How Japanese Gives Birth To New Languages Languages that came from Japanese

    It’s no secret that Japan and Hawaii have a special relationship. There are a ton of people with Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii, it’s common vacation destination for many Japanese (my Japanese relatives took their honeymoon in Hawaii), and there’s lots of Japanese elements in Hawaiian culture.

    spam musubi
    Spam musubi, anybody?
    Source: Christina C

    But Japan’s impact on Hawaii doesn’t stop there! The Japanese language has literally changed the way people in Hawaii talk.

    Aside from the two official languages of Hawaii, English and Hawaiian, there’s another language that’s incredibly popular: Hawaiian Creole. It’s a bit like English, but with a little Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish thrown in.

    Confused? Let me explain.

    Hawaiian Creole

    Hawaiian Creole is a strange, cool amalgamation of a bunch of different languages that was born only a couple hundred years ago.

    (Hawaiian Creole is usually called “Hawaiian Pidgin” or just “Pidgin”, but that’s not quite accurate for reasons I’ll talk about later.)

    Back in the day, workers were brought to Hawaii from all over the world to work on sugar plantations. These workers were mostly from Asian countries like China, the Philippines, and – you guessed it – Japan.

    When these immigrant workers got to Hawaii, they didn’t quite know the language of the plantation owners (which was usually English), nor did they really understand each other.

    Hawaiian sugar plantation
    Source: Shihmei Barger 舒詩玫

    So they worked with what they had. They tried to speak to each other in English, and threw in parts of their native tongue where they could. Over time, this combination of English and native tongues grew into a common tongue. Once Hawaiian Creole found its footing, it spread all over Hawaii.

    Hawaiian Creole sounds most like English, but borrows a lot of vocabulary from other languages. It borrows heavily from Japanese, as you can tell from its numerous phrases and loanwords. Here are some common ones:

    Japanese Hawaiian Creole English
      Bobora A hick from Japan
    ぼちゃぼちゃ Bocha Take a bath
    藍褸 Boro boros Dirty clothes, rags
    茶碗 Chawan cut Bowl cut
    大根 Daikon legs Short, stubby legs
    Hanabata Snot-nosed
    Hashi Chopsticks (not to be confused with my name, 橋)
    尿 Shishi Pee
    醤油 Shoyu Soy sauce
    助平 Skebe Horny
    少し Skosh Just a little
    草履 Zori Flip-flops

    What’s really cool is that Hawaiian Creole is only one of many languages that started out as a mashup of Japanese; there have been a handful of other Japanese-influenced pidgin languages (like Japanese Pidgin English and Japanese Bamboo English).

    But this phenomenon of language mashups isn’t confined to Japanese by any means.

    Creole Around The World

    Creole languages are forming all over the world all the time. The American South in particular has lots of interesting creole languages, where American, European, and African immigrants all came together to work. Some people even say that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a type of creole, developed when slaves from all over Africa were forced to work together in the US.

    closeup of a globe
    Source: Stephen Ritchie

    You can see a creole language develop any place in the world where there are a lot of immigrants from different places together. It all starts pretty much the same way – people start trying to communicate in a common tongue.

    At this stage, the language is what’s known as a pidgin. Pidgins don’t usually have consistent grammar, and aren’t really considered a “complete” language.

    But when children learn a pidgin as their first language, it gets transformed into a more complete, comprehensive language called a creole. Linguists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker argue that humans have a built in instinct for language, that humans know how to speak the same way birds know how to fly.

    closeup of puzzle pieces
    Source: John Hritz

    When children learn a pidgin, their language instinct kicks into gear. They take the bits and pieces that their parents gave them and fill in the gaps. These children give the pidgin more consistent grammar, structure, and vocabulary basically creating a whole, complete language.

    It’s a really fascinating process, and completely shuts down the argument that Hawaiian Creole, AAVE, or any other creole is some kind of lesser, broken language. But by the time a pidgin becomes a creole, it’s grown into a language in its own right.

    Something really interesting to think about is if Japanese itself is a creole language. Nobody really knows where the Japanese languages came from, and some really fringe theories wonder if they started out as creoles. It’s doubtful that it’s true, but it’s cool to imagine Japanese as a creole.