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ULG’s Language Solutions Blog

The Evolution of Pidgin Languages

To some, pidgin languages can initially sound like a broken variation of more commonly spoken languages, and assumptions are made that pidgin speakers are using slang. This has caused some to categorize pidgin languages as incorrect or a sub-standard form of major languages.

In reality, pidgins are a historically rich testament to human ingenuity, a natural evolution of languages, and the need for communication. Since pidgin languages are popular in many areas of the world, it’s important to understand the characteristics of pidgins, and how some are using the languages to localize communications with these cultures.

What are Pidgin Languages?

Pidgins are languages that grow out of necessity when groups of people that don’t share a common language must interact with each other. Pidgins are a mixture of words from different languages, and feature a simpler grammatical structure and smaller vocabulary. With extended use over time, a pidgin language develops and becomes a common mode of communication.

Due to the simpler grammatical structure and limited vocabulary, pidgins are usually secondary languages, used in specific scenarios and groups, while a primary language like French or English is used more frequently.

Pidgins, which start as a simpler form of communication, can evolve over generations into a creolized language, which features a much more extensive vocabulary and more well-defined grammatical structures. The most widely used form of a creole language is Haitian Creole, with over seven million speakers throughout the world.

Other basic pidgin languages eventually evolved, resulting in distinct languages like Louisiana Creole and Hawai’i Creole, also known as Pidgin English, which was created by Asian, Hawaiian, European, Filipino, and Puerta Rican laborers on Hawaiian sugarcane plantations.

Code-switching in Pidgin Languages

With the alternating usage of first and second languages, code-switching is a common feature of pidgin languages. Linguistically, code-switching is a characteristic in which an individual or group will alternate and mix languages as they see fit. For example, saying “Hasta la vista, baby” is a basic form of code-switching, since words in both English and Spanish are being used.

In pidgins, the code-switching can be much more complex than a simple phrase, as the entire language is comprised of combining different languages and creating new words in the process.

Code-switching is crucial for pidgin languages, since combining languages is the basis of pidgin. By combining different languages, the grammar becomes as basic as possible to decrease confusion between languages that feature sometimes radically different grammatical structures, like English and Japanese.

Where are Pidgins Today?

While famous pidgins have evolved into creole languages, with Pidgin English being recently recognized as an official language in Hawaii, there are still dozens of pidgin languages around the world, primarily in countries where cities have rapidly grown with groups of people who speak different languages.

In the Nigerian city of Lagos, there are 500 different spoken languages, and the resulting pidgin is known as Naija. As the city continues to rapidly grow, Naija has found a place in everyday life, with many using it as a first language.

Technology has also begun to focus on pidgins and creoles, with the BBC reporting in Pidgin English, a Nigerian app has been created with translations available in English and pidgins, and the Wycliffe Bible Translators creating a Pidgin English website for the Bible.

These are prime examples of the power that language localization holds. These new efforts are reaching these cultures in languages they can identify and understand. This is especially true in countries like Nigeria, where pidgins are frequently used as a first language.

Moving forward, pidgins and creoles will continue to rise and evolve throughout the world, and with the huge impact they have on cultures, it’s clear that technology will have to continue keeping pace.

Examples of Pidgin English

With an extensive vocabulary, Pidgin English has many interesting translations to English, via E-Hawaii.com:

  • Aina – earth; land
  • Braddah – brother, bro
  • Chicken skin – goose bumps
  • Eh – hey
  • Fast kine – fast; quick; speedy
  • Guaranz – guarantee; no doubt
  • Hana hou – repeat; again
  • Imua – first; front; number one
  • Junk – boring; not good
  • Kala – dollar; money
  • Lokahi – unity; peace; in agreement
  • Makai – ocean side
  • Ne Ne – Sleep
  • Oddah – other
  • Pau – finished; done
  • Shmall kine – just a little
  • Try wait – wait a minute
  • Ujee – disgusting; gross
  • Walauu – talk; speak
  • Yeah no – oh yeah; I agree; you’re right