Marina Alkhazova – On Definition of a Pidgin Language

Nr. 18    Juli 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Semantik, Diskurs und interkulturelle Kommunikation aus interdisziplinärer Perspektive

On Definition of a Pidgin Language

Marina Alkhazova (Pyatigorsk State Linguistic University, Russia)


 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication


A pidgin language is a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. It is most commonly employed in situations such as trade, or where both groups speak languages different from the language of the country in which they reside (but where there is no common language between the groups). Fundamentally, a pidgin is a simplified means of linguistic communication, as is constructed impromptu, or by convention, between groups of people. A pidgin is not the native language of any speech community, but is instead learned as a second language. A pidgin may be built from words, sounds, or body language from multiple other languages and cultures. Pidgins usually have low prestige in respect to other languages.

Pidgins have been variously called `makeshift‘, `marginal‘, or `mixed‘ language. They have a limited vocabulary, a reduced grammatical structure, and much narrower range of functions, compared to the language which gave rise to them. They are the native languages of no-one, but they are nonetheless the main means of communication for millions of people, and a major focus of interest for those who study the way languages change.

In many parts of the world pidgin languages are used routinely in such daily matters as news broadcasts, safety instructions, newspapers, and commercial advertising. And the more developed pidgin languages have been used for translations of Shakespeare and the Bible. Pidgin grew up along the trade routes of the world, especially in those parts where the British, French and Dutch built up their empires.

Pidgin English’s are mainly to be found in two big families – one in the Atlantic, one in the Pacific. The Atlantic varieties developed in West Africa, and were transported to the West Indies and America during the years of the slave trade. In Africa they are still widely used in Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, and Cameroon. The Pacific varieties are found in wide sweep across the South-Western part of the ocean, from the coast of China to the Northern part of Australia, in Hawaii, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea. In the Americas, they are found, in a developed form, in most of its islands and on the mainland, spoken largely by the black populations. According to estimates, about sixty million people speak or understand one or other of these forms of English.

Pidgins often have a very little life span. While Americans were in Vietnam, a Pidgin English grew up there, but it quickly disappeared when the troops left. In a similar way, many pidgins which grew up for trading purposes have ceased to exist, because the countries which were in contact stopped trading with each other. On the other hand, if a trading contact is very likely people learn each other’s language, and there will then be no reason for the continued use of the pidgin.

Then a very significant development took place. People began to use the pidgin at home. As children were born into these families, the pidgin language became their mother tongue. When this happened, the status of the language fundamentally altered, and it started to be used in a more flexible and creative way.

A Creole language, or simply a Creole, is a stable language that has originated from a pidgin language that has been nativized (that is, acquired by children). The vocabulary of a Creole language consists of cognates from the parent languages, though there are often clear phonetic and semantic shifts where such stratification exists.

The term Creole comes from Portuguese cariole, and originally meant a person of European descent who had been born and brought up in a colonial territory. Later it was applied to other people who were natives of these areas. Creoles are now classified as English based, French based, and so on – though the genetic relation Creole to its dominant linguistic sector is never straightforward, as the Creole may display influences of several contact languages in its sounds, vocabulary and grammar.

A Creole is a pidgin language which has become the mother tongue of a community- a definition which emphasizes that pidgins and Creole are two stages in a single process of linguistics development. First, within a community, increasing numbers of people begin to use pidgin as their principle means of communication. As a consequence their children hear it more than any other language, and gradually it takes on the status of a mother tongue for them. Within a generation or two, native language use becomes consolidated and widespread. The result is a Creole, or “creolized” language.

Despite the existence of many political and cultural differences, and then considerable geographical distances separating some of the countries involved there are striking similarities among the English based Creole languages of the world. This identity can be seen at all levels of language structure, but is most dramatic in relation to grammar. It can be explained, according to the Creole hypothesis, as a consequence of the way these languages have developed out of the kind of Creole English used by the first black slaves in America and the Caribbean.

This language as it is thought was originally very different from English, as a result of its mixed African linguistics background, but generations of contact with the dominant white English population have had an inevitable effect, drawing it much closer to the standard variety. There are certainly many differences between the various Caribbean creoles and between these and the varieties of Black English Vernacular used in the United States and the English based Creoles of West Africa; but the overall impression is one of a family of languages closely related in structure and idiom.

The switch from language to Creole involves a major expansion in the structural linguistics resources available – especially in vocabulary, grammar, and style, which now have to cope with the everyday demands made upon a mother tongue by its speakers.

The main source of conflicts is likely to be with the standard form of the language from which it derives, and which it derives and with which it usually coexists. The standard languages have the status which comes with social prestige, education and wealth; the Creole has no such status. Its roots lying in the history of slavery. Inevitably, Creole speakers find themselves under great pressure to change their speech in the direction of the standard – a process known as decreolization.

One consequence of this is the emergence of a continuum of several varieties of Creole speech, at varying degrees of linguistics `distance‘ from the standard – what has been called the ‘post-Creole continuum‘. Another consequence is an aggressive reaction against the standard language on the part of Creole speakers, who assert the superior status of their Creole, and the need to recognize the ethnic identity of their community. Such a reaction can lead to a marked change in speech habits, as the speakers focus on what they see to be the ‘pure‘ form of Creole – a process known as hyper-realization.

When a pidgin becomes a native language for some of its speakers, it is said to become a Creole. This means that it is a language which has passed through a pidgin stage, and has now become the language of a community. Children growing up in that community speak the Creole as their native language. Very often, of course, there are other languages spoken in the community as well. Some children who speak the Creole may also speak other languages.

When a pidgin becomes a Creole, it may change its character somewhat. The differences are subtle and difficult to study, and a great deal has been written on this subject with little agreement being reached. However, we can say that where there are differences between the pidgin and the Creole, these will be related to the new functions which the Creole has taken on. It no longer serves just as a means of communication between adults with no other language in common; it is now a language through which children experience the world, develop their knowledge and mental capacities, and grow up.

Creolized varieties of English are very important throughout the Caribbean, and in the countries to which Caribbean people have emigrated – notably Britain. Black English in the United States is also Creole in origin.

There is often a conflict between the Creole and Standard English in these places. The Creole gives its speakers their linguistic status as an ethnic group. Standard English, on the other hand, gives them access to the rest of the English-speaking world. It is not easy for governments to develop an acceptable language policy when such fundamental issues are involved. Social and political circumstances vary so much that no simple generalizations are possible – except to emphasize the need for standard English users to replace their traditional dismissive attitude towards Creole speech with an informed awareness of its linguistics complexity as a major variety of modern English.


 Inhalt | Table of Contents Nr. 18

For quotation purposes:
Marina Alkhazova: On Definition of a Pidgin Language –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.

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