I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
As European colonizers spread across the globe a mongrel language developed that patched together local tongues with Dutch, or Spanish, or English. Versions of it emerged in the 16th century among African slaves and their owners.
It got its name in the middle of the 19th century when it developed as a simplified language used in China as a way of communicating with Europeans. Pidgin is the way the Chinese mispronounced the English word business, although there are other theories about how the word came into existence.
There are many regional hybrids. It’s a language in which you were likely to hear the Duke of Edinburgh called “Old fella Pili-Pili him bilong Misis Kwin.”
There are no rules that cover all pidgin languages; they tend to be made up on the spot. Pidgin is always a second language of the speakers. Vocabularies are small, so nouns in English sometimes need long descriptions. For example, the people of Papua New Guinea have little use for the word accordion so they describe it as “Liklik box you pull him he cry you push him he cry.”
Pidgin involves code switching, which happens when a speaker uses words from different languages in a sentence. “Hasta la vista, baby,” is a very simple example, as is a French restaurant that is only open on week days and has signage that says “Jamais le weekend.”
Code switching in pidgin gets more complicated. There is a sign on the Pacific island of Vanuatu by a river. It reads “Sipos yu wantem ferry yu killem gong,” and beside it is a metal tube and a hammer.
Pronouns are simplified. Agana-Nsiire Agana (Medium.com) gives an example from West Africa: “ . . . the 1st person plural is ‘we’ both in subject and object positions. There is no ‘us’ in Pidgin English. So ‘we want you to give it to us’ would be: ‘We want make you take give we.’ ”
There are many other conventions for Pidgin English but they all boil down to the same thing―simplify, simplify, simplify.
“Nambawan pikinini bilong Misis Kwin.”
— Prince Charles explains his status as Queen Elizabeth’s oldest child in a speech in Papua New Guinea
According to About World Languages most pidgins have a limited lifespan; “They disappear when the reason for communication diminishes, as communities either move apart, one community learns the language of the other, or both communities learn a common language (usually the official language of the country).”
In 1900, Russian forces invaded Manchuria and immediately the need for a pidgin language developed so the Chinese inhabitants could interact with the occupiers. At the end of World War II Russia withdrew from the territory and Pidgin Russian withdrew with them. The same thing happened when France abandoned its colonies in Indochina in 1954.
Sometimes, the pidgin spreads so widely that it becomes a common tongue for all people in a region; then, it is known as a lingua franca or creole.
West African Pidgin
Nigerian Pidgin is officially known as “Naija” and is spoken by tens of millions of people in a country where more than 500 languages and dialects exist.
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Monica Mark writes in The Guardian that “Current affairs, English, and local languages are brewed together to dish up playful imagery at breakneck speed.”
So, you get phrases such as “Body dey inside cloth,” that can be translated into standard English as “I’m wearing clothes.” Or, with “God don butta my bread” the lucky person is saying “God has answered my prayers.”
The authoritative tome here is Babawilly’s Dictionary of Pidgin English Words and Phrases where we learn that:
- Dorti-dorti is Garbage;
- Waka-jugbe is One constantly loitering about;
- Morning food is Breakfast; and,
- Head no correct is Mad or Eccentric.
Wazobia Radio broadcasts entirely in Nigerian Pidgin and is played on buses and in markets. Monica Mark reports on a conversation between announcers about a chaotic parliamentary session: “ ‘dey abuse them one by each.’ ‘Nigeria don become mathematics [a complicated and difficult problem],’ DJ Yaw concluded. ‘We need to reswagger,’ agreed his co-anchor.”
Papua New Guinea Pidgin
Tok Pisin is the name given to Pidgin English in Papua New Guinea (PNG). It is an official language of PNG and is spoken by between five and six million people; that’s about three quarters of the country’s population. Many are now taught Tok Pisin as a first language so it is well on the way to becoming a lingua franca.
The ascendancy of Tok Pisin will help communication in a country where “There are nearly 850 languages spoken . . . making it the most linguistically diverse place on earth” (The Economist).
For a nation where many people go barefoot, “susok man” defines an urban dweller. How so? It translates into “shoe sock man,” as, typically, city people don footwear.
Here are a few more Tok Pisin phrases:
- “Sop bilong tit”―“Soap belong teeth” i.e. Toothpaste.
- “Haus dok sik”―“House dog sick.” i.e. Veterinary hospital.
- “Gras bilong het”―Grass of the head” i.e. Hair.
- “Lukim yu bihain pukpuk”―“See you later alligator,” which seems like a good place to end this article.
- Gullah is a language spoken by about a quarter of a million people who live on the Sea Islands of South Carolina. The people who speak Gullah are descendants of slaves who first landed in Charleston. The slaves came from many West African tribes and West African Pidgin English (WAPE) allowed them to communicate with each other. Gullah is a relative of WAPE.
- Fanagalo is a pidgin language spoken among miners and other industrial workers in South Africa. It’s based on Zulu and this makes it the only known pidgin that does not have its roots in a colonial language. About three quarters of its 2,000 or so words come from Zulu, with a few English, Afrikaans, Portuguese, and Xhosa expressions thrown in.
- In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau listed Pidgin as one of the official languages of Hawaii, noting that more than 325,000 Hawaiian residents speak the tongue at home.
- “Nigeria’s Love of Pidgin Dey Scatter My Brain Yet Ginger My Swagger.” Monica Mark, The Guardian, September 24, 2012.
- “How to Speak Nigerian Pidgin English.” Lola Åkerström, Matador Network, January 28, 2010.
- Babawilly’s Dictionary of Pidgin English Words and Phrases.
- “West African Pidgin English (WAPE).” Richard Nordquist, ThoughtCo, March 26, 2017.
- “Pidgin Languages.” Irene Thompson, About World Languages, April 18, 2013
- “Prince Charles in Papua New Guinea: How to Speak Pidgin English Like a Royal.” Adam Jacot de Boinod, The Guardian, November 5, 2012.
- “The Amazing Grammar of Pidgin English.” Agana-Nsiire Agana, Medium.com, September 14, 2017.
- “Papua New Guinea’s Incredible Linguistic Diversity.” The Economist, July 20, 2017.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Ann Carr from SW England on April 19, 2018:
This is both fascinating and amusing. I've come across pidgin English now and then but had no idea it was so diversified and took so many forms. If you think carefully, it seems, you can make out what's being said.
Thanks for the explanations, especially regarding Prince Charles!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 17, 2018:
And Char, I'm the guy in the elevator jabbing at the wrong button because of a spacial recognition issue I always have trouble distinguishing between Doors Open and Doors Close icons.
Char Milbrett from Minnesota on April 17, 2018:
Right.. Short and sweet. Hodedo hodedo hodedo.... what you yell when you are trying to catch the elevator... Who sed dat. No no no kine like dat.
Anna Sherret from Scotland, UK on April 16, 2018:
This is really interesting. For some reason, I always thought that the term must be something to do with pigeons (the bird), although not sure how that would make sense!