What Is a Pidgin?

pidgin language on sign
At a ferry landing in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, a sign in Bislama (an English-lexifier pidgin-creole) can be translated as, "If you want the ferry to come, strike the gong". Anders Ryman / Getty Images

In linguistics, a pidgin (pronounced PIDG-in​) is a simplified form of speech formed out of one or more existing languages and used as a lingua franca by people who have no other language in common. Also known as a pidgin language or an auxiliary language.

English pidgins include Nigerian Pidgin English, Chinese Pidgin English, Hawaiian Pidgin English, Queensland Kanaka English, and Bislama (one of the official languages of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu).

"A pidgin," says R.L. Trask and Peter Stockwell, "is nobody's mother tongue, and it is not a real language at all: it has no elaborate grammar, it is very limited in what it can convey, and different people speak it differently. Still, for simple purposes, it does work, and often everybody in the area learns to handle it" ( Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts, 2007).

Many linguists would quarrel with Trask and Stockwell's observation that a pidgin "is not a real language at all." Ronald Wardhaugh, for example, observes that a pidgin is "a language with no native speakers. [It is] sometimes regarded as a 'reduced' variety of a 'normal' language" (An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 2010). If a pidgin becomes the native language of a speech community, it is then regarded as a creole (Bislama, for example, is in the process of making this transition, which is called creolization).

From Pidgin English, perhaps from a Chinese pronunciation of English business

Examples and Observations

  • "At first a pidgin language has no native speakers and is used just for doing business with others with whom one shares the pidgin language and no other. In time, most pidgin languages disappear, as the pidgin-speaking community develops, and one of its established languages becomes widely known and takes over the role of the pidgin as the lingua franca, or language of choice of those who do not share a native language." (Grover Hudson, Essential Introductory Linguistics. Blackwell, 2000)
  • "Many . . . pidgin languages survive today in territories which formerly belonged to the European colonial nations, and act as lingua francas; for example, West African Pidgin English is used extensively between several ethnic groups along the West African coast." (David Crystal, English As a Global Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • "[M]ore than 100 pidgin languages are currently in use (Romaine, 1988). Most pidgins are structurally simple, although if used over many generations, they do evolve, as do all languages (Aitchison, 1983; Sankoff & Laberge, 1973)." (Erika Hoff, Language Development, 5th ed., Wadsworth, 2014)

Early Hawai'i Pidgin English (HPE)

  • An example of early Hawai'i Pidgin English (HPE) spoken in Honolulu in the late 19th century: What for Miss Willis laugh all time? Before Fraulein cry all time.
    "Why does Miss Willis often laugh? Fraulein used to always cry." (cited by Jeff Siegel in The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole. Oxford University Press, 2008)

From Pidgin to Creole

  • "A creole comes into being when children are born into a pidgin-speaking environment and acquire the pidgin as a first language. What we know about the history and origins of existing creoles suggests that this may happen at any stage in the development of a pidgin." (Mark Sebba, Contact Languages: Pidgins and Creoles. Palgrave Macmillan, 1997)
  • "There are several possible fates for a pidgin. First, it may eventually drop out of use. This has happened to Hawaiian pidgin, now almost entirely displaced by English, the prestige language of Hawaii. Second, it can remain in use for generations, or even centuries, as has happened with some west African pidgins. Third, and most dramatically, it can be turned into a mother tongue. This happens when the children in a community have nothing but a pidgin to use with other children, in which case the children take the pidgin and turn it into a real language, by fixing and elaborating the grammar and greatly expanding the vocabulary. The result is a creole, and the children who create it are the first native speakers of the creole." (R.L. Trask, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts, 2nd ed., ed. by Peter Stockwell. Routledge, 2007)

Pidgin Spoken in Nigeria

  • "Againye tried to be a good nurse, attentive but not cloying, fetching me a stool to use while I bathed from a bucket and petting my head as I napped, saying, 'Pain you well well' in soothing pidgin." (Mary Helen Specht, "How Could I Embrace a Village?" The New York Times, Feb. 5, 2010)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Pidgin?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/pidgin-language-1691626. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What Is a Pidgin? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pidgin-language-1691626 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Pidgin?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pidgin-language-1691626 (accessed January 29, 2023).