Pidgins and Creoles


Further reading: please read “Pidgin” and “Creole” in the (e-resource) Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language



English has spread around the world for historical reasons, not for linguistic ones

·       British colonization (peaked C19th)

o     first wave: North America (rhotic, mostly)

o     second: beyond (non-rhotic, mostly)

·       economic influence of US


Has come into contact with many other languages

·       resulting in ‘contact varieties’

o     e.g. Indian English


Today we’ll be looking at mother-tongue varieties of English in which the structure has been profoundly affected by language contact: “creoles”

·       exemplified by Guyanese Creole (Creolese) in Dabydeen’s Slave Song

o     or Krio in Sierra Leone

o     or Hawaii English Creole

·       notice geographical distribution: wide

·       believed by many (but not all) linguists to be a special kind of contact language

o     as defined in C20th, English-based Creoles share similar features that have been attributed to

§       a common ancestor?

§       how adults learn languages?


Key to Creoles, as they have been defined

·       descent from pidgin




-is nobody’s native language

-a term for a contact language that draws on elements from two or more languages



-following the OED, COD says “corruption of business

                    -have a look at the OED entry

-business: a language for getting things done in


It’s formed when two (usually) speech communities have a common ‘interest’ but no common language


-e.g. North America: many unrelated First Nations languages

          -families/tribes spoke a pidginized form

                    -with each other

                    -later with Europeans


-context often colonization: involves former imperial powers Portugal, Spain, French, English

-often near trading, shipping routes

- and motivation usually economic (from a European perspective)

          -Europeans coming to an area (e.g. Caribbean)

-or labourers …

                    -e.g. black slaves from Africa

                    -e.g. indentured labourers from China, South Asia

                              -all needing to talk to each other


Pidgin originally referred to the trade jargon used around China between the British and Chinese

          -that’s now referred to as China Coast Pidgin English

          -and pidgin has become the generic term


As once defined, pidgins have a reduced lexical and stylistic range

          -contact is short-lived

          -few areas of overlapping interest other than trade, labour

                    -therefore has a restricted vocabulary

-you can’t draft a constitution in a pidgin or argue a legal case

          -the languages are usually unrelated to each other


-pidgins tend to be efficient and dispense with difficult or redundant parts

-e.g. no cases for pronouns, no inflection for number

                    -e.g. standard English: One man comes, Six men come

-cf. Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea Wanpela man i kam, Sikspela man i kam

-no variation in noun or verb form: “Wan” and “Siks” convey all that’s necessary

          -it’s a phenomenon of adult language learning

                    -tend to overgeneralize structures, simplify


Pidgins don’t get printed much

          -literary representation in e.g. Conrad, Durrell

          -example from Conrad’s Victory of Chinese Pidgin English

                    -Malay used for more complex negotiations


He waited a little, and then, with reluctant curiosity, forced himself to ask the silent Wang what he had to say … he was not surprised to hear Wang conclude the account of his stewardship with the words:

          “Me go now.”

“Oh! You go now?” said Heyst, leaning back, his book on his knees.

“Yes! Me no likee. One man, two man, thlee man – no can do. Me go now.”

“Why? You are used to white men. You know them well.”

“Yes. Me savee them,” assented Wang inscrutably. “Me savee plenty.”

“Oh, you savee plenty about white men,” Heyst went on in a slightly pantering tone… “You speak in that fashion, but you are frightened of those white men over there!”

“Me no flightened,” protested Wang raucously … “Me no likee,” he added in a quieter tone. “Me velly sick.”

“That,” said Heyst, serenely positive, “belong one piecee lie. That isn’t proper man-talk at all. And after stealing my revolver, too!”



Terms for specific pidgins, e.g. “China Coast Pidgin English”, “Papua New Guinea Pidgin English”, “West African Pidgin English”

-notice that the terms denote a kind of English: tend to be named after the lexifier/superstrate language


-the language of the dominant group tends to furnish the lexis

-“English” has supplied most of the vocabulary, so you’ll find it called the lexifier language

          -or the superstrate language

-super reflects not dominance but the fact that lexis is more superficial


-the indigenous languages (e.g. Chinese, African) have more influence on the grammar and syntax

          -substrate language, syntax, sub =deeper


However, there are some striking similarities across pidgins. Are these explained

-because of how adults’ brains are hardwired for learning languages?

          -so, they arise newly in different situations

-and end up with similar structures regardless of the substrate language


-because they share a common origin ?

-e.g. in a lingua franca used in the Mediterranean from crusading times?

-Sabir: earliest known pidgin based on a European language

                    -from Pt sabir ‘to know’

          -vocab drawn from Southern Romance languages

-thought by some to have been the base for the development of Atlantic and other pidgin languages used by imperial European powers

                    -why savvy ‘know’ shows up in so many?


-e.g. in well established West African pidgin originating in the 16th century in contacts between British sailors and traders and West African slaves who spoke many different languages

-incidental consequence of many West Africans on slave ships speaking unrelated languages

-deliberate consequence of slave traders and slave owners keeping people separate

-WAPE influenced development of English Creoles in US, Caribbean and Central America



Some pidgins become the mother tongue of a new generation of speakers

·       rarely observed/able: Hawaii Pidgin -> Creole an exception


Called a Creole (also from Portuguese, according to some sources—but not the OED)


Hard to reconstruct context: debate about origins of AAVE


-e.g. did the subsequent generation of slaves speak the former pidgin as a mother tongue since they didn’t have single African language in common

-sounds simple, but wrt development of AAVE highly contentious

-you really need to know social and political history

-relative percentage of blacks and whites in community

          -demographics and social structure of plantations


A Creole is a language you live in:

-used in more situations than a pidgin

-so its structural and stylistic range expands

                    -vocabulary expands: not just trade, labour

                    -grammar becomes more complex

                             -like Early Modern English relative to Latin



There are common elements of English- and European-based Creoles

          -common origins?

          -language universals / innate ‘bioprogram’ for languages


-tend to have no copula: di pikni sick ‘the child is sick’

-one of the key arguments for AAVE originating in a Creole rather than as a dialect of Early modern English


-tend to lack a formal passive:

          Dem plaan di tri ‘they planted the tree’

Di tri plaan ‘the tree was planted’, De grass cut ‘the grass has been cut’


Some representative features of English-based Creoles:


-no case distinctions used in pronouns: She see he come

-no inflection for plural: two book

-plural marking can also be with a particle dem: di daagdem ‘the dogs’

-in the verb phrase, use of particles that aren’t in the lexifier language

          -e.g. ongoing action: David a go ‘David is going’

          -e.g. completion: Meri done it ‘Mary has eaten’


Creole grammar used to be stigmatized as ‘primitive’, but all language varieties have their own rules


E.g. Jamaican basilect

          mi guo             I go

          mi de guo             I am going

          mi bin guo                 I went

          mi bin de guo          I was going



Creoles usually have specific names


Might still be called ‘pidgin’

          -e.g. West African Pidgin English

                    -geographical, stylistic range

                             -across Africa

                             -coexists with a more standard English


          -mostly a lingua franca in multilingual countries

-but also the native language of some urban dwellers in Africa


Other terms

          -e.g. “Creolese” in Guyana

          -e.g. “Broken English” in Nigeria

          -e.g. “Torres Strait Broken” (Australia / Papua New Guinea)

                    -“broken” raises issues of status


For historical reasons, creoles often coexist with local standard English

          -e.g. in Jamaica, English had displaced Spanish

                    -British English remained as a prestige form

                             -in writing

-in speech: standard English with accent, syllable timing


There’s a continuum between the Creole and the Standard, a vertical distribution

          -basilect: term for the Creole

          -acrolect: term for the standard

          -mesolect: term for in between

                    -same speaker has command of some range

                             -basilect for market

                             -mesolect in public

                             -acrolect for delivering a lecture

-the more formal education you have, the more flexibility you have (but more difficult decisions)

          -you can insult somebody by being too formal


If individual speakers aim at the acrolect, the common Creole can become more like it


-process is called decreolization: the structure of the Creole changes in the direction of the standard over time


-process can obscure origins of the variety

          -i.e. does AAVE resemble AE because of

-common origin in regional British dialect, subsequent divergence?

-origin as English/African Creole, with subsequent decreolization?


Modern developments are in tension

          -acrolect has high status

          -basilect signals identity


Choice illustrated by two Black Harlem Renaissance poets

-Countee Cullen mastered the standard, imitated Milton and Keats

                    -his blackness an impediment like Milton’s blindness

-Langston Hughes: embraced black identity by not assimilating


Do Creoles ever rise in status / expand in function?

-Jamaican situation interesting


Linguistic study of Creoles, esp from the 50s onward, helps give them status

          -Dictionary of Jamaican English 1967

                    -spelling quite stabilized

-with the Manley government in the 70s, Jamaican English vehicle for export of cultural items like rasta, reggae, dub poetry

-a lot of key cultural figures had university education, but neglected standard English

          -basilect used in radio, tv

                    -pop entertainment

                    -shows with public participation


                             -but the news mostly in standard English

-and in newspapers, basilect usually in specific sections


A real issue for Creole to get written down

          -spelling conventions not settled

-like Chaucer writing in English rather than French or Latin or ME

                    -uncodified, variable


Real test of a creole’s social value: whether it’s used in non-literary, professional functions (poetry safe)

          -education system

          -law courts

-do defendants speak Creole or halting standard English?

          -road signs: “KIP LEF” (not)




-pidgins and Creoles long neglected by academics because they weren’t regarded as ‘real’ languages

-non-linguistically, raise complicated political questions, esp ones concerned with national, social, and economic development and transition into post-colonial societies

-now highly significant for general linguistics

          -language acquisition

          -language change

          -language universals

-definitions as presented here are no longer workable

-just one example: many ‘pidgins’, although the native language of none or few, are used extensively (e.g. West African Pidgin English)

-debates about classifying (e.g.) contact varieties like Singapore English