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The islands of Hawaii are renowned for their stunning natural scenery, vibrant culture, and thriving tourism industry. But as an isolated archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a unique history, Hawaii has developed its own distinct identity that sets it apart from the rest of the United States.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The main language spoken in Hawaii is English along with Hawaiian Pidgin English, which is a creole language derived from English with significant influences from Japanese, Tagalog, Portuguese, and other immigrant languages.

In this approximately 3000 word article, we will explore the full answer to the question of what language is spoken in Hawaii. We will learn about the state’s main languages English and Pidgin Hawaiian, trace the history and development of the territory’s languages, analyze the current language demographics and policies, and predict what the future may hold for languages in Hawaii.

English Dominates but Hawaiian Pidgin English Abounds

The primary language spoken in Hawaii is English. As a state of the United States, English is used in government, business, education, and daily life by the majority of Hawaii’s residents. However, Hawaii is also home to a unique dialect known as Hawaiian Pidgin English or simply Pidgin.

Pidgin originated over 100 years ago as a common language for plantation workers from different ethnic backgrounds to communicate. It combines simplifed English vocabulary with influences from Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Portuguese languages.

Today, an estimated 600,000 people in Hawaii regularly speak Pidgin in informal contexts.

Prevalence of English

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 data, 78% of Hawaii residents speak only English at home. English is ubiquitous in media, business, government services, and the public education system. The University of Hawaii and most private schools use English as the primary language of instruction.

For new immigrants and tourists, the dominance of English makes Hawaii one of the more accessible states. Important services like emergency response call centers and hospitals offer interpreter services in multiple languages, but English remains the common tongue.

Prevalence of Hawaiian Pidgin

While standard American English prevails, Pidgin also has a strong everyday presence and cultural significance. An estimated 25-43% of Hawaii’s population are native Pidgin speakers. It is common to hear Pidgin spoken in shops, restaurants, schools, and neighborhoods, especially among locals.

Linguists classify Pidgin as a creole language that has evolved from its plantation origins into a unique dialect with its own grammar, vowel sounds, and slang. While some view Pidgin as “broken English”, it serves as an expression of Hawaii’s blended, multicultural identity and local pride.

There have been occasional efforts to promote Pidgin in the education system due to its cultural importance. However, standard English remains the language used for official written and business communication in Hawaii.

Locals seamlessly switch between the two languages depending on the social context.

The Legacy of Hawaiian Language

The Hawaiian language was once exclusively spoken by Native Hawaiians across the islands. After the arrival of American missionaries and the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, laws suppressed the use of Hawaiian in schools and society.

By the 1980s, there were less than 50 children who spoke Hawaiian as a first language.

In recent decades, Hawaiian language revitalization efforts through language immersion programs and cultural education have expanded the number of fluent speakers. As of 2016, over 18,600 people reported having Hawaiian language ability.

Use of common Hawaiian words and phrases in Hawaii’s tourism sector and local culture also keeps elements of the language alive.

Tracing the Origins and Evolution of Languages in Hawaii

Early Hawaiian Language

The Hawaiian language traces its origins back to the settlers who arrived in the Hawaiian islands around 400-500 AD. As the native Polynesian people developed their own distinct culture in Hawaii over centuries, their language also evolved into what we now know as the Hawaiian language (ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi).

Early Hawaiian was only a spoken language until foreign missionaries created a written system using the Latin alphabet in the early 19th century.

Multiple Waves of Immigration and Pidgin Languages

The Hawaiian language started changing rapidly in the 1800s when immigrants from all over the world came to work on the islands’ sugar plantations. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Filipino contract workers all brought traces of their native languages.

Hawaii also saw an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and Puerto Rico.

As these diverse groups tried to communicate, a unique Hawaiian Pidgin language emerged that mixed English vocabulary with influences from Asian and Polynesian languages. This pidgin became a common language that enabled communication between plantation workers.

Over time, children growing up speaking this pidgin at home evolved it into a creole language.

Emergence of a Distinct Hawaiian Pidgin

The 20th century saw the emergence of a more systematic and stable Hawaiian Pidgin that had clearer phonetic and syntactic rules. Spoken Hawaiian Pidgin English integrates simplified grammar rules from Asian languages and vocabulary from Hawaiian, English, and other languages.

While originally seen as an informal language, Hawaiian Pidgin is now considered a legitimate language spoken by locals in Hawaii in daily conversations.

So the modern Hawaii landscape features 3 main languages – native Hawaiian, immigrant English, and the locally evolved Hawaiian Pidgin creole. Though English remains the state’s official language, efforts in the late 20th century focused on reviving Hawaiian in schools and media to preserve this core part of Hawaii’s cultural identity.

Assessing the Current State of Languages

Census Data on Languages Used

According to the latest census data, English and Hawaiian are the predominant languages spoken at home in Hawaii. Here are some key findings:

  • 73.4% of Hawaii residents speak only English at home
  • 2.6% speak Hawaiian at home, either exclusively or in combination with English
  • Other languages spoken at home include Tagalog (6.2%), Japanese (2.2%), and Chinese (1.8%)

This shows that while English remains the dominant language across the islands, Hawaiian and other languages brought by immigrants continue to have a strong presence. Interestingly, the use of Hawaiian at home has increased over the past few decades, likely due to revitalization efforts in schools and communities.

Government Policies on Official Languages

Both English and Hawaiian were made official state languages of Hawaii in 1978. This means state agencies and governments are required to make all public documents, notices, and official acts available in both languages. However, in practice, most official business tends to be conducted in English.

Language Official Status Usage in Government
English Official state language Extensively used
Hawaiian Official state language Limited usage

Efforts are ongoing to increase the visibility of Hawaiian in government at both state and county levels. For example, Hawaii County has passed policies to incorporate more Hawaiian language into street signs, government websites, letterheads, and state parks.

However, budget and resource constraints remain a barrier. Overall, while symbolic progress has been made, there is still room for growth in normalizing Hawaiian in official contexts.

Predicting the Language Future of Hawaii

Revitalization of Native Hawaiian

Efforts to revitalize the Native Hawaiian language have gained momentum in recent decades. Hawaiian language immersion schools like the Niihau School are helping to raise a new generation of native speakers.

Community language programs, online resources, and university courses are also expanding access and use of Hawaiian. According to the U.S. Census, the number of Hawaiian speakers jumped from under 2,000 in 1990 to over 24,000 in 2020.

While still a small share of Hawaii’s population, this over 10-fold increase shows the growing importance of the language. If current trends continue, Hawaiian could become much more visible and widely used across the islands in the decades to come.

Continued Prominence of Pidgin

The local Hawaii Pidgin dialect has long been an integral part of everyday life and culture in the islands. While often stigmatized in the past, Pidgin is now more accepted and recognized as a unique language in its own right.

Recent estimates suggest over 600,000 Hawaii residents speak Pidgin, making it arguably the territory’s most widely used language after English. Given Pidgin’s deep roots and continued use in homes, schools, media, and entertainment, it will likely maintain its current status for decades ahead.

Code-switching between English, Pidgin, and other languages reflects Hawaii’s multicultural heritage. Future generations may think nothing of seamlessly blending linguistic traditions in daily conversation.

Potential for English to Remain Dominant

As an official language of government, business, and education in Hawaii, English will remain essential for accessing economic and social opportunities. Continued migration and tourism also help reinforce the dominant position of English in the territory.

However, some linguists predict its gradual “indigenization” or hybridization with Hawaiian and Pidgin elements. Much like Singapore’s English-lexicon creole “Singlish,” Hawaii English may further differentiate from other American English dialects. The results could sound quite foreign to outsiders!

But for local residents, it would simply reflect the unique blend of linguistic and cultural influences that shape Hawaii’s identity.


To conclude, while English continues to be the dominant language used in government, business, and education in Hawaii, the unique Hawaiian Pidgin derived from its immigrant history plays an integral cultural role and is spoken fluently by many residents in their daily lives.

Efforts are also underway to preserve and revitalize the legacy of the Native Hawaiian language in the islands. As Hawaii evolves in the 21st century while celebrating its distinctive identity, language will remain at the heart of its rich diversity and heritage.

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