The history of pidgins and creoles starts with the European age of exploration and expansion in the 15th century. During the 16th and early 19th centuries, pidgin and creole languages spread out especially in South America and Africa. A ‘pidgin’ can be defined as a language which emerged through language contacts which often took place among a country’s native population and Europeans. Pidgins arose as a medium of communication between groups of people who needed to communicate in order to trade goods.
Consequently, pidgins are often a ‘mixture’ between a European language (eg. English and French), one or more local languages (eg. Hawaiian) as well as other varieties of languages brought from settlers from different places. Pidgins have not only been used for trading, but also for other purposes, particularly as a lingua franca among people who have no language in common. Hawai’i in particular is a place where it is interesting to see how a pidgin has developed.
Let’s have a look at a video about pidgin (and creole) in Hawai’i
As the video shows, the pidgin of Hawai’i can be considered a mixture of different languages. One of the most common characteristics of pidgins is that they are made up of simple terms to facilitate understanding between people speaking different languages. In general, the linguistic structure of pidgins and creoles have a ‘simpler’ sentence structure, verbal inflection, morphology and vocabulary than the individual languages they are made out of. As a result of this perceived simplicity, pidgins have sometimes been described as sounding like “broken” speech.
What is the difference between a pidgin and a creole?
According to Muysken and Smith (1994: 3), “a creole language can be defined as a language that has come into existence at a point in time that can be established fairly precisely”. Once a pidgin becomes a first language for a generation of speakers, it is called a creole.
Creole languages are used today in many different places, including in Martinique and Japan.
Since Martinique was colonised by France, Martinican creole shows a strong French influence. This influence can be seen in the following examples; in the greeting “Bonjou” the “r”, which usually appears in standard French is not pronounced. The phrase “Pani pwoblem” should likewise be easy to guess for French speakers: “pas de problème”. However, this does not mean that French and Martinician creole are mutually intelligible. If you are interested in Martician creole, have a look at some of the videos linked below this article.
An example of a ‘mixed’ language comes from the Bonin (Ogasawara) Islands in Japan, located to the south of Tokyo. Long (2007) tried to record the different varieties of languages in these islands, starting his fieldwork in 1997. He indicates that even though the Bonin Islands are a part of the Tokyo prefecture, early settlers to the islands spoke English, Portuguese, Hawaiian, Chamorro and many other Pacific languages. Long pointed out that the people in these islands likely spoke several languages or pidgins, but that English was used as a primary language. In the 19th century, Japan took over governance of these islands and Japanese became the principal language. Consequently, the main language contact took place between Japanese and English. Long’s hypothesis is thus that the language currently spoken on the Bonin Islands is a mixture of both Japanese and English. The following example is from his 2001 recording of speakers from the islands. It shows that Japanese and English expressions are intertwined:
I: Are wa itsu taberu tabemono, corned beef?
(‘When is it you eat that food, corned beef?’)
R: It’s Irish, is it?
I: Yeah, yeah. Oh, it’s, it’s ano, are. ( ‘Oh, it’s, uh, what-you-may-call-it.’)
I: Fourteenth to fifteen yeah, yeah.
F: St. Patrick’s Day.
*Japanese words and expressions are written in italics.
(Extracts from: Long, 2007:21)
Long (2007) denies that this is an example of a creole language, instead calling it a ‘mixed’ language.
If anything, the existence of pidgins, creoles, and ‘mixed’ languages shows us that language is alive and fluid, always shifting and changing according to its speakers and their needs. Hybrid languages like pidgins and creoles are a linguistic testament to the history of people and places.
Muysken and Smith (1994) Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction, John Benjamin Publishing Company
Long, D. (2007) When Islands Create Languages or, Why do language research with Bonin (Ogasawara) Islanders? Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures, Volume 1 Number 1
Further videos for interested people:
Learning Martinican Creole (in French)
Written by Shunichi Hashikawa, Study Visitor at TermCoord and student at the University of Luxembourg.
Edited by Janna Mack, Web and Communication Trainee at TermCoord.