Pidgin (language)

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A pidgin is the name given to a type of contact language created, usually spontaneously, as a means of communicating between speakers of different tongues. Pidgins have straightforward grammars, and are learned as second languages rather than natively; when a pidgin becomes a first language, this process elaborates it into a full language, known as a creole. Pidgins are studied within the cross-disciplinary field of creolistics, which involves research from linguistics and anthropology, among others.

Pidgin creation

A pidgin is a language that is created through a contact situation - typically, users employ words, or wordlike units, from one or more languages they have some knowledge of, underlain by some of the grammar of their own native languages as well as novel rules that arise through the processes of language acquisition. As the goal is basic communication rather than the acquisition of a new language, the result is a rudimentary language with fewer 'rules' than others - there are fewer sentence types, for instance, so expressing certain complex ideas may be difficult. The pidgin is fine-tuned to the immediate needs of the speakers, who may primarily use it for bartering, friendly introductions, or some other specific purpose. It therefore has no immediate need to be elaborated unless it proves useful for the speech community to develop an extended pidgin, used for more purposes and with increasingly rigid rules. In a minority of cases, extending a pidgin may lead to creolisation.

Examples of pidgins

One example of an extended pidgin is Fanagalo, used in some South African mines, and which is actually taught in underground classrooms to miners of different linguistic backgrounds. Another is Tok Pisin, which is widely used throughout Papua New Guinea, in print as well as in conversation, though for many if not most speakers, the language has become a creole.[1]

Certain expressions survive from China coast pidgin, a pidgin formerly spoken in Southeast Asia. They have made their way into colloquial English. Many expressions are literal translations from Cantonese grammar. These include, in English (Chinese character and Cantonese pinyin) format:

  • long time no see (好耐冇見 hao3 noi6 mou5 gin3)
  • look-see (睇見 tai2 gin3): look and see
  • no can do (唔得做 m4 dak1 zou6): cannot do
  • no-go (唔去 m4 qu1): do not go.

Spanglish, commonly believed to be a pidgin of Spanish and English, is actually not a pidgin. It is an example of code-switching because it occurs only among bilingual speakers and retains grammatical and phonological properties of both languages. So is Goleta English, a combined Spanish and English variety as it is spoken by Puerto Ricans, either occasionally when in the island, or daily as immigrants in the United States.

Caribbean pidgins

Caribbean pidgins were the result of colonialism. As tropical islands were colonised their society was restructured, with a ruling minority of some European nation and a large mass of non-European laborers. The laborers, natives, slaves or cheap immigrant workers, would often come from many different language groups and would need to communicate. This led to the development of pidgins. These pidgins have since died out although some, such as Haitian Creole, Jamaican creole, and Papiamento, have become creole languages.

Pacific pidgins

The Melanesian pidgins may have originated off their home islands, in the 19th century when the islanders were abducted for indentured labour. Hence they were developed by Melanesians for use between each other, not by the colonists on whose language they are based. English provides the basis of most of the vocabulary, but the grammar follows closely that of Melanesian languages: hence the use of at least three numbers in pronouns, singular, dual and plural (Bislama also has a trial), and the distinction between inclusive and exclusive we. All also adopt words from local languages. When words are adopted, not only the sound and the meaning, but also the emotional content can change. "Wikit" (Solomons Pijin for pagan, from "wicked") has no connotations of evil.

Several expressions commonly used to exemplify Melanesian pidgins have no known basis in actual use. They include "bigfala bokis garem plande tit, iu hitim hemi kraeout" (E: a big box with plenty of teeth, hitting it, it cries out) for a piano, and "miksmasta blong Jisas" (E: Jesus' food mixer) for a helicopter. The actual words in Solomons Pijin are piana and tiopa. One commentator pointed out that many Melanesians would be far more familiar with helicopters than electric food mixers, and would be more likely to call a mixer "helikopta blong misis".

The best-known pidgin used in the U.S. is the now creolized Hawaiian Pidgin where locals mixed the traditional dialect of Hawaiian with English, Japanese, Portuguese, and other languages of immigrants of Hawaii and Pacific traders.

One of the most famous pidgins in the world is Pitcairnese, spoken mainly on Pitcairn Island, but also on Norfolk Island, an Australian territory.

Another well-known pidgin is Bislama of Vanuatu, based on English but incorporating Malay, Chinese, and Portuguese words.

Common traits among pidgins

Since a pidgin develops as an immediate means of communication, its grammar tends to be straightforward, apparently reflecting 'default' or more common patterns found in the world's languages:

  • A default subject-verb-object word order;
  • Uncomplicated clause structure (e.g., no embedded clauses, etc.);
  • Few or no syllables closed by final consonants (e.g. English tin);
  • Basic vowels, such as /a/ /i/ /u/ /e/ and /o/;
  • No tones, as are common in West African and East Asian languages;
  • Separate words to indicate tense, usually preceding the verb;
  • Words may be reduplicated to represent plurals, superlatives, and other parts of speech that represent the concept being increased;
  • A lack of morphophonemic variation, e.g. word endings are uncommon and rarely appear in multiple forms, such as /z/, /s/ and /ɪz/ for the English plural -s.

Etymology and origins

The monogenetic theory of pidgins, advanced by Hugo Schuchardt, theorizes that a common origin for most pidgins and creoles exists in the form of Sabir.

The origin of the word "Pidgin" is not clear. It is suggested the word is acquired from the Chinese pronunciation of the business, but it may also be "Pigeon English" in reference to carrier pigeon. The Chinese name for Pidgin, yángjīngbīn (), originated from the name of a river that lay along the boundary of French and British-leased land in Shanghai.

That name is retained in the form Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea and Pijin Blong Solomon (Solomon Islands pidgin).

Pidgin English was the name given to a Chinese-English-Portuguese pidgin used for commerce in Canton during the 18th and 19th centuries. In Canton, this contact language was called Canton English.

Other pidgins


  1. Smith (2002).

See also