Pidgin and Creole Languages

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The etymology of pidgin doubts. The Oxford English Dictionary derives it from the English word business as pronounced in Chinese Pidgin English, which was obviously used for negotiating service. Other possible sources obtained pidjom 'exchange, trade, redemption; a Chinese pronunciation of the Portuguese word ocupação 'business'; or a South Seas pronunciation of English beach as beachee, from the place where the language was frequently used (Mühlhäusler, in Holm, 2004). A pidgin is a language without any native speakers: it is nobody's mother tongue however is a contact language.

That is, it is the item of a multilingual scenario in which those who want to interact must discover or improvise an easy language system that will enable them to do so. Extremely frequently too, that situation is one in which there is an imbalance of power among the languages as the speakers of one language control the speakers of the other languages economically and socially.

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An extremely codified language typically accompanies that dominant position. A pidgin is therefore in some cases considered as a 'lowered' variety of a 'normal' language, i.e., among the previously mentioned dominant languages, with simplification of the grammar and vocabulary of that language, considerable phonological variation, and an admixture of local vocabulary to meet the special needs of the contact group (Wardhaugh, 2006, pp. 61). According to Holm (2004, pp. 4-- 5) a pidgin is a lowered language that arises from extended contact in between groups of individuals without any language in typical; it progresses when they need some methods of verbal interaction, perhaps for trade, however no group discovers the native language of any other group for social reasons that might include lack of trust or close contact.

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Generally those with less power (speakers of substrate languages) are more accommodating and use words from the language of those with more power (the superstrate), although the meaning, kind and use of these words may be influenced by the substrate languages.

When dealing with the other groups, the superstrate speakers adopt many of these changes to make themselves more readily understood and no longer try to speak as they do within their own group. Winford (in Wardhaugh, 2006, pp. 63) points out that ‘pidginization is really a complex combination of different processes of change, including reduction and simplification of input materials, internal innovation, and regularization of structure, with L1 influence also playing a role.’ Pidgin is words thrown out, there is no structure, and usually it is not long lasting. However, adults who learn pidgin usually speak it for the rest of their lives, and consequently, they do not develop grammar. A pidgin is a restricted language which is used to communicate between two social groups of which one is in a more dominant position than the other. It involves situations in which a population speaks several different languages and is required to communicate on a regular basis, but none of the languages of the population has primacy over the others.

This situation is often found where multiple societies trade or where slave populations from multiple locations are brought into one area. The speakers create a mutual language using words from the speakers' mother tongues and an extremely flexible, simplified grammar. Most linguists do not consider a pidgin to be a full-fledged language, but something that is used together due to circumstances and omitted when it is no longer needed. Todd (2005, pp. 17) mention there are various theories about the origin of pidgins which have been proposed in the last hundred years or so. These can be presented as a basic group of five theories which show a degree of overlap; note that a mixture of origins is also a possibility which should also be considered.

The Baby-Talk Theory

At the end of the last century Charles Leland, when discussing China coast pidgin English, noted that there were many similarities with the speech of children such as the following features:

  • High percentage of content words with a correspondingly low number of function words.
  • Little morphological marking.
  • Word classes more flexible than in adult language (free conversion)
  • Contrasts in area of pronouns greatly reduced.
  • Number of inflections minimised

Later linguists, notably Jespersen and Bloomfield, maintained that the characteristics of pidgins result from ‘imperfect mastery of a language which in its initial stage, in the child with its first language and in the grown-up with a second language learnt by imperfect methods, leads to a superficial knowledge of the most indispensable word, with total disregard of grammar’ (Jespersen 1922: 234). The evaluative nature of such views would be rejected by linguists today.

Independent Parallel Development Theory

This view maintains that the obvious similarities between the world’s pidgins and creoles arose on independent but parallel lines due to the fact that they all are derived from languages of Indo-European stock and, in the case of the Atlantic varieties, due to their sharing a common West African substratum. Furthermore, scholars like Robert Hall specify that the similar social and physical conditions under which pidgins arose were responsible for the development of similar linguistic structures.

Nautical Jargon Theory

As early as 1938 the American linguist John Reinecke noted the possible influence of nautical jargon on pidgins. It is obvious that on many of the original voyages of discovery to the developing world many nationalities were represented among the crews of the ships. This fact led to the development of a core vocabulary of nautical items and a simplified grammar (at least as regards English). Later pidgins show many of these lexical items irrespective of where the language varieties are spoken. Thus the word capsise turns up with the meaning ‘turn over’ or ‘spill’ in both West Atlantic and Pacific pidgins. So do the words heave, hoist, hail, galley, cargo. One of the shortcomings of this otherwise attractive theory is that it does not help to account for the many structural affinities between pidgins which arose from different European languages.

Monogenetic/Relexification Theory

According to this view all pidgins can be traced back to a single proto-pidgin, a 15th century Portuguese pidgin which was itself probably a relic of the medieval lingua franca (also known as sabir from the Portuguese word for ‘know') which was the common means of communication among the Crusaders and traders in the Mediterranean area. Lingua franca survived longest on the North African coast and is attested from Algeria and Tunesia as late as the 19th century. The theory maintains that when the Portuguese first sailed down the west coast of Africa in the 15th century they would have used their form of lingua franca (sabir). Afterwards in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Portuguese influence in Africa declined, the vocabulary of the then established pidgins would have been replaced by that of the new colonial language which was dominant in the area, say English or French.

As the Portuguese were among the first traders in India and South East Asia a similar situation can be assumed to have obtained: the vocabulary of the original Portuguese pidgin was replaced by that of a later European language. Note that with this theory the grammatical structure of pidgins would not have been effected by the switch in vocabulary (this is what is meant by the term relexification). Thus the obvious similarity in structure of all pidgins would go back to the grammar of the proto-pidgin coming from the Mediterranean area. What this theory does not explain is why the structure (analytic) should be of the type it is. Furthermore there are a number of marginal pidgins (Russenorsk, Eskimo Trade Jargon) which cannot conceivably be connected with Portuguese and which are nonetheless analytic in structure just as the pidgins based on the main European colonial languages are.

Universalist Theory

This is the most recent view on the origin of pidgins and has elements in common with the other theories. However, the distinguishing mark of this theory is that it sees the similarities as due to universal tendencies among humans to create languages of a similar type, i.e. an analytic language with a simple phonology, an SVO syntax with little or no subordination or other sentence complexities, and with a lexicon which makes maximum use of polysemy (and devices such as reduplication) operating from a limited core vocabulary. To put it in technical terms, a creole will be expected to have unmarked values for linguistic parameters, e.g. with the parameter pro-drop, whereby the personal pronoun is not obligatory with verb forms (cf. Italian capisco ‘I understand'), the unmarked setting is for no pro-drop to be allowed and indeed this is the situation in all pidgins and creoles, a positive value being something which may appear later with the rise of a rich morphology.


The origin of the term creole is more certain. Latin creAre ‘to create’ became Portuguese criar ‘to raise (e.g. a child)’, whence the past participle criado ‘(a person) raised; a servant born into one’s household’. Crioulo, with a diminutive suffix, came to mean an African slave born in the New World in Brazilian usage. The word’s meaning was then extended to include Europeans born in the New World. The word finally came to refer to the customs and speech of Africans and Europeans born in the New World. It was later borrowed as Spanish criollo, French créole, Dutch creools and English creole (Holm, 2004, pp. 9) Just like a pidgin, a creole has no simple relationship to the usually standardized language with which it is associated. However, speakers of creoles, like speakers of pidgins, may well feel that they speak something less than normal languages because of the way they and others view those languages when they compare them with other languages.

Winford (in Wardhaugh, 2006, pp. 63) points out that creolization involves expansion of the morphology and syntax, regularization of the phonology, deliberate increase in the number of functions in which the language is used, and development of a rational and stable system for increasing vocabulary. But even though the processes are different, it is still not always clear whether we are talking about a pidgin, an expanded pidgin, or a creole in a certain situation. For example, the terms Hawaiian Pidgin English and Hawaiian Creole English may be used by even the same creolist (Bickerton, in Wardhaugh, 2006, pp. 64) to describe the same variety.

Likewise, Tok Pisin is sometimes called a pidgin and sometimes a creole. A creole has a jargon or a pidgin in its ancestry; it is spoken natively by an entire speech community, often one whose ancestors were displaced geographically so that their ties with their original language and sociocultural identity were partly broken. Such social conditions were often the result of slavery. The term ‘creole’ is now mainly refer to languages which derive from pidgins and which, in many instances, share most of their vocabulary to other languages. A creole language differs from a pidgin language by the fact that it is a native language for the majority of its speakers. Vocabulary is extensively borrowed from other languages, but the grammar often shares few traits with the languages that contributed vocabulary. Grammar and syntax are as fully developed as any other long-established tongue. From those definitions, we can say that creole is the structured pidgin.


Originally, by the definition, all pidgins were restricted with regard to user and use. In the early stages they would have had small vocabularies and few syntactic rules; they would have been capable of dealing with only a limited range of subjects, with commands, yes/no questions, and with the simplest of explanations. They would have utilized gesture to reinforce or clarify meanings and they would have proved inadequate for sustained conversation. From these origins they developed either as extended pidgins or as creoles and became capable of expressing the views and beliefs of their users, became capable of permitting intergroup communication in areas where it had not existed before, became capable of sustaining a considerable literature. Not every pidgin eventually becomes a creole, i.e., undergoes the process of creolization.

In fact, very few do. Most pidgins are lingua francas, existing to meet temporary local needs. They are spoken by people who use another language or other languages to serve most of their needs and the needs of their children. If a pidgin is no longer needed, it dies out. It may also be the case that the pidgin in a particular area must constantly be ‘reinvented’. Creolization occurs only when a pidgin for some reason becomes the variety of language that children must use in situations in which use of a ‘full’ language is effectively denied them. A creole is the native language of some of its speakers. Professor Loreto Todd (2005, pp. 32 – 40) illustrate the creolization into four phases. Here is the brief description:

Phase 1: Marginal Contact

This phase would have involved casual and unsustained contact between English speakers and the local people. From such contact a marginal pidgin evolves; capable, with the help of gestures, of communicating physical needs and trading arrangements, etc. A marginal pidgin is inadequate for more than the most rudimentary forms of communication. Since it is largely supplemented by gesture, discussion is limited to tangible objects, especially those in the immediate vicinity. Such a mode of communication is of limited value only. If the contact is prolonged and intimate a fuller form of communication must develop and the pidgin either abandoned or expanded. It is likely that since the sixteenth century several pidgin Englishes have come into existence and died out. The only two options open to a marginal pidgin are to disappear or to become more useful by the expansion of its resources.

Phase 2: Period Of Nativization

This phase would have begun as soon as the pidgin English was used by and between local people. At this stage it could be expanded in only one way, from the users’ mother tongues. This phase helps to account for the indigenous lexical items and the numerous direct translations found in all pidgin and creole Englishes. The expansion of a pidgin is facilitated by two main factors: its developing in a multilingual area and its use not so much in non-native to native contact as in contacts between native inhabitants speaking mutually unintelligible languages. In this phase can be occurred reduplications.

Reduplicated forms occur in all the English-based pidgins and creoles. Besides reduplications taken over from the local languages, three types of reduplicated English forms can be attested; (a)reduplications to reduce the number of homophonous forms (b) reduplications which extend the meaning of the simple form (c)reduplications used as intensives, this type being confined to the adjective/verb class. Items borrowed from indigenous languages, the lexical items which found their way from local languages into pidgin and creole Englishes were often, not unexpectedly, related to the local culture and conditions. Word-compounding and calquing, to extend the pidgin’s vocabulary one could combine different items from the pidgin either (a) on the analogy of English patterns, or (b) in direct translations from the mother tongues.

Phase 3: Influence From The Dominant Language

When a pidgin has evolved to phase 2 it is capable of being used as a mother tongue and it is from this point in development that it becomes hard, if not impossible, to distinguish between pidgins and creoles by purely linguistic criteria. At this time vocabularies were extended by borrowing lexical items from the ‘dominant’ language. Usually, as in Hawaii and Sierra Leone, this language was English, but occasionally, as in Surinam, it was another
European language, Dutch in the case of Surinam. The pidgin’s expansion is normally closely associated with the ‘dominant’ language, by which I mean the language of government and education, and this, in turn, is almost always the language from which the pidgin’s basic vocabulary is derived.

Phase 4: The Post-Creole Continuum

This phase is limited to areas where English continued to be an official state language. When the contact between English and the related pidgin or creole was sustained and as education in standard English became more widespread, a process of decreolization occurred. When it is remembered that most extended pidgin and creole Englishes have been in contact with some form of non-creole English for up to three hundred years it is not surprising that they have been influenced to varying degrees by the prestigious standard; though it may be only in the recent past, with the introduction of formal education and the spread of literacy in English, that the influences have really begun to make inroads.

That the influence could have been a two-way traffic is dealt with later. The process of decreolization is most in evidence in the New World varieties, though it is to be found in all areas where the two types of language co-exist. As education through English was made compulsory in the West Indies long before such a policy was pursued in West Africa or even in urban areas of Papua New Guinea, it is to be expected that decreolization has proceeded furthest in the former area, and that its creoles have absorbed more and more features of standard English.


Pidgins often have a short life. If pidgins develop for a restricted function, they disappear when the function disappear. In some cases, however pidgins go on to develop into fully fledged languages or creole. Creole languages develop ways systematically signaling meaning such as verb tenses, and these may develop into inflections or affixes over time.

Example of pidgin:

These lines are taken from a famous comic strip in Papua New Guinea: “Sapos yu kaikai planti pinat, bai yu kamap strong olsem phantom.” “Fantom, yu pren tru bilong mi. Inap yu ken helpim mi nau?” “Fantom, em i go we?”


“If you eat plenty of peanuts, you will come up strong like the phantom.” “Phantom, you are a true friend of mine. Are you able to help me now?” “Where did he go?”


Wardhaugh, Ronald. 2006. An Introduction to Sociolinguistic. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Holm, John. 2004. An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Todd, Loreto. 2005. Pidgins and Creoles. London: Routledge

Kouwenberg, Silvia & Singler, John Victor. 2008. The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ambarwati, Rosita. 2012. An Introductionto Sociolinguistics Modul. Magetan: Javas Grafika, (accessed at 08.36 a.m, October 4th, 2012), (accessed at 08.36 a.m, October 5th, 2012)

Updated: Feb 22, 2021
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Pidgin and Creole Languages. (2016, Oct 12). Retrieved from

Pidgin and Creole Languages essay
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