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Pidgin and Creole

What do you think of when you hear the word 'languages'? The ones that spring to mind are probably Spanish, French, Mandarin, Arabic, Zulu, Japanese (we can't forget English, of course!) and many others like these. However, languages extend beyond simply the main languages spoken in each country across the world. 

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Pidgin and Creole

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What do you think of when you hear the word 'languages'? The ones that spring to mind are probably Spanish, French, Mandarin, Arabic, Zulu, Japanese (we can't forget English, of course!) and many others like these. However, languages extend beyond simply the main languages spoken in each country across the world.

There are some languages that have evolved from combinations of other languages. These are the ones we're concerned with in this article – the pidgins and creoles! Now, don't worry if your knowledge of creoles is limited or if the only pidgin you know of is the bird (see what I did there?). You'll soon have a much stronger idea of what these unique types of language are all about.

Definition of pidgin and creole

Right off the bat, it's worth noting that pidgins and creoles are two separate things, even though they may be closely related.

A pidgin is a form of language that has typically evolved using simplified grammar and structures from an external language combined with features of local languages. Pidgins are born out of the need for people to communicate without speaking a common language.

Whereas:

A creole is a language that has evolved from contact between a European language (e.g., French, English, or Portuguese) and a local language (or a variety of local languages). Most creoles emerged during the slave trade and are most commonly associated with the West Indies and Africa. There are also many English-based creoles in South and Southeast Asia.

Some common examples of Creoles include:

  • Haitian creole - French-based

  • Jamaican Patois - English-based

  • Reunionese - French-based

Do you, or anyone you know, speak a creole or pidgin? Have you ever travelled to countries that use these forms of language?

Pidgin and Creole, West Indies flag, StudySmarter

Fig. 1 - Most pidgins and creoles arose during slavery, and many of them are associated with the West Indies.

Difference between pidgin and creole

As demonstrated by the above definitions, pidgins and creoles do share some characteristics. However, they are their own distinct entities and therefore have differences.

The main differences between pidgins and creoles include:

  • Pidgins are not spoken as a native language by any country, whereas many countries have creoles that are native languages.

  • Pidgins have very basic grammar, whereas creoles have much more complex and full grammar.

  • Pidgins tend to have limited vocabularies, whereas creoles are much more extended.

  • Pidgins are considered reduced forms of other languages, whereas creoles have developed into fully-fledged languages of their own.

As we continue to move through this article, you'll get a better sense of the distinctions between pidgins and creoles, and we'll also look at some examples of each.

Characteristics of pidgins and creoles

We've already looked at some differences between pidgins and creoles, but here are the main defining characteristics of each type of language:

Characteristics of pidgins

  • Generally have limited vocabulary

  • Simplified grammar

  • Use many onomatopoeias (words that sound like the thing they are referring to, e.g., 'bang', 'slap', 'woosh', 'sizzle')

  • Consonant clusters often get simplified (e.g., instead of pronouncing all the sounds in the phrase 'best player', the pidgin pronunciation might be 'bes player' where the /t/ is dropped from the '-st' consonant cluster)

  • Not typically a native language of any country, but spoken as a second language

  • Commonly seen as being low prestige language varieties

  • Simplified sentence and phrase structures

  • Linguistic characteristics such as gender and number (singular and plural forms) are often non-existent.

Characteristics of Creoles

  • Fully developed grammar

  • Extensive vocabulary

  • Full, native languages that have derived from pidgins

  • Most commonly viewed as vernacular languages, although in countries where they are widely used, they are viewed as having higher prestige

  • Most creoles are born of contact between European and native languages, and creoles might include some words and structures from European languages (such as French and Portuguese). That said, not all creoles are based on European languages. For example, Betawi is a Malay-based creole with no European influence.

Fun Fact! Chavacano is the world's oldest creole language and is a Spanish-based creole used in the Philippines. It is estimated that Chavacano is over 400 years old!

Pidgin and Creole, old article about British colonial rule, StudySmarter

Fig. 2 - Most pidgins and creoles arose during the colonial rule of European countries.

Pidgin and creole examples

Remember, pidgin and creole are types of language that develop as a means of communication between groups who do not share a common language. As such, there are many examples throughout history that have been recorded or noted.

Examples of Pidgin languages include:

  • Madras Bashai - a dialect of Tamil with influences from Indian English, Telugu, Malayalam, Burmese, and Hindustani, spoken in the region of Chennai (India).

  • Algonquian-Basque Pidgin – a Basque-based pidgin with influences from the indigenous language, Algonquian, used by Basque whalers and Algonquin communities in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (Canada) up to the 1710s.

  • Settla Swahili – a pidgin derived from English with Swahili influences, used by English-speaking European colonists to communicate with Swahili people in Kenya and Zambia.

  • Labrador-Inuit Pidgin French – a French-based pidgin with influences from Breton, Basque, and local Inuit languages, spoken in Labrador (Canada) until the 1760s as a means of communication between the two groups.

Examples of Creole languages include:

  • Bungi Creole – developed from pidgins of Scottish English, Scottish Gaelic, French, Norn, Cree, and Ojibwe. Bungi Creole is spoken in what is now known as Manitoba, Canada.

  • Michif - based on a combination of Cree and Métis French with influences from English and neighbouring Indigenous languages, spoken by the Métis people in various Canadian provinces including Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.

  • Kituba - National language in the Democratic Republic of Congo, based on a Bantu language called Kikongo.

  • Haitian Creole – widely spoken as a first language in Haiti, largely based on French with influences from Portuguese, Spanish, English, Taino, and West African languages.

Fun fact! Haitian Creole is the most widely spoken creole in the world, with an estimated 10-12 million speakers!

Examples of pidgin phrases:

One example of a pidgin phrase is the Algonquian-Basque Pidgin.

'Maloes mercatora.' = 'Those of St. Malo are unfair traders.'

'Gara gara ender-quir gara gara.' = 'There will be war if we continue like this.'

Another is Settla Swahili.

'Mimi hapana anguka.' = 'I will not fall.'

'Itu mutu mingi hapa.' = 'There are many people here.'

Examples of creole phrase:

Kituba is a clear example of a creole phrase from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

'Mu me zola nge.' = 'I love you.'

'Yandi me salaka.' = 'He has been working.'

Another example is Haitian Creole.

'Tout bagay anfòm.' = 'Everything is fine.'

'Sak vid pa kanpe.' = 'No work gets done on an empty stomach.'

Pidgin and creole Languages

Why are pidgins and creoles important lanaguages?

History

While reading this article, you might have picked up on some significant identifiers for pidgins and creoles.

For instance, most creoles were formed due to the slave trade during colonial times in the 17th and 18th centuries when European countries such as Spain, France, and Britain colonised different parts of the world (most notably, Northern America, or 'The New World', Africa and Asia).

When enslaved people were taken from different countries, they wouldn't have shared a common language. By learning and amalgamating the most basic structures and vocabulary of each other's languages, enslaved people from different places could begin to communicate with one another. These makeshift languages born out of necessity were pidgins.

As further generations continued using these pidgins, expanding upon them, and developing their vocabulary and grammar, they evolved into creoles.

Pidgins formed the basis of many creoles formed during colonial times and were significantly influenced by the language of the colonisers. Assimilating parts of the coloniser's language enabled enslaved people to survive. Many creoles were also influenced by indentured servants.

For example, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a dialect spoken predominantly by African American communities in the USA.

AAVE's origins date back to the first wave of British colonisation of America during the 1600s, where British colonisers settled in Virginia and Maryland, and later Georgia and the Carolinas. The British had enslaved people from different parts of Africa and brought them to Jamestown, Virginia from where the settlement of British colonisers expanded.

These enslaved African people came into contact with indentured servants from Ireland and elsewhere, and through this contact, learned some English. This allowed them to communicate with each other (as the enslaved people might not all have shared a common language) and allowed the British colonisers to communicate with them.

The variety of English developed by the enslaved African people was a pidgin that contained West African influences as well. As time went on, this pidgin English evolved to become a creole as further generations continued to use, adapt, and develop it.

Over further centuries, this creole went through a process of decreolisation (when a creole evolves into a standard language or a variety of a standard language) to become the AAVE we're more familiar with today.

Although modern AAVE is not as heavily influenced by West African languages as the original pidgin and creole were, there are still words and structures that have West African roots. For example:

  • 'bogus' – meaning fake, comes from the Hausa (a Nigerian language) word 'boko' meaning deceit.
  • 'dig' - meaning to understand or appreciate, is directly translated from the Wolof (West African language spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritiana) word 'deg'.

Words such as 'banana', 'okra', and 'gumbo' also have West African origins (Mandingo and West Bantu languages).

Creolisation

Creolisation is a concept closely linked to the language variety and refers to:

Creolisation is the process by which elements from different countries, cultures, or communities come together to create something new. The most common context in which 'creolisation' is used, is when referring to the creation of creole languages (i.e. creoles are formed from the combination of words and language structures from a variety of different languages).

What role does creolisation play in history?

The most obvious example of creolisation is the slave trade, where people from different parts of the world were brought to different countries as slaves. As groups of people from different cultures and nationalities were brought to a certain country during colonial times, the interaction between these groups lead to the gradual creation of new cultures and languages (creoles). This is creolisation.

Creolisation can be seen in more recent history too.

For example, during the apartheid regime (which translates literally to 'apartness' or the state of being apart) in South Africa between 1948 and the early 1990s, the population of South Africa was infamously segregated into Black and White groups.

What is spoken about less is the separation of the so-called 'Asian and Coloured' population (the term 'coloured' is considered derogatory and a slur). This group comprised Asian people from different backgrounds (such as Indian and Chinese) as well as multiracial people (most commonly, people with one black parent and one white parent).

Whether the powers in place were aware at the time or not, the 'Asian and Coloured' group were in fact a creole community as a result of creolisation.

After the apartheid regime was overturned and segregation began to reduce, the 'coloured' population became accepted as a more complex creole community due to the work of Zimitri Erasmus in 20011. Erasmus stated that:

In re-imagining coloured identities, we need to move beyond the notion that coloured identities are ‘mixed race’ identities. Rather, we need to see them as cultural identities comprising detailed bodies of knowledge, specific cultural practices, memories, rituals, and modes of being.

Erasmus, 2001

Pidgin and Creole, aerial photo of Cape Town, StudySmarter

Fig. 3 - The densest population of 'Asian and Coloured' people during apartheid was in Cape Town.

Pidgins and creoles: culture and identity

Language is so closely intertwined with one's identity. In the same way that you need to learn about dialects, sociolects, idiolects, and ethnolects, learning about pidgins and creoles is a great way to understand identity even more.

Communities of all different kinds, all over the world, use language to connect with each other and with other communities. Shared language is one of the key factors that bond people, as language use is often heavily influenced by social factors such as race, ethnicity, age, interests, region, education, and occupation.

Recognising pidgins and creoles as significant language forms enables the populations that speak them to embrace their cultural and social ties to these languages, and subsequently strengthen their sense of identity – be that individual identity or community identity.

Pidgin and Creole - Key Takeaways

  • A pidgin is a form of language that has evolved using simplified grammar and structures from an external language combined with features of local languages. Most pidgins arise when people who do not share a native language need to communicate with each other.
  • A creole is a language that has evolved from contact between a European language and a local language. Many creoles developed from pidgins.
  • Pidgins and creoles have some similarities but are different types of language with their own distinct characteristics.
  • Pidgins and creoles are historically important, as most began during Western colonial times and the transatlantic slave trade.
  • Pidgins and creoles are tied to the identities of the people who use them.

References

  1. Z. Erasmus, “Introduction: Re-imagining Coloured Identities in postapartheid South Africa.” In Zimitri Erasmus (ed) Coloured by History, Shaped by Place: New Perspectives on Coloured Identities in Cape Town. 2001

Frequently Asked Questions about Pidgin and Creole

Pidgins and creoles are two language varieties:


  • Pidgins are a form of language that has typically evolved using simplified grammar and structures from an external language combined with features of local languages.
  • Creoles are languages that have evolved from contact between a European language and a local language (or variety of local languages).

The main differences between pidgins and creoles are that pidgins have very basic grammar, limited vocabulary, and are reduced forms of other languages whereas creoles have full grammar, extensive vocabulary, and are fully-fledged languages. 

Pidgins do not always become creoles, but oftentimes, once a few generations of people have used a pidgin, the pidgin develops into a creole by expanding its grammar, vocabulary, and use.

Settla Swahili is an example of a pidgin language, and was derived from English with Swahili influences. It was developed and used by English-speaking European colonists to communicate with Swahili people in Kenya and Zambia.

The characteristics of pidgins and creoles include:
Pidgins generally having quite a small vocabulary, simplified grammar, many onomatopeias, etc. Creoles have fully developed grammar, extensive vocabulary, are commonly viewed as vernacular languages etc.

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