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Pidgins and Creoles

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Linguists use the term 'pidgin' to label speech varieties that develop when speakers of two or more different languages, with no shared first language, come in to contact with each other and need to communicate. The development of these 'new languages' is caused by the urgent necessity of communication between people speaking different languages - a linguistic crisis serves as the basis for the creation of pidgins.

When a pidgin starts to be used in the home and children grow up speaking it as a first language, it evolves into a new language and becomes known as a 'creole'.

In former times pidgins and creoles were often denoted with pejorative expressions like broken English, Bastard Portuguese, Negro French, Taki Taki for Sranan Tongo, Kombuistaaltje (kitchen language) or Isikula for Fanakalo, all of which clearly point out the disrespect for these idioms.



Some pidgins have been called 'trade languages' or 'trade jargons' and have clearly arisen as the result of contact between people without a language in common who were seeking to do business with each other. In these cases what develops are not varieties or dialects of the mother tongues of the speakers but new languages, whose grammar (phonetics, morphology, syntax, etc) differs fundamentally from the languages they were formed from.

All pidgins are languages lexically derived from other languages, but which are structurally simplified, especially in their morphology. Pidgins show a number of features:

  • they have no speakers for which the pidgin is their first language (mother tongue)
  • they are the subject of language learning
  • they have structural norms
  • they are used by two or more groups
  • they are usually unintelligible to speakers of the languages from which the lexicon derives1.

The word 'pidgin' comes from the Chinese pronunciation of the English word 'business'; it can be traced as far back as 1807 when it was spelled 'pigeon'. In some areas the terms jargon2 or lingua franca3 were also used for pidgins; these terms, however, now have different connotations when referring to language.

Not all simplified languages are pidgins and the term pidgin should not be confused with broken languages. For example, a Western European who speaks broken forms of German, English, French, etc does not speak a pidgin, as broken languages have no structural norms.

Types of Pidgin

Maritime or Nautical Pidgins

Maritime or nautical pidgins developed as a consequence of the communication between sailors and people from other nations on board vessels or in coastal areas. Some examples are:

  1. the Lingua Franca, the Romance-based pidgin used in the Mediterranean area;
  2. the Basque-lexifier4 pidgin of Iceland and also the Basque-Algonquian pidgins used in contacts between Europeans and certain Algonquian tribespeople;
  3. the Russenorsk of Russian and Norwegian sailors around the North Cape.

Interethnic Contact Languages

These languages are used in domains such as spreading religion, political negotiations and other procedures where people with no common language try to communicate.

The Amerindian-lexifier pidgins such as Chinook Jargon of the American Northwest, the Delaware Jargon or the Mobilian Jargon are good examples of this.

Work Force Pidgins

There are two different kinds of work force pidgin. First, there is the sort of pidgin which developed with the contact between the colonial people and the local workers in their households such as Butler English and Bamboo English in India. The second type developed in multilingual work forces, for example, the Hawaiian-lexifier and English-lexifier pidgins of Hawaii or the Japanese-Malay pidgins in Australia. In these cases the pidgin simply developed due to the contact between workers from different cultural backgrounds.



Creoles are languages which, originally having been pidgins, have become established as a mother tongue in some speech communities. Their grammar develops beyond the simplified form of the pidgin and becomes as rich and complex as that of other languages. Normally, creoles co-exist with the standard language that was originally pidginised. The standard language usually functions as the language of education and administration. New creoles do not have an established library of written language and so are often influenced by the standard, which is why they tend to change frequently and rapidly. Over time, the influence of the original language lessens as a rich literary history develops - French Creole is an example of this.

Those kinds of creoles that have the greatest lexical influence from the standard, and are therefore most similar to the standard form, are called acrolects. Those which evince the least influence, and are consequently furthest from the standard, are named basilects. There also exist varieties in between these two forms, which are labelled mesolects.

Creolistics has become an independent branch of linguistics; it deals with specific pidgins as well as with the roughly 80 creole languages throughout the world spoken by approximately 30 million people. In 1983, linguists who themselves had a creole as their first language formed an annual International Creole Day on 28 October.

Types of Creole

In accordance with their external history, three types of creoles can be distinguished:

  • Plantation Creoles
  • Fort Creoles
  • Maroon Creoles

The first type, the Plantation Creole, is self explanatory - these creoles developed in the plantation fields of certain countries such as Cuba, Jamaica, etc.

Fort Creoles developed at the so-called 'forts', the fortified posts along the West African coast, from which the Europeans deployed their commercial activities. In the forts some medium of communication must have been used, both among Africans from different linguistic backgrounds and between Africans and Europeans5.

The third group, the Maroon Creoles, developed as a result of slaves absconding. Slaves were able to escape from the plantations and formed new communities, which were not under the influence of the rest of the colony, more specifically of the metropolitan, European language. Such communities arose in some parts of Jamaica, Colombia, and Surinam as well as in São Tomé.

In Summary

It can be claimed that a pidgin is characterised by a limited lexicon and a reduced structure, it has its sociolinguistic peculiarities (speech economy), its use is limited to special situations and it is not used as a mother tongue. However, when a pidgin is used, or rather learned, as a mother tongue, it changes and develops into a creole, a so-called 'full-language'.

1Eckrammer, E: Lecture notes to the theme: Introduction to the history of the Spanish language. University of Salzburg, 20062The language used by people who work in a particular area or who have a common interest – comparable with slang.3Language systematically used to communicate between persons not sharing a mother tongue - especially in Europe.4A lexifier is a language from which pidgins and creoles derive most of their vocabulary.5Arends, J / Muysken, P / Smith, N (eds): Pidgins and Creoles. An introduction. Amsterdam / Philadelphia, John Benjamins publishing company: 1995.

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