culture, right next to pineapple on pizza and coconut bras.

Back in the 1800s, when missionaries translated spoken Hawaiian into a written language, they used only 12 letters of the English alphabet (a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, p, w) and added two punctuation marks (the kahakō and ‘okina) to help convey the way a word is pronounced.  In addition to using only half of the English alphabet, Hawaiian words never contain two consonants together and never end in a consonant. To the English speaker, it’s all a bunch of  broken and elongated vowel sounds sprinkled with a random h, k, or m.

Which got some akamai kanaka thinking: if I can come up with an easy and consistent way to take non-Hawaiian names and give them a Hawaiian twist, I’ll laugh all the way to the bank. Developed over 150 years ago, most non-Hawaiian to Hawaiian name translations are based on a simple letter/sound substitution system that doesn’t allow double consonants or consonant endings. This hidden system gives the illusion of authenticity and explains why name translations are so consistent across various sources and so consistently wrong.

Take Katherine, for example. It’s my mother’s name and a source of endless amusement to my part-Hawaiian father. “Katherine” is “Kakalina” in Your Hawaiian Name Here! translations. It’s also the Hawaiian word for gasoline, super hilarious in a couple of pau hana beers way since my Dad worked for Chevron in Hawaii and later owned a gas station. In typical Hawaiian tradition, he gave her expensive gold bracelets, rings, and necklaces all proudly proclaiming Kakalina in black enameled script. He said that way he could write them off as advertising.

Most of the time the Hawaiian name translations result in pure gibberish. Most of the time. Sometimes they are pee your pants hilarious to those who know a little of the language, making my mother’s gasoline jewelry look merely quaint.

All of which is too bad, really, when you understand the importance names hold in Hawaiian culture. Real Hawaiian names are a sacred, serious business that require much thought, prayer, and consultation among family and friends before being bestowed. (More on this in an upcoming blog.)

If someone really wants to know what his or her name is in Hawaiian, I’ll ask for the origin and meaning behind the name and look for a comparable Hawaiian word or phrase.

Katherine is Greek in origin and is often translated as “pure.”  Hemolele is a Hawaiian word with connotations of flawless, holy, saintly, pure in heart, complete, and person without fault—far more beautiful and accurate for my mother than gasoline.

When it comes to Hawaiian names, keep in mind that Hawaiian words are highly poetic and layered in meaning; things are not always what they seem. It also pays to know who you’re asking. When pestered once too often at a family party on the mainland, Mr. Hilarious once told a nephew that his name in Hawaiian was ‘Okole, which is what my cousin told his friends to call him. Years later when I met up with this cousin and some of his friends, I had to pull him aside and tell him he needed a new nickname. He’d been the literal butt of my father’s joke long enough.

I hated having to go to a new school, and the change between Kahului Elementary on Maui and Kamiloiki Elementary on Oahu couldn’t have been more dramatic. At Kahului the kids were only one or two generations from the sugar cane plantation and lived in multi-generational homes. The teachers taught in pidgin, and everyone had one pair of slippahs, period.

At Kamiloki the kids were Japanese or haole from upper-middle class families and never wore the same clothes twice. Most kids were simply marking time in a public elementary on their way to a private intermediate school and had extra tutoring classes on weekends and afternoons to give them an extra edge. No one spoke pidgin, not even the kids, something I didn’t realize until the first parent-teacher conferences when Mrs. Goo, nose in the air, sniffed that I needed to learn standard English; my pidgin was deplorable.

“Excuse me?” said Mom. Since I only spoke standard English to my mother, a haole from the mainland, she was understandably confused.

“I said Lehua does not speak English well. Her constant use of pidgin disrupts the class and the teaching I am doing. We speak English in this school, and Lehua does not.” She sniffed again. She was lucky it wasn’t raining.

“Lehua, would you come here a moment?” she called.

I popped my head into the doorway. “Yes, Mom?” I said.

“Mrs. Goo says you need to speak standard English in class, not pidgin. She seems to think you can’t.”

“Oh. I thought pidgin was for school and English was for home,” I said in perfect non-pidgin accented English. I glanced at Mrs. Goo. She was catching flies, her mouth was so open.

“You need to speak as you are spoken to,” Mom clarified.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize what I was doing. I think in both, so it’s hard sometimes to remember which I’m speaking. I’ll pay more attention.” I gave Mrs. Goo side eye. Wow, I thought, she going for one fly catching record!

“Thank you. Now wait for me outside,” said Mom. “We’ll discuss this more at home.”

Oh, great, I thought, more drilling with tree/three, sshtreet/street, libarry/library. Shoulda sparked out da rules befoa time. At least I no going get lickins tonight. I hope.

Unfortunately, things haven’t changed all that much since I was in Elementary school. Every school has its own rules and customs and heaven help the kid who can’t figure out which teacher is mean, which likes to joke, and when you can and can’t ask to go to the bathroom.

My kids, Aaron and Cheryl, are both going to new schools this year, moving from a private school to public schools. While I knew there would be differences, I never expected some of the things we’ve discovered.

New School Rules

Cheryl
“My teacher isn’t assigning us cubbies, so every day you use a different one.”
“Why?”
“’Cause there are 30 cubbies and 31 students, so someone isn’t going to get one.”
“So what happens if you don’t get one? Where do you put your stuff?”
“I dunno; I’ve gotten one every day!”

Aaron
“Only 6th grade boys get the swings. You’re supposed to do a cool trick off the swing. If you land it, you get more street cred with the boys. If you biff it, all the girls come fluttering to see if you’re okay. It’s a win-win.”

Cheryl
“My teacher has a thing about walking in the halls. He keeps yelling “space and pace” and “quiet!” We’re supposed to march single file, with our arms folded, hugging the wall and the blue line. It’s like an Olympic sport with him. He wants us to beat the other classes, whatever that means.”

Aaron
“The idea of hot school lunches is more exciting than the real thing.”
“Why’s that?”
“Let’s just say they rank below the Train and Wendy’s, around McDonald’s level. That’s pretty bad.”
“You’re saying you want me to buy more ham and turkey?”
“Please!”

Cheryl
“There’s this kid on the bus who wants to sit by me every day.”
“Oh?”
“She’s only in 1st grade, though.”
“Maybe she wants to sit by you so she can feel like one of the big girls.”
“Uh, I don’t think so. She keeps talking about how it’s a good thing I’m not a stranger. Otherwise, she’d kill me.”
“Find somewhere else to sit.”
“Tell me about it.”

Aaron
“I finally have a locker.”
“Cool.”
“Yeah. Only it’s as far away from my class and the band room as possible.”
“Run fast.”
“I can’t. If the security cameras catch me at my locker after school starts or running in the halls, I lose a whole citizenship grade for the semester. Citizenship is 50% of your overall grade in each class.”
“What? What’re you supposed to do with your trumpet if they won’t let you use your locker during the day and you can’t have it in your regular classes?”
“I have no idea. Quit band?”
“Nice try.”

birdOne of the big stumbling blocks to writing Hawaiian fiction in the “bird,” as I recently heard someone call Pidgin, is finding the audience. Native Hawaiian Pidgin English speakers like to talk story and certainly sing story; read story maybe not so much. At least that’s the argument Hawaiian writers have heard for decades, along with it’s too low-brow, too stylized, and since Pidgin spelling isn’t officially standardized, just too much work for the reader, who, the naysayers claim, would rather be surfing or talking story or doing the laundry–anything–instead of reading or buying books.

Having spent a lot of time over many years trying to find other authors publishing in Pidgin and finding something resembling a desert atoll,  I think it’s less about whether or not Pidgin speakers are book readers, but about traditional publishing models. The Hawaiian writers are there with the stories, and I think the readers are too, but not on the scale that attracts the big print boys. What Pidgin literature exists is generally sanitized and stripped of most of the rhythm and flow of Pidgin and really just tosses in a phrase or two for flavor–trying to hit the largest audience possible and unfortunately missing the heart of Hawaii.

Traditional publishing models believe there is no significant market for this kind of literature and therefore have found it too risky to promote. But eBooks are changing the way books are published and marketed. Niche markets take time to develop, and eBooks have virtually no expiration date–literally. EBooks allow authors to build audiences and demand over time without the immediate need for high returns to pay back the large investments traditional publishers make upfront in printing and promoting a book.

So maybe with eBooks, we’ll all read a little more da kine. Nice, yeah?

Originally from Hawaii and a Kamehameha Schools graduate, Lehua writes fiction set in the imaginary town of Lauele, Oahu. Her newest book, One Boy, No Water, Book 1 of The Niuhi Shark Saga, is scheduled for hardback and eBook publication on Sept. 22, 2012 by Jolly Fish Press.

The Niuhi Shark Saga books are written in American English with lots of dialogue in Hawaiian Pidgin. Hawaiian Pidgin, or just Pidgin as it is called in Hawaii, is a polyglot language with its roots in Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, English, and Filipino. Hawaiian Pidgin developed as people from all over the world came to Hawaii in the 1800s looking for a better life. Over time, Pidgin has evolved into a heavily English-based language while retaining its original syntax, grammar, and lilt. While almost everyone in Hawaii today speaks, reads, and writes standard American English, true communication, the kind that speaks from the heart is in Pidgin.

This blog is dedicated to all Pidgin speakers and the stories we tell.

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