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Pidgins and Creoles

‘Pidgin’ and ‘Creole’
Theories of origin
Developmental stages



A pidgin is a restricted language which arises for the purposes of communication between two social groups of which one is in a more dominant position than the other. The less dominant group is the one which develops the pidgin. Historically, pidgins arose in colonial situations where the representatives of the particular colonial power, officials, tradesmen, sailors, etc., came in contact with natives. The latter developed a jargon when communicating with the former. This resulted in a language on the basis of the colonial language in question and the language or languages of the natives. Such a language was restricted in its range as it served a definite purpose, namely basic communication with the colonists. In the course of several generations such a reduced form of language can become more complex, especially if it develops into the mother tongue of a group of speakers. This latter stage is that of creolisation. Creoles are much expanded versions of pidgins and have arisen in situations in which there was a break in the natural linguistic continuity of a community, for instance on slave planatations in their early years.

The interest of linguists in these languages has increased greatly in the last few decades. The main reason for this is that pidgins and creoles are young languages. In retracing their development it may be possible to see how new languages can arise. Furthermore, the large number of shared features among widely dispersed pidgins and creoles leads to the conclusion that creoles at least show characteristics which are typical of language in the most general sense, the features of older languages, such as complex morphology or intricate phonology, arising due to the action of various forces over a long period of time after the birth of these languages. In type, creoles are all analytic and generally lack complexity in their sound systems.

The terms ‘pidgin’ and ‘creole’

There are a number of views on the origin of the term pidgin, none of which has gained sole acceptance by the academic community.

1) Chinese corruption of the word business. As the word is used for any action or occupation (cf. joss-pidgin ‘religion’ and chow-chow-pidgin ‘cooking') it should not be surprising that it be used for a language variety which arose for trading purposes.

2) Portuguese ocupaçao meaning ‘trade, job, occupation’. This suggestion is interesting as the Portuguese were among the first traders to travel to the third world and influence natives with their language. Phonetically the shift from the original word to a form /pidgin/ is difficult to explain.

3) A form from the South American language Yayo ‘-pidian’ meaning ‘people’ (claim put forward by Kleinecke, 1959). This form occurs in tribal names like ‘Mapidian’, ‘Tarapidian’, etc. This claim rests on a single occurrence of the word ‘Pidians’ in a text from 1606. But as several authors have pointed out this might be a spelling error for ‘Indians’ seeing as how the author has other misspellings in the text in question.

4) Hancock (1972) suggested that the term is derived from ‘pequeno portugues’ which is used in Angola for the broken Portuguese spoken by the illiterate. This view is semantically justified seeing that the word ‘pequeno’ is often used to mean ‘offspring’, in this case a language derived from another. Phonetically, the shift to /pidgin/ is not difficult to account for: /peke:no/ > /pege:n/ > /pigin/ > /pidgin/ (stages not attested, however).

5) Hebrew word ‘pidjom’ meaning ‘barter’. This suggestion is phonetically and semantically plausible, hinges however on the distribution of a Jewish word outside of Europe and its acceptance as a general term for a trade language.

The term ‘creole’ There is less controversy on this issue than on the previous one. The term would seem to derive from French ‘creole’, it in its turn coming from Portuguese ‘crioulo’ (rather than from Spanish ‘criollo') which goes back to an Iberian stem meaning ‘to nurse, breed, bring up’. The present meaning is ‘native to a locality or country’. Originally it was used (17th century) to refer to those from European countries born in the colonies. The term then underwent a semantic shift to refer to customs and language of those in the colonies and later to any language derived from a pidgin based on a European language, typically English, French, Portuguese, Spanish or Dutch. Now the term refers to any language of this type, irrespective of what the input language has been.

Theories of origin

There are various theories about the origin of pidgins which have been proposed in the last hundred years or so. These can be presented as a basic group of five theories which show a degree of overlap; note that a mixture of origins is also a possibility which should also be considered.

1) The baby-talk theory At the end of the last century Charles Leland, when discussing China coast pidgin English, noted that there were many similarities with the speech of children such as the following features:

   a)     High percentage of content words with a correspondingly low number of function words
   b)     Little morphological marking
   c)     Word classes more flexible than in adult language (free conversion)
   d)     Contrasts in area of pronouns greatly reduced
   e)     Number of inflections minimised

Later linguists, notably Jespersen and Bloomfield, maintained that the characteristics of pidgins result from ‘imperfect mastery of a language which in its initial stage, in the child with its first language and in the grown-up with a second language learnt by imperfect methods, leads to a superficial knowledge of the most indispensable word, with total disregard of grammar’ (Jespersen 1922: 234). The evaluative nature of such views would be rejected by linguists today.

2) Independent parallel development theory This view maintains that the obvious similarities between the world’s pidgins and creoles arose on independent but parallel lines due to the fact that they all are derived from languages of Indo-European stock and, in the case of the Atlantic varieties, due to their sharing a common West African substratum. Furthermore, scholars like Robert Hall specify that the similar social and physical conditions under which pidgins arose were responsible for the development of similar linguistic structures.

3) Nautical jargon theory As early as 1938 the American linguist John Reinecke noted the possible influence of nautical jargon on pidgins. It is obvious that on many of the original voyages of discovery to the developing world many nationalities were represented among the crews of the ships. This fact led to the development of a core vocabulary of nautical items and a simplified grammar (at least as regards English). Later pidgins show many of these lexical items irrespective of where the language varieties are spoken. Thus the word capsise turns up with the meaning ‘turn over’ or ‘spill’ in both West Atlantic and Pacific pidgins. So do the words heave, hoist, hail, galley, cargo. One of the shortcomings of this otherwise attractive theory is that it does not help to account for the many structural affinities between pidgins which arose from different European languages.

4) Monogenetic/relexification theory According to this view all pidgins can be traced back to a single proto-pidgin, a 15th century Portuguese pidgin which was itself probably a relic of the medieval lingua franca (also known as sabir from the Portuguese word for ‘know') which was the common means of communication among the Crusaders and traders in the Mediterranean area. Lingua franca survived longest on the North African coast and is attested from Algeria and Tunesia as late as the 19th century.
   The theory maintains that when the Portuguese first sailed down the west coast of Africa in the 15th century they would have used their form of lingua franca (sabir). Afterwards in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Portuguese influence in Africa declined, the vocabulary of the then established pidgins would have been replaced by that of the new colonial language which was dominant in the area, say English or French. As the Portuguese were among the first traders in India and South East Asia a similar situation can be assumed to have obtained: the vocabulary of the original Portuguese pidgin was replaced by that of a later European language.
   Note that with this theory the grammatical structure of pidgins would not have been effected by the switch in vocabulary (this is what is meant by the term relexification). Thus the obvious similarity in structure of all pidgins would go back to the grammar of the proto-pidgin coming from the Mediterranean area. What this theory does not explain is why the structure (analytic) should be of the type it is. Furthermore there are a number of marginal pidgins (Russenorsk, Eskimo Trade Jargon) which cannot conceivably be connected with Portuguese and which are nonetheless analytic in structure just as the pidgins based on the main European colonial languages are.

5) Universalist theory This is the most recent view on the origin of pidgins and has elements in common with the other theories. However, the distinguishing mark of this theory is that it sees the similarities as due to universal tendencies among humans to create languages of a similar type, i.e. an analytic language with a simple phonology, an SVO syntax with little or no subordination or other sentence complexities, and with a lexicon which makes maximum use of polysemy (and devices such as reduplication) operating from a limited core vocabulary. To put it in technical terms, a creole will be expected to have unmarked values for linguistic parameters, e.g. with the parameter pro-drop, whereby the personal pronoun is not obligatory with verb forms (cf. Italian capisco ‘I understand'), the unmarked setting is for no pro-drop to be allowed and indeed this is the situation in all pidgins and creoles, a positive value being something which may appear later with the rise of a rich morphology.

Developmental stages of pidgins/creoles

  Social situation Linguistic correlate
1) Marginal contact Restricted pidgin
2) Nativisation Extended pidgin
3) Mother tongue development Creole
4) Movement towards standard language (not necessarily input language) Decreolisation

Pidgins are generally characterised as restricted and extended. In the life-cycle of pidgins one can note that they start off as restricted language varieties used in marginal contact situations for minimal trading purposes. From this original modest outset a pidgin may, assuming that there are social reasons for it to do so, develop into an extended type. The latter is characterised by the extension of the social functions of a pidgin. One very frequent scenario in the later development of a pidgin is where it is used as a means of communication not just among black and white speakers but among native speakers themselves who however have very different native languages. This is the major reason for the survival of pidgin English in West Africa. The function of pidgin English is thus as a lingua franca, i.e. a common means of communication between speakers who do not understand their respective native languages.

The process of pidginisation is very common in any situation in which a lingua franca is called for. Normally any such variety dies out very quickly once the situation which gave rise to it no longer obtains. If the situation does continue to exist then the pidgin is likely to survive. The steps from restricted to extended pidgin and further to creole are only taken by very few languages, particularly the major restructuring typical of pidgins is not normally carried out by any but a very small number of input varieties.

Reasons for creole development Creoles may arise in one of two basic situations. One is where speakers of pidgins are put in a situation in which they cannot use their respective mother tongues. This has arisen in the course of the slave trade (in the Caribbean and the southern United States) where speakers were deliberately kept in separate groups to avoid their plotting rebellion. They were then forced to maintain the pidgin which they had developed up to then and pass it on to future generations as their mother tongue thus forming the transition from a pidgin to a creole. A second situation is where a pidgin is regarded by a social group as a higher language variety and deliberately cultivated; this is the kind of situation which obtained in Cameroon and which does still to some extent on Papua New Guinea. The outcome of this kind of situation is that the children of such speakers which use pidgin for prestige reasons may end up using the pidgin as a first language, thus rendering it a creole with the attendant relinquishing of the native language of their parents and the expansion of all linguistic levels for the new creole to act as a fully-fledged language.