Pidgins and Creoles

When groups speaking different languages gathered to accomplish something (for example, trading in ports, or running a plantation when slave and owner speak different languages), they had to communicate.  Either they agreed to speak a common language (French, Russian, Chinese, Latin, English and many others have historically been that common language), or they scrambled together a mutually comprehensible language based on all the language groups involved, which is called a pidgin.  Pidgins usually become just sophisticated enough to accomplish the task at hand, but occasionally develop into a full-blown language.  An example is Tok Pisin, the trading pidgin which now is one of the official languages of New Guinea.

Pidgins are miracles of inventiveness, often using the vocabulary of the more powerful language group and the syntax of the less powerful group. They often do not have an extensive vocabulary, so lexical items can bear a heavy burden. For example, Australian aboriginal pidgin calls whiskers grass along face. Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, was referred to by pidgin speakers in New Guinea as fella belong Mrs. Queen.

Creoles are more highly developed languages. They develop in the same way as pidgins, using syntax, phonology, morphology, and semantics from various languages, but they progress to be a society’s native tongue. Some well-known creoles are Haitian Creole (based on French and African languages), Gullah (an English-based, African influenced  creole spoken on islands off of Georgia and South Carolina), and Krio (partly based on English, it is the de facto national language of Sierra Leone, though English is the official language).

While pidgins and creoles are based on parent languages, an English, French, Chinese, or African language speaker cannot necessarily understand the pidgins and creoles based on their language. I have found that I think I am understanding, because the vocabulary is familiar, but at some point, I get lost.

Watching Creoles and pidgins develop has taught linguists many things about how all language was created, and how the human brain works.

Exercise: Here are some links to sound files of English-based creoles:

1) Gullah:

2) Jamaican Creole:

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