What Is A Pidgin?

Pidgins are perhaps the best expression of people trying to communicate across language lines.
a lighthouse at night in Hawaii

When you meet someone who doesn’t speak the same native language as you, there are a few methods you can use to get your point across. You can learn their language, they can learn your language, you can have some third language you both know, or you can use some sort of translation tool to facilitate. But what would happen if two people spoke different languages and there was no intermediary? Pidgins start to form.

What Is A Pidgin?

The word pidgin has nothing to do with the city bird that everyone loves to hate. Instead, somewhat improbably, it comes from the Chinese pronunciation of the word “business.” Its earliest uses in the 19th century referred specifically to what was called “business English,” or the English that a Chinese speaker would learn to communicate with English businesses. Nowadays, this is called Chinese Pidgin English, because pidgin is a more widely used term.

A “pidgin” today refers to the form of communication that arises when two (or more!) different languages collide. The two groups will designate words to items and actions to convey information. This might sound like it would be a close-to-impossible task, but it’s not entirely different from learning a language through immersion. The difference is that one group never learns the entirety of the other group’s language.

Pidgins have sprung up all over the world, and a large number of them tend to come from the meeting of English and some other language. This is mostly because both the United Kingdom and the United States have expansive colonial histories, where communication was necessary with native people. Many pidgins, in fact, can be linked back to colonialist roots, though colonialism is not a prerequisite. Anywhere that two languages meet, a pidgin can form.

Are Pidgins A Language?

There is no cut-and-dried answer to whether a pidgin can be considered a full-fledged language. Usually, in the process of finding common ground, the complexities of the contributing languages have to be shorn off. Pidgins, at least in the beginning, are a temporary fix that are not meant to act as anyone’s primary mode of communication.

There are two main routes that a pidgin can take once it has formed. In some cases, one language completely supplants the pidgin as one of the groups of people willingly or unwillingly learns their non-native language. Or, if the pidgin hangs around long enough, it will start to evolve and become more complicated. In this case, it becomes a creole. 

The simplest definition of a creole is that it’s a pidgin that has been passed down to a second generation. The children who grow up with pidgins tend to add more complexities to pidgins so that they’re better able to communicate. When exactly a pidgin crosses over to a creole is far more complicated, however, and there’s no concretely defined moment where it tips from one to the other.

While pidgins are literally “not full languages,” the reputation they get for being “incorrect” is unwarranted. Too often, speakers of a pidgin are treated like they’re unintelligent. A pidgin is not an incorrect language, however — it’s just different.

What Isn’t A Pidgin?

The term “pidgin” is made even more confusing because many languages have the word “pidgin” right in their names. Pidgin is the common name given to the language spoken in West and Central Africa, for example, which has become a lingua franca for the region and has been around long enough to definitely not be a pidgin anymore. The BBC even has a specific Pidgin edition for their audiences in Africa. Similarly, Hawaiian Pidgin English is definitely not a pidgin but it still bears the name. And Tok Pisin, one of the official languages of Papua New Guinea, is itself a pidginization of the English phrase “Pidgin talk.”

The whole situation gets only more confusing when you throw in the other linguistic terms. The word “jargon” has been used to mean roughly the same thing as “pidgin,” and it survives in names including Chinook Jargon, Mobilian Jargon and Nootka Jargon. Now, jargon is pretty much only used for job-specific words. There’s also the word “patois,” which means “substandard form of language,” which is a very unscientific and frankly condescending term that would sometimes be used to describe pidgins or creoles. Today, it’s mainly survived by being part of the name of Jamaican Patois, which is an English-based creole spoken by 2.7 million people in Jamaica today.

How Many Pidgins Are Around Today?

As the number of truly isolated locations has declined in the past few centuries, so, too, has the number of active pidgins. They have tended to either adapt or die out, and so anything you run into today is more likely to be a creole. 

Still, pidgins pop up here and there. In the 1970s, a Nicaraguan school for the deaf was established, bringing together kids from around the country to learn together. Without a common sign language to unite them, they struggled in the beginning to adapt. But after a while, the students began to develop their own sign language. Within a decade or so, Nicaraguan Sign Language was a complex, commonly used language.

The origins of Nicaraguan Sign Language are not exactly like the usual pidgin-to-creole stories — they didn’t have any “original” languages from which to meet in the middle — but the main ideas behind it are the same. A group of kids built up from a simple language system to a complex one, crossing the boundaries between themselves. Pidgins reveal a lot about how humans use language, and provide us with a glimpse into our past. All languages came from the original desire for two humans to speak to each other, and in a time when many stories are about the loss of language, it’s nice to know that there are still opportunities for the world to gain new ones.

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