8 Important Facts About Pidgin Languages and Creoles 

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The BBC  just announced that it will now be broadcasting in Pidgin for the West and Central African markets. But wait, what’s Pidgin? Is that even a language?

In fact, pidgin languages and creole languages can be found all over the world. Most them have historically been treated as the bastard children of European languages – denied recognition and looked down upon. But just as in Game of Thrones, it would be foolish to write off pidgins and creoles because of their parentage.

With that in mind, here are 8 things you need to understand about pidgins and creoles.

Isn’t Pidgin English just English with a heavy accent?

Nope. Pidgin languages are makeshift languages that arise whenever multi lingual groups have to communicate on a regular basis without a common language. This can happen because of trade, or as a result of slavery or colonization.

What’s the difference between pidgin languages and creoles?

Pidgin languages are generally simplified and flexible, with a limited vocabulary. Nobody speaks a pidgin language as a first language. But, over time, that can change. If a pidgin language becomes widely used, its vocabulary may grow and additional grammar rules may develop. Children may begin to grow up speaking it from birth. At that point, it’s considered a creole.

And just to make things confusing, since creole languages evolve from pidgins, many languages with “pidgin” in the name have actually evolved into creoles, like Tok Pisin, one of the official languages of New Guinea.

Pidgins and creoles are found around the world.

For example, English-based creoles are spoken throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.

The most widely-spoken creole language in terms of native speakers is Haitian Creole.

Also called Kreyòl ayisyen or simply Creole, this French-based creole is the official language of Haiti. It has 12 million native speakers.

Nigerian Pidgin ( also known as Naijá ) has 50-75 million speakers and growing.

However, only 5 million of these are native speakers. Most Nigerians speak one of 500+ regional languages, and schools tend to teach in English. Nigerian Pidgin is used to make communication possible between different tribes and ethnic groups.

West African pidgins and creoles are surprisingly similar to Caribbean creoles, like Jamaican Patois.

Of course, accents do vary quite a bit. But if you wrote a sentence down in Naijá and handed to someone who spoke Jamaican Patois, there’s a good chance they’d be able to understand it.

Why is that? Well,  many of the slaves who were abducted and taken to the New World originally came from West Africa. So, the languages evolved from the same basic ingredients.

However, Pidgins and Creoles based on English often sound quite different from each other, and from English itself.

For example, the BBC recently published an article by a reporter visiting the island nation of Vanatu. The people of Vanatu speak more than 100 languages. An English-based creole called Bislama unites them all. The BBC reporter thought that since she knew English and Bislama is based on English, learning it would be easy.

Spoilers- she was wrong. 

To see how different English-based Creoles can be, let’s take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Here’s how it begins, in Nigerian Pidgin:

Everi human being, naim dem born free and dem de equal for dignity and di rights wey we get, as human beings, God come give us beta sense wey we de take tink well, well and beta mind, sake for dis, we must to treat each other like broda and sister.

Got that? Here’s what it is in English, in case you don’t have it memorized:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

And what about in Bislama?

Evri man mo woman i bon fri mo ikwol long respek mo ol raet. Oli gat risen mo tingting mo oli mas tritim wanwan long olgeta olsem ol brata mo sista.

And here’s the same sentence again, this time in Tok Pisin:

Yumi olgeta mama karim umi long stap fri na wankain long wei yumi lukim i gutpela na strepela tru. Uumi olgeta igat ting ting bilong wanem samting I rait na rong na mipela olgeta I mas mekim gutpela pasin long ol narapela long tingting bilong brata susa.

Pidgins and creoles are finally starting to get a little more respect.

Pidgins and creoles have long been considered “low prestige” languages.  But that’s starting to change, at least a little bit. For example, approximately 42% of Hawaiians speak Hawaiian Pidgin (which is actually a creole.)  In 2015, the US Census Department recognized it as a language.

And of course, as mentioned above, the BBC now has an online offering in Nigerian Pidgin. Meanwhile, Wazobia FM, Nigeria’s Pidgin radio station, has become incredibly popular. In 2014, the US ambassador to Nigeria,  James F. Entwistle, even gave an interview in Pidgin.  And Pidgin is often used for public education campaigns, on TV, and in advertising.

When you’re trying to get a message across, using the language people speak every day is the best way to do it. At K International, our team is ready to help your organization do just that. Check out our language services here, and if you’d like to learn more, contact us!