The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #15 May / June 2015
Of Pidgins and Creoles
A look at how some languages are born
by Erik Zidowecki
May / June 2015 | 

There are several thousand living languages in the world, most of which have evolved over long periods of time rather naturally. Some of these became isolated and developed very differently from their related languages. Other were influenced by the neighbouring languages, taking on different grammar and vocabulary, to diverge into varied dialects or even completely new languages.

There is one kind of language evolution that is more similar to two or more languages creating an offspring which later becomes an "adult" language. When two languages meet and merge, the create pidgins and creoles. These are completely organic creatures, which then evolve in their own ways, taking traits from both parents, similar to a child.

The Terms

Creole women in traditional costumes during Carnival in French Guiana

The terms pidgin and creole are technical terms used to distinguish between two stages of this language growth. Creole refers to the product of creolization, which is the mix of people, cultures, or languages. You can see this easily in culture through music, art, and food when aspects of the existing culture and an overlaying culture, perhaps due to migration or invasion, combine into something new.

One of the best known examples of this mixing exists in the southern Unite States area of Louisiana. Before the country was formed, Louisiana was a French colony, and slaves from Africa were brought in to work the land. During that time, much of the African and French cultures merged, forming a unique mix of religion, food, and music. Cultural aspects from other groups became part of it later, such as Amerindian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Caribbean.

A very popular example of this mix of foods is the dish gumbo. It comes in numerous variants, combining the culinary practices of the French, the Spanish, Native American tribes, and Africa. There are also aspects of Italian and German cuisine.

French settlers learned new ways of cooking and how to use local edible plants from the native tribes of the New World. When slave ships started arriving in 1719, they brought rice as well as men who knew how to grow and cook it. When Germans settlers arrived in 1721, they brought with them the art of making sausages. All these ingredients and more combined in many ways to form the now traditional Gumbo. It has also become a metaphor itself for the mixing of cultures in Louisiana.

Creole food of Louisiana cuisine

That new culture is a creole, but many people mistakenly assume then that "creole" refers only to that - the French and African mix.

The term "pidgin", sometimes spelled "pigion", originally referred to Chinese Pidgin English. After English came to Chine in the 1630s, a need for a shared language arose in order to conduct trade. Local workers communicated with their English-speaking counterparts through broken English, which developed its own patterns and forms. Most likely, the word is the Chinese pronunciation of the English word "business". Eventually, the term became used for all pidgin languages.

A more fanciful idea is that it derives from the name of the bird, "pigeon" in English, which was once used for carrying messages between people.

Sometimes, people confuse the terms with languages that have incorporated them into their names. Some examples are Kriol, an Australian creole language, Haitian Creole, the language used in Haiti, and Hawaiian Pidgin. The description of the language has become part of the name, if not replacing it entirely.


The most basic definition of a pidgin is "a simplified form of speech formed from one or more existing languages, used by people who have no other language in common". As was mentioned above, the original pidgin languages was developed out of the need for two groups of people to communicate. This is most commonly used for business and trade purposes, when it is beneficial to both sides.

Hawaii Pidgin inscriptions on a wall. It is a quote from the Bible

A pidgin will develop its own basic grammar and vocabulary, but in rather simplified ways compared to the "parent" languages. Normally, the majority of the vocabulary is from the target or larger language (often English), and most of the sounds, grammar, and syntax comes from the local language. Most pidgins remain small and specialized, being called "trade languages". Pidgins do not normally arise just from two languages existing next to each other.

Perhaps the best way to explain pidgin languages is by example. Let us look at West African Pidgin English. It was developed during the late 17th century, when the British were running a slave trade in the Atlantic. The sailors and slave traders spoke English between themselves while being in constant contact with African villagers, who spoke a number of West African Niger–Congo languages.

Since both sides needed to communicate for business purposes, they started trying to learn each others language and met in the middle. Once a basic system was developed and became adopted, it spread to other areas needing it for the same purposes. As the British travelled inland, the pidgin spread and developed.

Then it started to diverge and become more specialized, like regular languages do, depending on which languages were mixing with the English. These became Gambian Pidgin English (Aku), Sierra Leone Pidgin English (Krio), Liberian Pidgin English, Ghanaian Pidgin English, Nigerian Pidgin English, and Cameroon Pidgin English (Kamtok).

When using a pidgin, it is often rather simple to understand what is being said if you already know the stronger language, like English. You just simplify your hearing on it, looking for the most basic words and elements.

An example in Nigerian Pidgin English would be the question "How you dey?", which can easily be understood to mean "How are you doing today?". The words are the same or shortened, making them easier to learn, and the extraneous ones are removed. Spelling can also be simplified, such as "I no no" for "I do not know". The first "no" is used to imply the negative with the second one being a phonetic spelling of "know". A few more examples are:

"Gi mi." = "Give it to me."
"I dey fine." = "I’m fine. I’m doing well."
"I no sabi." = "I don’t understand."
"Wetin dey happen?" = "What’s going on? What’s happening?"
"Listen well well" = "Pay attention"
"Troway" = waste, throw away

The most obvious change from English to the pidgin here is how some sounds are simplified. "Give" is shorted to just "gi". "Throw away" gets compressed and the "th" sound is shortened to a "t" sound.

Pidgin English leaflet, which was droped over New Guinea from Allied aircraft during WWII.

Other words get replaced with something completely different, perhaps coming from another language instead of the target one. In this case, "dey" is a replacement for "is" and "be". "Sabi", meaning "to know", is actually coming from Spanish and Portuguese influences with the word "saber".

Sometimes, the meaning might be a little more hidden, coming about because of an idea rather than the literal meaning. "Comot!" means "Get out of here!", which might be a corruption of "come out" or "go out", depending on the pronunciation. It might also come from "come on". "Abeg" means "please", coming from "I beg you".

Another common aspect of a pidgin is the repeating of words to emphasize a meaning. "listen well well" means "listen very well" or "pay attention". Note that this is different from "I no no", which is using a different spelling, not repetition.

Since pidgins normally developed when major colonial powers moved into less developed areas, they were mixed with the languages of those powers, mainly English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French.

So now you know how two languages can produce a new one which has traits of both, like a baby. But what happens when that baby pidgin grows up?


Nobody speaks a pidgin as their first language. People who speak a pidgin also speak another language as their native tongue. Most pidgins are short term languages, existing only for a few years or decades during the time in which they are needed. If a pidgin does manage to remain in use, or survive, for longer than that, it might develop into a creole.

Creoles are the languages that are developed by the children of pidgin speakers. When the children of the adults speaking the pidgin start learning it as their first language, it has proven itself to be a stable language. Then, as the children grow up, they expand the vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.

1908 painting by R. Hellgrewe of Limbe, Cameroon, when it was known as Victoria. Most of the population speaks Cameroonian Pidgin English.

While pidgins are often limited to a vocabulary of around 300 words, creoles typically have at least 1000 to 3000 words. In a sense, the young language grows up along with the children. We consider this generation to be native speakers of the creole language. This process is called nativization.

It may sound a bit strange to describe the changes in a language as similar to those of a person, but the comparison is not so far off. An odd occurrence which linguistic scholars have notices is that creoles tend to share more grammatical similarities with other creoles than they do with the parent languages, much the same way children brought up in the same environment can develop the same habits, even when they have different parents and backgrounds.

There is no widely accepted theory on how or why this happens. One theory is that the formation of creoles reflects the most basic grammatical structure the human mind can invent, so they are all going to be developed with that baseline. More elaborate grammars takes a much longer time to develop, being influenced by the situation of the speakers and the older languages nearby.

One of the most spoken creoles is Tok Pisin. It is spoken by over five million people, primarily in Papua New Guinea, where it is the official language. Over one million people are taught it as a first language. Most people there speak it to a certain degree, but not necessarily fluently.

The name comes from the English words "talk" and "pidgin", and in true pidgin manner, those words became simplified into Tok Pisin. The vocabulary is mostly Indo-European, coming mainly from English, German, Portuguese, and Latin, while the rest comes from Malayo-Polynesian and Trans-New-Guinea languages. The grammar structure is mostly Austronesian based.

Tok Pisin can be easy for a native English speaker to understand with many of the words being simplifications, such as gohet (go ahead), hariup (hurry up), kamaut (come out), and sidaun (sit down).

An interesting aspect of Tok Pisin is its usage of inclusive and exclusive forms of pronouns. Western languages normally just have a singular and plural forms (I, we), while Tok Pisin also has a dual and triple form, which are used to define exactly who is involved. The are constructed by adding the words "tu" and "tri" into the pronoun forms.

Tok Pisin also utilizes reduplication, mainly to distinguish between different words. For example, the word for "ship" is "sip", but since that might also sound like a corruption of "sheep", it is doubled, so "sheep" is "sipsip".

Some other examples of reduplication are "lukluk" meaning "look after; watch" compared to "luk" for "look", "singsing" (dance, celebrate) compare to "sing" (to sing), "tingting" (thoughts, opinion) compared to "ting" (think), "waswas" (bathe, swim) compared to "was" (to wash something), and "toktok" (talk, conversation) compared to "tok" (say).

Papiamento is another creole, spoken mainly on the Caribbean ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao). It was developed by mixing English, Spanish, Portuguese, some indigenous languages, and some Dutch (mainly for the names of the months). This one has evolved a little differently, having two dialects, which is a result of developing on three separated islands. The dialects also have differences in spelling, and this extends even to the name of the language, which can be spelled as Papiamentu or Papiamento.

Papiamento is more Portuguese based than English, while also containing a mix from the various languages. From Portuguese comes sapatu (shoe) from sapato, kachó(dog) from cachorro, and galiña (chicken) from galinha. From Spanish comes hòmber (man) from hombre and siudat (city) from ciudad. Dutch gives it apel (apple) from appel and buki (book) from boekje. English contributes as well, like bèk (back).

For a comparison of phrases, there is "Bon bini" (Welcome) in Papiamento with "Bem vindo" in Portuguese. Likewise, bon suerte (good luck) to boa sorte and mi ta comprende (I understand) to compreendo.

There are no accurate numbers on just how many creole languages exist, but it is estimated that around one hundred creole languages have "been born" since 1500, mostly due to European colonization. The creole with the greatest number of speakers is Haitian Creole, with over ten million native speakers.


"Kapu" (Keep out in Hawaiian pidgin) - a familiar sign on the island of Lanai, most of which is owned by a single pineapple-producing company

Weird as it may sound, not all creoles develop from pidgins, and they are not always easily recognizable. One example is the language of Afrikaans, spoken in parts of Africa, which developed when the Dutch settlers arrived there during the 17th century. Sometimes it is referred to as a dialect of Dutch, though it has adopted words from other languages, like Malay, Portuguese and Bantu. As a result, there are arguments, sometimes rather heated, about whether Afrikaans is an independent language, a dialect of Dutch, or a Dutch creole.

Even rarer, sometimes a merger results in a creole that becomes so popular, it is elevated to being the dominant language, forcing out the original language. A case of this occurred on the island of Rama Cay, off the coast of Nicaragua, where the indigenous language of the Rama people became mixed with English, creating Rama Cay Creole. As the natives switched to using this, the parent language of Rama became abandoned and is now on the edge of extinction. Sadly, Rama Cay Creole is struggling to survive as well.

All Grown Up

Born out of necessity and raised among human children, pidgins and creoles are fascinating creatures. They not only act as a bridge between languages and cultures, but they also give us insight into how languages develop, since they are created and brought to adulthood in a relatively short time.

To me, they are the true auxiliary languages, ones that are agreed upon and accepted naturally. They are also a testament that while languages can decline and die out, they can also be born and flourish into full languages, even becoming the official languages of a country. I hope you take some time to consider learning one the next time you are looking for a new language.

Of Pidgins and Creoles - A look at how some languages are born
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Ghettocash: Panorama of Curacao (title)
Didwin973: Creole women in costumes
Petey: Creole food of Louisiana cuisine; Hawaii Pidgin inscriptions; Pidgin English leaflet; Painting of Limbe, Cameroon; Kapu sign on island of Lanai

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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