Ainokea: pidgin polysemy

One of the basic properties of words is that they are polysemous: they have many meanings. Take the word get: you can get a table (meaning procure or reserve a table) and you can get sick (meaning become ill).

People also make moral judgements about language–we expect that people express their beliefs and attitudes towards the world through language, and we judge people based on how they talk.

Enter Ainokea.

For those of you not from Hawaii, Ainokea is a Hawaiianized/Pidginized version of “I no care,” which at first glance seems to be the pidgin “translation” of “I don’t care.”

[Note: This Hawaiianized/Pidginized rendering of the Pidgin phrase could be described as Pidgin written in Hawaiian orthography, as it matches the sounds of Pidgin if they had been written in the Hawaiian language. It also matches the Odo orthography (a writing system used by some linguists to describe Hawaiian Creole English or “Pidgin”). The Odo orthography more closely represents the sound of Pidgin than “I no care,” but we could discuss other aspects of the choice to “Pidginify” or Hawaiianize the spelling: does it represent a separatist attitude between Pidgin and English? Is it simply word play? The choice of adding the Hawaiian islands seems to evoke a kind of local-ness, but that’s a post for another day.]

Ainokea t-shirts started popping up about 5 years ago around Hawaii, leading to a sort of moral panic. Some of my teacher friends from the mainland banned the t-shirts in their classrooms saying “in this classroom, we care.” Similarly, the first response I saw was characteristically Christian:

Aikea: I do what HE like (note that the pastor was giving a sermon on “Ainokea”).

Ainokea became shorthand for all kinds of social ills: lack of respect and self-centeredness; meth-heads and lazy localspolitical and social indifference; a “beavis and butt-head” attitude; lack of engagement with the outside world; lack of empathy; the loss of aloha. Even the mayor putting his feet on the desk signified his ainokea attitude. Here are some examples:

Some helpful folks are planting aloe and mother-in-law’s tongues at the base of trees where the ainokea crew dump their hot coals.

The City’s attitude: “We don’t care what the Mainland is doing,” Honolulu Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka said. Ainokea is right Mr. Yioshioka. For the record, I see the numbers and Aikea (emphasis added).

But here’s where the polysemy comes in. I was out with some friends trying to decide where to go for dinner, and the response? Ainokea, it’s all good. So I started asking my pidgin-speaking friends “what does Ainokea mean to you?” The majority emphasized that it meant you were easy going and flexible. The same T-shirt company prints this definition:

ai-no-kea 1) free from worry or doubt 2) relaxed or casual in style or manner 3) the state of being unrestricted 4) hakuna matata Hawaiian for “carefree”

For most speakers, “care,” has both the meaning to look after/feel affection for as well as concern and anxiety. The T-shirt company and many of the defenders of the shirts argue that the shirt is concerned with the second meaning; critics argue the first meaning (and some of the people wearing the shirts have this opinion).

Either way, Ainokea often references certain kinds of localness. From the Hawaiian islands on the logo, to the localized spelling, it evokes localness, though whether that means carefree and easygoing or lazy and selfish is contested. This yelper invokes several resources: heineken, skankin’ to island reggae, slippahs, flower–all marks of a certain kind of local-ness, though one that only someone very familiar with Hawaii (and who may even sometimes identify as local) would choose to use.

I still don’t get the whole “Ainokea” concept and why it was or is so popular. I think it’s stupid, personally. My girlfriend gave me a Ainokea tank top for my birthday. Seriously. When was the last time she ever seen me sport a pua in my ear, two different color slippahs, a heine in one hand and a pitcher in the other, skanking to “it’s a two person party tonight”?

What is interesting to me is that many of the criticisms of ainokea are by locals. So we have a contested form of polysemy–when we see this T-shirt, we see different meanings. But is it the case that the more “pidgin” you are, the more you see the latter and the less you see the former? In Hawaii, Pidgin and English are rarely mutually exclusive–they influence and shape each other. So after all the talk surrounding ainokea, has that meaning changed?

and then there’s this:

(“I no more hair” would translate as “I don’t have any hair”)


5 thoughts on “Ainokea: pidgin polysemy

  1. Interesting post! I’ve always thought the shirts came off a bit on the self-centered side of the spectrum, but that’s more to do with the “I do what I like” tagline than the word “ainokea.” That said, I’ve always loved it (and yeah, I own Ainokea merchandise); it’s funny and clever, and I’ve never read the attitude as negative so much as willful. Didn’t know it had been so controversial.

  2. Julia: thank you for the comment! I also initially perceived Ainokea as being a self-involved, selfish perspective, almost like Cartman’s “Whatever, I do what I want!” “Willful” is a good way to describe that idea.

  3. I think its funny that the very people who think Ainokea has anything to do with “self centeredness or lack of respect”, are the very ones who are perpetuating this stereo type. In addition, the first creators of the =Aikea= response, obviously did not care about trademark infringement because they use the exact =Ainokea= lettering.

    Its easy to point fingers, its easy to place blame… It is more difficult to think of an idea, take action, and create something beautiful that many people can get behind and relate to. To create a local brand that creates jobs for local people, supports local youth organizations, artists, and musicians, and ultimately wins 2007 Hawaii Small Business of the Year for its contribution to Hawaii, does not sound like a brand who “does not care”.

    Ainokea is not a synonym for “I no care”. It is a closer to “carefree” than it is to “careless”.

    Everyone in this world “does what they like”. That does not mean they are selfish. If you give to charity, its because you “like it”. If you offer your criticism, it is because you “like it”. If you offer your support, it is because you “like it”. Be yourself… do what you like and like what you do. Its your life to live. Your ultimately responsible for your own survival and happiness. You are also responsible for your own choices and the corresponding consequences, good or bad. Please choose wisely.

    If you are from Hawaii or understand local culture, you understand what Ainokea means to you. Just please do not go around promoting Ainokea is selfish and lacks respect when that is the very thing “You” are doing. You are doing that.. not Ainokea. You correctly posted what the Ainokea brand is promoting with its definition.

    Have a great day and if there is anything I can do to help you please let me know. Ainokea, but the secret is…. I really do care about Ainokea.

  4. One last comment. The reason many of the criticisms or praise for that matter are from locals, is that it is a local brand. It hasn’t branched out to the mainstream mainland yet….Yet! 🙂

  5. Mark L: judging from your email address, I assume that you are associated with the Ainokea brand (and possibly started/own the brand).

    I want to say thank you for taking the time to write and leave a comment on my blog.

    I also greatly appreciate that you reiterate your intention that Ainokea is closer in meaning to “carefree.”

    Additionally, I want to apologize if my writing makes it seem as if I am arguing that Ainokea means “careless” or “selfish” or anything. I greatly respect Pidgin and local culture. My interest was in the way that this simple phrase was interpreted differently by different people and the possible reasons (cultural, linguistic, or other) that people might have for that. As an example, in many parts of the US, “good” customer service in a shop might mean that the clerk comes up and asks you if you need help. In other countries this same action can be interpreted as “pushiness.” Or an example from Pidgin: “try” before a verb is a little softer so “try wait” is a little softer or more polite than just “wait.” However, many folks who did not grow up speaking Pidgin interpret the “try” as being somewhat passive aggressive (there’s a great Hawaii vines that shows shaner “localtizing this rude haole crosswalk: So the same action or words are interpreted differently by different people.

    Another point that I’ve been interested in is that the phrase Ainokea has been tremendously successful and productive locally–the word/phrase reminds me of the “got milk” slogan, which has similarly inspired many imitators. That word play and the way the meaning is changed and adapted by imitators/copywrite infringers is also very interesting to me. In the past year since writing this post, I’ve seen many other examples of people taking the phrase/word and remixing it in other ways.

    Again, thank you so much for taking the time to explain your intentions with the brand, for explaining all the wonderful outreach your company does, and for writing your response.

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