What is “Pidgin English”?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Hello! Long time, no see. If you understood this to mean, “It’s been a while since I have seen you,” you have just used pidgin English. Pidgin (pronounced “PIDG-in”) of any variety is a simplified form of speech, usually borne of two or more existing languages, and used to communicate between people who do not share a common tongue. It is often impromptu and created out of necessity.

Pidgin is not considered a real language by linguists, as it has no elaborate grammar, is limited in the ideas and concepts it can convey, and can have as loose of a structure as needed by users. There are no native speakers. Body language, visual and context cues are relied on heavily although its speakers may establish standards for usage over time. Also, pronunciation of certain words may be altered if proven too difficult for either user.

It’s widely accepted that pidgin languages are developed for doing business and day-to-day interactions when a common language is not known. In the case with Chinese Pidgin, the patois developed when the Chinese and British started trade relations and neither wanted to speak the other’s tongue. However, it may also be seen in other situations such as when people are geographically displaced and ties to the mother tongue are broken.

As a result, there are many forms of pidgin languages, depending upon which languages are being employed. For example, variants in English include: Chinese Pidgin English, Nigerian Pidgin English, or Hawaiian Pidgin English. Regional hybrids can vary by location. West African Pidgin English (WAPE) is one of the more widely used, with up to 30 million people speaking it as an interethnic lingua franca.

The lexicon of certain pidgins can be extremely small. For example, Melanesian Pidgin has a vocabulary of only 2,000 words while Chinese Pidgin English has only 700. Despite limited vocabularies, they are efficient – a lot of meaning can be stuffed into few words.

A short film, “Hawaii Pidgin: The Voice of Hawaii,” explains the current use of pidgin used on the islands and how it evolved from immigrant influences. Yaw, a popular Nigerian radio personality, provides examples of West African Pidgin English in his short film, “Nigerian Pidgin Radio-show.” Chinese Pidgin English is seen in a film produced by The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Pidgin languages may realize several outcomes. Often, they fall out of use when no longer needed. Sometimes they remain in use for several generations. If a pidgin is spoken extensively and passed down through generations, it becomes the first language of the children born into a pidgin-speaking environment. This may eventually evolve into a stable “nativised” creole language with complex grammar, vocabulary, construction, and usage. However, not all pidgins turn into creoles.

While generally seen as substandard, many pidgin languages are experiencing a shift to greater acceptance as the conservation of various cultures and histories gain importance. For example, phrases that are popular in mainstream American English such as “no pain, no gain,” and “no can do” are Chinese pidgin that have been adopted into the language.

Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype



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