Two languages walk into a bar. The first says, “Comment ça va?” The second one pauses to think, and then says, “Muy bien. Que belle nuit.”
There’s no punchline, unless you’re amused by this very crude attempt to illustrate pidginization with a bad bar joke.
Pidgins and creoles are both the result of what happens when you blend two or more languages, but they’re not the same. Put simply, a pidgin is the first-generation version of a language that forms between native speakers of different languages — a makeshift communication bridge, if you will. A creole is a pidgin with native speakers, or one that’s been passed down to a second generation of speakers who will formalize it and fortify the bridge into a robust structure with a fully developed grammar and syntax.
Generally speaking, pidgins form in the context of a multicultural population. Historically, this has often happened in areas where multiple groups were trading with each other, or when groups of slaves from various nations were assimilated into a single population and developed a language.
Pidgins often borrow words from their source languages and feature a simplified grammar. It’s a bare-bones language designed to enable minimum-viable communication.
By the time a pidgin becomes a creole, the language has developed enough of its own characteristics to have a distinct grammar of its own. Beyond the well-known French/West African creole spoken in Haiti, there’s also Hawaiian Creole English, which is a mix of Hawaiian, English, Chinese, Spanish and other languages. Malay also has at least 14 recognized creole offshoots thanks to Dutch and Portuguese colonial impact. Gullah is an English-based creole spoken in the southern United States, and then there’s the French-based Louisiana Creole. There’s also Chavacano, a Spanish-based creole spoken in the Philippines. The list goes on.
There’s some disagreement among linguists over whether pidgins immediately become creoles, or whether this process can require more than one generation. Some argue that neurologically, there are always a ton of commonalities in the way humans learn native tongues, which means first-generation speakers of creole languages will inevitably “fill in the blanks” of any language aspects missing from the pidgin version. However, there’s often a ton of vocabulary, syntax and pronunciation changes that occur during the first 20 to 30 years of creole formation. In either case, some pidgins are still in use today, such as Nigerian Pidgin and Cameroonian Pidgin English, but they’re often referred to creoles as well as pidgins. Confused yet?
There’s also some disagreement over whether creoles always arise from pidgins, otherwise known as the “life cycle” theory, which was introduced by Robert Hall in 1962. Other theories have surfaced since, like the notion that creoles can develop in much more intimate contexts than trade, such as between slaves and plantation owners. Some linguists contest the notion that Haitian and Louisiana Creole arose from a pidgin stage, for example.
Additionally, it’s important to note that pidgins don’t always become creoles. If a second generation of speakers picks up aspects of the pidgin as a second language, it’s still generally considered to be a pidgin. Additionally, if the society doesn’t provide an environment where the language can continue developing in relative isolation, the pidgin will often disappear, along with the need for it.
In either case, the distinction is not always very cut-and-dried.
“In actual usage, distinctions are also difficult, such as with Tok Pisin (in its name and also as it is usually considered a pidgin) now being the native language of some in Papua New Guinea,” writes linguistics PhD candidate Daniel Ross on Quora. “So is it a creole yet? Well, in a sense. But it is also still a major non-native language for many, probably for more. So perfect boundaries/distinctions are not possible, but the ideas are fairly clear, and I would think it would be harder to separate other kinds of mixed languages from creoles than creoles from pidgins.”
As with languages and dialects, the boundary between “pidgin” and “creole” is not exactly airtight. Language is a vast continuum, and it’s ever in flux. How’s that for bar banter?