What is pidgin? Is pidgin a language? Is it a dialect? And what is the difference between pidgin and creole?
In this look at pidgin language, I’ll be answering all of these questions and more. I wrote recently about the origins of creoles and their use around the world, and that got me thinking about pidgin language. The terms are often – erroneously – used interchangeably, so I thought it was a topic worth exploring. I’ll include some examples of pidgin, as well as taking a look at how pidgin language evolves.
Let’s dive in.
The pidgin definition, according to Merriam-Webster, is: “a simplified speech used for communication between people with different languages.”
Pidgin languages facilitate communication where speakers of mutually unintelligible languages need to overcome the linguistic barriers that divide them. A pidgin language incorporates words from both parties, as well as new vocabulary that is unique to the pidgin.
Speakers usually acquire a pidgin as a second language, rather than speaking it natively. I’ll look at the whole creole vs pidgin debate in more detail below, but for now we can consider this lack of native speakers as the core difference between creole and pidgin. Creoles are spoken natively; pidgins are not.
In fact, let’s explore the pidgin vs creole element of this now. What is the difference between pidgin and creole? In a nutshell, pidgins are learned as a second language in order to facilitate communication, while creoles are spoken as first languages. Creoles have more extensive vocabularies than pidgin languages and more complex grammatical structures. Pidgins, meanwhile, are known for the simplicity of their grammar. You can read more about creole languages by clicking the link below.
Why is there confusion around the whole creole vs pidgin discussion? Well, the fact that many creole speakers often refer to the language that they speak as ‘pidgin’ doesn’t help. ‘Hawaiian Pidgin’ speakers, for example, are actually speaking Hawaiian Creole English, but refer to their language as Hawaiian Pidgin – or usually just Pidgin.
We see the same in Papua New Guinea, where speakers of the creole Tok Pisin refer to their language as Pidgin. And the same is true of many creole speakers around the world. Why? Well, we need to look at little more closely at the evolution of a pidgin language to understand that.
Read more: Creole Languages
Is pidgin a language? Not a single one, no. Different pidgins are spoken around the world, arising where circumstances have dictated the need for effective communication but where linguistic common ground was lacking.
It is this need to understand that has driven the development of pidgins across the globe. Often, that need has been prompted by trade. Indeed, the word ‘pidgin’ derives from a Chinese pronunciation of the word ‘business’ in English. It was originally used to refer to Chinese Pidgin English (more on this below), before becoming more generally used to refer to any pidgin language.
Scholastic opinion is divided as to quite how creoles develop, but the majority view is that pidgins form and then evolve into creoles. The tipping point is when nativization occurs – where the children of parents who speak a pidgin language as a second tongue grow up as native speakers.
Creoles that evolve from pidgins tend to take on more complex grammatical structures and expand their vocabulary.
Pidgin languages are important for a number of reasons. I mentioned trade above, and pidgins across the globe certainly play a key role in enabling this. Even in our world of translation apps and real-time translation earbuds, pidgins are used extensively to conduct face-to-face business.
Money might make the world go round, but pidgins have other important uses to. They can provide a connection between different cultural groups, and the means to engage socially and build community ties.
And, of course, pidgins are also important in linguistic terms. Their vocabularies, code-switching and grammatical foundations are a source of fascination for many of those (myself included) who work with languages on a daily basis.
Ethnologue lists 16 pidgin languages, not all of which are still spoken. By way of comparison, there are around 100 creole languages.
Why are there so many more creoles than there are pidgin languages? Essentially, it’s because pidgins are used as a temporary means of communication (temporary in this case referring to a few decades).
Pidgins exist to meet a communication need. Over time, however, their status shifts. Some evolve into creoles, but others die out. This can happen when the communities that speak them disperse or when the language of one of those communities becomes the dominant language of both.
Let’s take a look at some of the pidgins that are currently in use.
Spoken in parts of the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska, British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Northern California, Chinook Wawa is based largely on the Chinook language, along with a fair smattering of French and some English loanwords.
Also called Arunamese, Nefamese is a pidgin language spoken in Arunachal Pradesh in India. It is used in communications between the Nyishi, Adi, Apatanai, Khampti, Hill Miri, Idu Mishimi, Nocte, Wancho, Tagin, Mompa, Zakhring and Bugun peoples and other indigenous groups in Northeast India. While still in use today, it is gradually being replaced by Hindi.
Referred to by its speakers as Kolokwa and Liberian Kreyol, as well as Liberian Pidgin English, this English-based pidgin is spoken extensively in Liberia as a second language. Estimates put the number of speakers at anywhere between 1.5 million and 3 million people. Liberian Pidgin English even has its own dialects, such as the Kru Pidgin English spoken by Kru fishermen in West Africa.
Derived from the now-extinct Chinese Pidgin English and Melanesian-type pidgins, Nauruan Pidgin English continues to be spoken in the tiny island country of Nauru, in the Central Pacific.
Used in the Jega region of northwestern Nigeria, this Hausa-based pidgin enjoys widespread use, though it is not spoken natively by anyone.
Spoken in Papua Barat Province on the Bomberai peninsula, Iha Based Pidgin is a locally used trade language, based on the local Iha (Kapaur) language. It is classed as an endangered language.
With just 40-50 estimated second language speakers, the future looks bleak for Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin. The Malay-based language developed in Broome, Western Australia to facilitate communication within the pearling industry, when the indigenous Bardi, Nyulnyul, Jabirr Jabirr, Jukun, Yawuru and Karajarri peoples needed to communicate with others in the industry, including Japanese, Malays, Torres Strait Islanders, Koepangers, Hakka Chinese, Filipinos and Koreans.
Hiri Motu is spoken in Papua New Guinea, where it’s also referred to as Police Motu. A simplified version of Motu, it is an interesting language to study, as it sits somewhere between a pidgin and a creole. While once widely spoken, Hiri Motu’s use has been dwindling in recent years as Tok Pisin and English take over from it.
Another pidgin native to the Bomberai Peninsula, Onin Based Pidgin has very few speakers. Even Onin, the language on which it is based, only has around 500 native speakers left.
Another pidgin arising from colonisation, Settla is a Swahili pidgin that developed to facilitate communication between native Swahili speakers in Kenya and Zambia and English-speaking settlers (hence it also being known as Settler Swahili).
South African and Zimbabwe are home to several hundred thousand Fanakalo speakers. Also known as Pidgin Zulu, the language developed during the colonial era to enable English settlers to communicate with their servants, as well as to facilitate communication between English and Dutch colonists.
There are many, many examples of extinct pidgin languages. Pidgins exist to fill a communication gap. When the need for that communication is removed, the pidgin language doesn’t usually survive for much longer. I’ve included some examples of pidgin languages that are no longer spoken below.
Deriving from the word bariki, which means barracks in Hausa, Barikanchi developed as a means of communication for Nigeria’s colonial army. Used mainly in the country’s military barracks, Barikanchi enabled soldiers from different ethnic and linguist backgrounds to communicate effectively.
Pidgin Delaware arose from interactions between Munsee and Unami Delawares and Dutch, Swedish and English speakers, to facilitate the trading of furs in the 17th century.
Ndyuka-Tiriyó Pidgin was a language of Suriname that was used to facilitate trade between speakers of the English-based Creole Ndyuka and the Carian languages Tiriyo and Wayana. It declined in use significantly in the 1960s.
Extinct by 1980, Tây Bồi was spoken by Vietnamese servants working in the houses of French colonial settles in Vietnam. France’s withdrawal from Indochina in 1954 sounded the death knell for Tây Bồi, though standard French is still taught in Vietnamese schools as a second language.
Spoken between the 11th and 19th centuries in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Greece and Cyprus, Sabir was used to facilitate commerce throughout the Mediterranean Basin. Also called the Mediterranean Lingua Franca, it was based mainly on northern Italian languages, though with multiple other influences.
Pidgin Russian was spoken in Manchuria, where it enabled Russian settlers to communicate with local Chinese speakers. When the Russians left China following the end of World War II, the language fell out of use and are now none left who speak Pidgin Russian.
Also referred to as Chinglish, Chinese Pidgin English was used for nearly three centuries as a means of communication between English and Chinese traders and bureaucrats in Canton. Eventually, standard English was adopted as the preferred means of communication instead.
Derived from standard German and spoken in Namibia, Namibian Black German is now all but extinct. It was spoken by Namibians who did not learn German while their country was under German rule. Today, German, Afrikaans and English have replaced its used.
Port Jackson Pidgin English originated in the Sydney/Newcastle region of New South Wales in Australia to facilitate conversation between early colonial settlers and indigenous peoples. The language spread across west and north Australia but later died out in most areas. However, at the Roper River Mission in the Northern Territory, it first gave birth to Australian Kriol.
Samoan Plantation Pidgin is a now-extinct pidgin language that was spoken in Samoa, by plantation workers. The English-based pidgin featured many similarities to Tok Pisin.
Spoken in the Russian port of Solombala in the 18th and 19th centuries, little is known today about this English and Russian-derived pidgin.
Native American Pidgin English was spoken in British Columbia, Oregon and Washington and was the earliest English-based pidgin to appear in North America. Europeans and Native Americans used it to facilitate contact with each other.
Now extinct, Russenorsk was used in the Artic to enable Russian and Norwegian fishermen and traders to communicate. It was used extensively for around 150 years in Northern Norway but fell out of use in the 19th century.
There is so much that we can learn from pidgin languages. The evolution of their simplified grammar systems and restricted vocabulary is fascinating to study. I particularly enjoy how focused they are on their purpose. Russenorsk, for example, had plenty of words relating to the weather, the ocean and fish, but a conversation about art or dancing would have been near-on impossible.
What we can learn from all pidgin languages is how powerful the need to communicate is among humans. Two (or more) groups who speak mutually unintelligible languages have shown time and again that they are able to overcome their linguistic differences in order to converse. This is the case not just in one particular region but across the globe.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading some of the key elements of this article, namely:
• What a pidgin language is
• How pidgin languages evolve
• The differences between pidgin and creole and the fact that, after being spoken for generations, pidgins may develop into creoles
• Numerous examples of pidgin language, both current and extinct
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