Daily Archives: March 12, 2010


Let me try a few sentences from a foreign language on you (from tpi.wikipedia.org):

Kanada emi wanpela kantri long Not Amerika. Em i stap long noten sait bilong Yunaitet Stets. Em i gat 10 provins, na 32 milien manmeri. Kapitol bilong kantri emi Ottawa na ol bikpela taun i Toronto, Montreal na Vancouver. Kantri igat tupela tokples bilong gavman: Tok Inglis na Tok Pranis.

Here’s a translation:

Canada is a country in North America. It is on the northern side of the United States. It has 10 provinces and a population of 32 million. The country’s capitol is Ottawa and its large cities are Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. It has two official languages: English and French.

Now look at this:

Canada him is one fella country along North America. Him is stop along northern side belong United States. Him is got 10 province, and 32 million man Mary. Capitol belong country him he Ottawa and all bigfella town is Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Country he got two fella talk place belong government: Talk English and Talk French.

And look back at the first passage. See the connection?

So what is that first passage? Tok Pisin, also known as Pidgin or Pidgin English.

But that’s misleading for a few reasons. First of all, there are many pidgins in many places in the world, and Tok Pisin isn’t even the first one so to be called – that credit goes to Chinese Pidgin English, about which more below. Second, though it appears to be a version of English, that’s not quite accurate. Third, Tok Pisin, for many of its speakers, isn’t even a pidgin anymore.

First things first. What is a pidgin? The word pidgin comes from the pronunciation of the word business in Chinese Pidgin English, and not because it’s for the birds or because it’s a carrier of meaning. A pidgin is a trade language that has come into being in a situation where speakers of two or more different languages are in regular contact for a limited set of purposes (generally business, naturally) but do not have a common language to communicate in: there is not enough contact to give reason for general fluency in one of the groups’ languages, and there is not another language in common use (as, for instance, English is often today used for commerce between speakers of two other languages).

So they communicate with a simplified grammar – typically based mainly on one of the languages – and a simplified sound system that both sides can pronounce well enough (since one language may have various sounds that are not used in the other), and words are taken often more from one language (if there are two languages involved, one will typically supply grammar and the other – often the more prestigious one – will supply vocabulary), but generally every language spoken in that commercial context will pitch in at least a bit. Which means it’s not simply a variety of one language. It’s a language of its own, albeit a comparatively basic one.

A pidgin is thus inevitably something with a limited vocabulary and a fairly simple structure, basically meant for functional purposes. Think about what kind of exchanges you have with people on the other side of the counter in the mall, after all! And it has no native speakers.

Which is why Tok Pisin, for many speakers, is not a pidgin anymore. There are now more than a million first-language speakers of it. And it’s not so limited anymore. Have a look at its section on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website.

Of course, if a pidgin is to be used for all the things of general life, it inevitably develops more detailed grammar and vocabulary, and becomes what is called a creole.

Not all pidgins involve English, either. There are, around the world, various ones involving Spanish, Portuguese, French, Arabic… you will notice that all of these have in common being colonial powers. There’s a reason for that!

Pidgins have also supplied English with some phrases now in common use. Chinese Pidgin English, spoken from the 17th to the 19th centuries in southern China, produced a number of phrases that are basically calques of Chinese phrases – Chinese idiom, Chinese word order, English words: for instance, long time no see, look-see, lose face, no can do. Hawai’ian Pidgin has also given a few words and phrases. For instance, the word quick changed to its onset and reduplicated to make wiki-wiki, which has reappeared in English unreduplicated as wiki, for a website that allows open collaboration. As in Wikipedia.

For linguists, pidgin thus has a clear technical sense and a developed sphere of reference, and many linguists find pidgins fascinating. For most other English speakers, however, pidgin goes very often with English and is thought of as a debased sort of English, the pidgin being thought of perhaps as a misspelling of pigeon (by which it may have been influenced – bidgin might have been the first form of the word), and “pigeon English” like dog Latin – and perhaps lolcat speak – an animalized version, or a deformity like being pigeon-toed.

One suspects there may even be an undercurrent of thinking of the speakers as being bird-brained. In fact, the generally low view of Chinese Pidgin English and its speakers is why Cantonese traders finally decided to just use English. Why didn’t they before? Well, they had a low opinion of English and disdained kowtowing to an English standard (didja notice the Chinese loan word there?). And of course Cantonese was just too difficult for the English traders to learn. So that set the tone… until, in the end, business won out over pidgin.