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Da Word by Lee A. Tonouchi + Author Interview [in aMagazine: Inside Asian America]

da wordDa Pidgin Guy: Lee Tonouchi reclaims his native language

They call him “Da Pidgin Guerrilla.” Bekuz o’ da way he talk. And da fak dat he determined to keep duh langwage of da Locals alive. He no giv up. Evuh.

Lee Tonouchi, 28, is an expert in language. As a fourth-generation Hawai’i local with a master’s in English, who teaches at a local Honolulu community college, he champions Pidgin, also known as “hybolics,” as a bonafide form of linguistic expression, specific to the Hawai’i community. Besides writing his graduate thesis in Pidgin, he conducts his every day life in Pidgin. He’s even got a magazine, appropriately titled Hybolics, devoted to reclaiming, preserving, and celebrating Pidgin.

His writings have won him an Academy of American Poets Award and two playwrighting contests at Kumu Kahua, the nation’s second oldest Asian American theater company, based in Honolulu. Just arrived on the mainland is Da Word (Bamboo Ridge Press, 144 pages, $15), Tonouchi’s entertaining collection of short stories composed entirely in his native tongue. And he’s not letting anyone correct his English.

Give us a little history of Pidgin – what exactly is it?
People say dat Pidgin originated wit da plantations. Cuz had immigrants from all ova – so da result of all da interacking wuz dis mixture of languages. My tinkings is dat one of da first Pidgins in Hawai’i wuz probably wen da white man first came ova hea. So one blend of Hawaiian and English wuz probably da result. Da linguists who study Pidgin say dat lotta da gramatical structures of Pidgin stay rooted in Hawaiian which makes sense. Da ony kooky ting is dat da linguists call Pidgin, “Hawai’i Creole English.” Dey say dat Pidgin is one misnomer. Pidgin is called Pidgin but is not really one pidgin. Confusing, yeah?

Very. So what exactly is “hybolics” then?
Hybolics is shot fo’ “hyperbolic,” or da use of hyperbole, da exaggerated form of speech. Long time ago wen Pidgin to da Max came out, da ting wen define hybolics as “to talk like one intellectual-kine haole.” Built into dis definition is da assumption dat ony Caucasian people talk standard english and standard english automatically means mo’ intellectual. By taking da name “hybolics,” wot we trying fo’ do is reclaim da word and make da statement dat you can use Pidgin jus as well fo’ express da kine intellectural ideas.

Do you always speak in Pidgin?
Now, yeah. Befo’, no. Befo’, you stay in school, da teachers no let you go bachroom if you tell, “Can go bachroom?” Dey tell, “I don’t know, can you?” You gotta say ‘em, “May I please use the restroom?” And if you no do ‘em, den you jus gotta hold your shi-shi.

What are the key Pidgin words that everyone should know?
“Da kine.” [An all-purpose word used to replace forgotten or unknown words.] To me dat best illustrates da whole theories of Pidgin. Lot of Pidgin is contextual and you gotta use your intuition to figure out da meaning. You gotta feel da meaning.

What would you like to see written on your tombstone?
I still young yet, so I no tink about dat. How about “I no like die. But I guess I did.”

Author interview: “Da Pidgin Guy: Lee Tonouchi reclaims his native language,” aMagazine: Inside Asian America, June/July 2001

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2001



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