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Pidgin English: Language Spotlight

children speaking in pidgin english
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Pidgin English is a fascinating language, with its origins closely tied to the early days of international trade, and with links to many countries around the world. 

It’s a form of communication that’s constantly evolving  possibly even more so than English itself – but its basic principles have remained the same for centuries. 

By drawing on elements of multiple tongues and with no rules as such, Pidgin English is a language that can bring people together, despite significantly different backgrounds, and often despite a language barrier too. 

What is Pidgin English?

Pidgin English is a lingua franca, a universal language that develops out of the need for people to communicate across a language barrier. A pidgin language is an example of a lingua franca with simplified grammar, which makes it easier and quicker to learn – as pidgins are often borne out of necessity, these factors are crucial. 

The word ‘pidgin’ originates from the Chinese pronunciation for ‘business’, so Pidgin English essentially translated as ‘Business English’ in its early days – an apt name in view of its origins. 

Pidgin English first began to emerge in the late 17th and 18th centuries as a common means of communication between European traders and the people they purchased goods from overseas. Early pidgin comprised basic nautical – rather than regional – English, combined with the composition of the different tongues the traders encountered to create a language each could understand. 

Such was its reach that African slaves were often forced to use Pidgin English to communicate, rather than their native tongues. 

Creole Languages vs Pidgin Languages 

Pidgin languages are sometimes also referred to as creole languages, but this is not technically correct. A creole is a language that started life as a pidgin, borne out of necessity to communicate. However, creoles have been so widely adopted over time that they are now spoken as first languages by many, while pidgin languages are still typically learnt as second languages. 

A creole language has a developed vocabulary and grammar patterns or rules, but a pidgin does not. Yet they still share some similarities; for example, Nigerian Pidgin has many of the same characteristics as Jamaican Creole and other West African creole languages. 

Pidgin English Examples

The following are all examples of Nigerian Pidgin – you can see their simple structure, and how they share some vocabulary terms with English: 

  • Abeg = please 
  • You do well = thank you 
  • I no no = thank you 
  • How you dey = how are you doing today? 
  • Ma le = mother 
  • Oya = come on/hurry up 

Pidgin English Today

Pidgin English continues to be an ever-evolving, inventive language. But despite the many changes it undergoes, it retains its simple structure without grammatical tenses, embedded clauses or different tones. 

There are many pidgin languages spoken across the globe, from Chinese Pidgin to Hawaiian Pidgin English and Thai Pidgin English. However, Nigerian Pidgin remains one of the most widely spoken forms, with approximately 75 million people regularly using it to communicate. There is now even BBC News Pidgin broadcast in Nigeria, signalling mainstream recognition of just how widely the language is spoken.  

Day-to-day, Pidgin English is most likely to be used in informal conversations, despite its origins as a business language. 

Factors such as tone, context and body language are still often crucial for interpreting Pidgin English, as the short words and simple syntax that make up the language can end up sounding the same. This is why it’s essential to work with expert, experienced translators and interpreters if you’re operating in a market where a pidgin language is spoken widely.  

Find out more about the translation services available at Language Connect. 

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