The Origins Of Pidgin English

by Alastair Kane

What is Pidgin English?

"How bodi? How you dey?" Or if you "no sabi" (don't understand). Nigerian Pidgin - how are you?

The mongrel language of the world, and a patchwork tongue of trade, migration, empires and historical movement, Pidgin English, in its varying forms is a lingua franca - a simplified bridge language evolving through necessity, after extended contact between groups without a single common language. Formed from numerous languages and influences, Pidgin is a wide term covering a range of regional hybrids, which evolved through historical events such as the spread of Empires, settlement, migration and international trade.

Found in Africa (West African Pidgins include Nigerian Pidgin, Cameroonian Pidgin, Sierra Leone Krio), Indonesia (Tok Pisin, spoken in Papua New Guinea), parts of Asia and the Caribbean, English derived Pidgins are inventive, innovative, and often quite literal. For example in Tok Pisin, 'gras bilong het' (or grass belong head) simply means 'hair'.

Taking more of a 'baby-speak' approach, Pidgins can seem to imitate toddler speech or phrasing (having no tones, simple vowels etc) - and in effect are used for the same purpose - to get what you want quickly, using whatever communication and terms of reference you can. A few well placed words and gestures were all that was originally needed, and the language evolved from there.

How Pidgin Languages Evolve

Because of their spontaneous adaptability, Pidgins are unlike other languages in that they can be as structured or as unstructured as needed - there are no strict rules as such. Pidgins are also not used as mother tongues, though over time and generations, the language evolves, is adopted and changes to gradually become a first language for new generations. Historically this occurs in situations where native language is seen as subordinate, or banned in the case of slavery, and is the point where Pidgin arguably moves to become a Creole, or a stable, 'nativised' language. Scholarly debate remains however, as to what point a Pidgin language can evolve to become a Creole and replace a native language over the generations. Complicated stuff for such a seemingly simple language set!

As an idea of how language evolves, from 'no common language' between English and native groups, to 'Pidgin' languages to 'Creole', the tongue follows four main stages of development -

  • Restricted - The beginnings of Pidgin, used as a fundamental necessity when contact between language groups (English and native) is limited.
  • Extended - If contact is more prolonged, Pidgin develops, and may be situationally encouraged to be used between natives themselves (ie natives of differing native tongues), as well as between other language groups.
  • Creole - If Pidgin survives, and if inter-native use evolves enough, it can develop into a Creole language to become a next generation mother tongue in place of the native language.
  • Standardisation/decreolisation - Increasingly standardised and structured, over time, the Creole becomes more rigid, developing into a standard, stabilised language (And very different from the original loose Pidgin structures!)

Pidgin English Today Adaptable and tenacious, nowadays, Pidgin English is still in extensive use and is well-recognised around the globe, especially in parts of West Africa and Oceania. In 2012 for example, for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Prince Charles visited Papua New Guinea, introducing himself as the "Numbawan pikinini bilong Misis Kwin", (or 'number one child belonging to Mrs Queen') proving the resilience and longevity which Pidgin (despite it's modest roots) can have - if royalty can speak it, that's pretty high praise!

About the writer

Alastair is a freelance writer and language enthusiast. He provided this article on behalf of Communicaid, a culture and business communication skills consultancy.

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