American Dialect: Alaska & Hawaii

In this final installment of our series on American dialect we take a look at the dialects spoken in the two newest states, Alaska and Hawaii. Both were American possessions since the 19th century and both were admitted to the Union in 1959. Other than that, they have very little in common. Alaska is the only arctic state and Hawaii is the only tropical one. Alaska is the largest state in terms of area (over twice the size of Texas the next competitor) and Hawaii is one of the smallest (47th of the 50). Hawaii, on the other hand, has nearly twice the population of Alaska.

Linguistically, both have a strong native influence, but the similarity stops there. Alaskan terms are strongly influenced by Tlingit and Inuit (with a faint hint of Russian dating back to the days before the Tsar sold Alaska to the US), while Hawaiian is a Polynesian language. Outside of a specialized vocabulary relating to the arctic environment, Alaskans speak a very standard form of American English. Most Alaskans are not natives, having moved there from the Lower-48. There are, however, distinct Hawaiian pronunciations and grammatical rules to the English spoken there.

Some of these unique Alaskan terms are:

babiche, n., rawhide thread, often made of caribou hide; from Canadian French and ultimately from the Algonquin apapish, cord, 1806.

banya, n., a sauna or steambath, from the Russian, one of the few linguistic traces of Russian control left in Alaska, 1892.

break up, n., spring thaw, the time of year the thaw occurs, 1868, cf. freeze up.

bush, n., wilderness, back country, probably an adoption of the Dutch bosch, 1826.

cache, n., a building for storing supplies, often elevated on poles six to ten feet off the ground; an extension of the standard sense, from the French for hiding place, this particular Alaskan sense dates from 1867.

cheechako, n., newcomer, tenderfoot; from Chinook Jargon, chee (new) + chako (to come), 1897.

freeze-up, n., the freezing of bodies of water rendering them unnavigable, the time of year this occurs, 1876, cf. break up.

hooch, n., an alcoholic beverage, esp. one that is homemade or of low quality, from Hoochinoo, the name of Tlingit native tribe who made such a beverage, 1877 for hoochinoo, clipped to hooch by 1897. Now common throughout the US.

inside, adv., the interior, central region of Alaska, 1905, cf. outside.

lower forty-eight, n., the contiguous, continental United States, 1959.

mukluk, n., a boot, usually with a sealskin sole and high upper of fur, originally mukluk boot, 1868; transferred to mean a house slipper with leather sole and knit top, 1940; from the Yupik maklak, bearded seal. Also mukluk telegraph, meaning word of mouth, grapevine telegraph, 1945.

mush, v., to proceed, to travel, esp. via dogsled, also used as a command meaning get moving, corruption of the French imperative Marche, 1902.

muskeg, n., a marsh or bog, from the Algonquin (Ojibway mashkig, Cree mashkek), also in Canadian and Minnesotan usage, 1890.

outside, n., a populated area, esp. one not in Alaska, 1896, cf. inside.

skookum, adj., strong, good, from Chinook Jargon, 1894.

sourdough, n., a long-time resident of Alaska, originally an experienced Klondike prospector, from their diet of sourdough bread, 1898.

Hawaiian English
As we have said, Hawaiian English has some distinct grammar and pronunciation. First it is important to distinguish between the English spoken in Hawaii and the Hawaiian language itself. True Hawaiian is an entity all to itself, a Polynesian language. While the dialect of English spoken in Hawaii has borrowed quite a few words from the Hawaiian language, the two are very different.

Hawaiian is one of the world’s endangered languages. Ethnologue states that of some 237,000 ethnic Hawaiians, there are only about 1,000 native speakers left, with about half of these past the age of 70. The other 500 are mainly located on the island of Ni’ihau. Another 8,000 or so speak Hawaiian fluently.

The situation with Hawaiian Creole English, however, is very different. It is a strong, healthy dialect of English. Hawaiian Creole English is pretty much mutually unintelligible with standard English. About 600,000 people, or half the state’s population, speaks this dialect of English. And over 100,000 cannot speak standard English at all. There are another 100,000 speakers of Hawaiian Creole English on the mainland and many of the other half of the Hawaiian population can speak as a second language.

Hawaiian Creole English is a mix of standard English and Hawaiian. The inflections (word endings) are simplified in comparison with standard English and not only is the accent Hawaiian, but the intonation in many cases is Polynesian as well. Questions in the creole, for example, do not have a rising intonation at the end as they do in English. Rather, the intonation rises in the middle of the sentence and then falls, as in Polynesian languages.

Some of the vocabulary of Hawaiian Creole English is as follows:

aloha, n., love, sympathy, good feeling, used as a greeting or farewell, 1820.

brah, n., brother, from Hawaiian Pidgin English.

da kine, c.phr., multi-purpose term of non-specific meaning; it is a Hawaiian shibboleth; it can be used substantively: “take da kine (broom) and sweep the floor;” pronominally: “Where da kine (it) goin’ be?”; and adjectivally: “he caught da kine (greatest) wave.” From Hawaiian Pidgin English, 1951.

hana hou, interj., encore, one more time, 1954.

haole, n., non-Hawaiian, a Caucasian person, literally foreigner, 1826.

Hapa haole, n., a person of mixed Hawaiian and Caucasian ancestry, hapa (part, half) + haole, 1919.

holo, v., also reduplicated holoholo, to walk or move about, esp. for pleasure, 1954.

hoomalimali, v., to flatter, 1955.

hukilau, v., to drive fish into a net, 1967.

kamaaina, n., a Hawaiian-born person or a long-time resident of Hawaii; a haole can be a kamaaina, literally “child of the land,” 1875. Also adj. Cf. malihini.

lanai, n., a porch, veranda, or patio, 1823; now common outside of Hawaii.

lei, n., a garland of flowers or leaves, worn on the head or around the neck, 1840.

luau, n., a feast, 1853, from the Hawaiian word for the edible leaves of the taro plant.

makai, adv. & adj., toward the sea, seaward, 1873. Cf. mauka.

malihini, n., stranger, newcomer, neophyte, also adj. strange, uncharacteristic, 1914, cf. kamaaina.

mauka, adv. & adj., inland, toward the mountains, 1873. Cf. makai.

muumuu, n., a loose-fitting dress, often of bright-colored fabric, now in widespread use, 1938.

one, art., a, an, Hawaiian Pidgin English.

poi, n., dish made from ground and fermented taro root, 1823.

try, interj., please, Hawaiian Pidgin English.

ukulele, n., a small, four-stringed guitar, a development of a Portuguese instrument, machete de braga, introduced to Hawaii in 1879, in English use from 1896, from uku (flea) + lele (jumping), the name comes from the nickname of Edward Purvis, a British Army officer and vice-chamberlain of King Kalakaua’s court (1874-93). Purvis, nicknamed ukulele or “jumping flea” because of his small build and quick movements, was fond of the instrument. 

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