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Should Pidgin English Be Classed As an Official Language?

Should Pidgin English Be Classed As an Official Language?

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The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Pidgin” as a language mixing lexical, grammatical, and phonematic features of two or more languages, typically with simplified grammar and a narrower vocabulary than the languages it stems from and used as a means of communication by people of different languages; a lingua franca.

By logical deduction, Pidgin English is a combination between English and other indigenous languages, enabling people in far-off territories who do not share a common language to communicate effectively. But where is Pidgin English spoken? Is it even an official language? Are there several varieties of Pidgin English? Sit back, relax and enjoy the read as we take a deep dive into the matter.

Is Pidgin English the only Pidgin language or are there more?

If a pidgin language is a simplified speech born from the need to communicate between people speaking languages that are not mutually intelligible, you are right to assume that pidgin is not a native language but rather an artificial means of communication, such as the language spoken between colonialists and the colonised peoples of West Africa, Jamaica, or the Americas.
For example, English as a language of the colonising British Empire served as the basis for the rapid development of Pidgin English as a language of trade and labour. This explains the emergence of the different varieties of West African, Jamaican and American pidgin languages we will have a look at later.
But the British Empire was not the only economic and political power to expand its influence beyond the boundaries of Europe. France, Spain, and Portugal are also former empires that left a strong linguistic mark on the territories they conquered.
Thanks to their exploits, today we can speak about Burundi Pidgin French, Roquetas Pidgin Spanish (derived from Andalusian Spanish spoken in Roquetas de Mar and common among the immigrants from northern and western Africa, as well as eastern Europe), or Chavacano (a Spanish creole spoken in the Philippines), and a Pidgin Portuguese (spoken by African traders, yet barely used by the inland population).
With limited use, primarily for trade or on the job, some of these pidgins like the Pidgin Portuguese, eventually died out, leaving very little to no traces of their existence. This brings us to another point – how did pidgins evolve? Did they undergo any form of standardisation to survive the passage of time? Yes, they became creole.

A pidgin’s journey into creole

It is commonly believed that children “born into a pidgin language” contribute to the further development of that pidgin into creole. Therefore, a creole is a pidgin language developed through use as a result of continuous interaction between different ethnic groups and gradually become standard.
Such is the example of Bahamian English Creole spoken in the Bahamas or the Jamaican Patois in Jamaica, Haitian Creole (French-based), and many more. To give you a better understanding of the structural differences between creole and pidgin languages, we analyse a couple of sentence examples below:

English: This is my house.

Jamaican Patois: Dis a fi mi house.

Sounds familiar? Almost. “Dis” is the equivalent of “This”, “a fi” is the verb, which in Patois literally means “it’s for”, or in this context “stands for” or “serves as”, “mi”, which is self-explanatory and “house”, which has preserved the same form in Patois.

Let’s have a look at another example:

English: I don’t want it now, it’s for when I don’t have any other choice.

Patois: Mi nuh want it now, it a fi wen mi nuh hav no adda choice.

Similarly, in this example, “I” becomes “Mi” in Patois, “don’t want” – “nuh want”, “it’s for” – “a fi”, “when” – “wen” (dropping the “h”), “mi” – “I”, “don’t have” – “nuh hav”, “any other” – “no adda”, and “choice” – the same form and grammatical function even of direct object.
So, unlike pidgin languages, creoles have undergone a development process whereby they’ve established a set of clearly defined grammatical rules, which makes them more stable. At the same time, creoles preserve some similarities with their parent languages while developing their own vocabulary and grammatical rules, as indicated above.
Yet, let us not stray too far from our topic – which is Pidgin English. Now that you have a clear idea of what creole and pidgin languages differ and what they have in common, let’s find out where Pidgin English is spoken and what makes it stand out from the crowd.

Where is Pidgin English spoken?

A language of the trade, Pidgin English, also known as Guinea Coast Creole, roots back to the late 17th and 18th centuries, when the slave trade was flourishing along the Atlantic coast of West Africa, contributing to its proliferation in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, and Cameroon. Later, it spread to other British colonies in Africa and even beyond.
The language has evolved with time, depending on the territories where it is spoken, and the cultural patchwork that makes it up. A variation of Pidgin has developed into the language spoken by the Krio community of Sierra Leone, which is almost impossible to understand by non-Krios.

What makes Pidgin English special?

The beauty but also the challenge of using Pidgin English to communicate is that: “It’s quite fluid, it keeps changing all the time and it’s quite expressive as well,” says BBC Nigeria’s Head of Language Services, Bilkisu Labran.
Often if there is no word to define a specific concept, an onomatopoeic sound may very well replace it. “I can talk about the gunshots that went ‘gbagbagba’ and you get my gist,” Bilkisu explains.
Barely following any standard or grammatical rules, Pidgin English is perhaps one of the most flexible and creative languages that allows its speakers to creatively express themselves as they see fit. Frequently, verbs and other parts of speech are dropped.
For example, if you want to say “I’m going” to someone in Pidgin English, you can very well say “I dey go”, and still be understood. To give you an idea of how creatively you can use this language, we have listed a few examples of common phrases below:
I wan chop – I want to eat
Wetin dey’ appen? – What is happening?
I no no – I do not know
Where you day? – Where are you?
God don butta my bread! – My wish has been granted
A lot of ink was spilt on the last one, as these were the words of Prince Charles at an event he attended in Lagos, Nigeria, where the British royal hogged the limelight, impressing the auditorium with his knowledge of Pidgin English.
“If life dey show you pepper, my guy” is another very expressive Pidgin English phrase the Price of Wales gave a go as he addressed Nigerians at the end of his West African tour in November 2018, to everyone’s amusement, as it means “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

How many varieties of Pidgin English are there?

Pidgin English is not limited to the boundaries of Africa. Wikipedia lists over 29 varieties of Pidgin English spoken across the world, including Aboriginal, Native American, Cameroonian, Chinese, Butler (spoken in India), Euro English, Ghanaian, Hawaiian, Japanese Bamboo, Japanese Pidgin English, Korean Bamboo English, Kru Pidgin English, Liberian Interior Pidgin English, Micronesian Pidgin, New Zealand Pidgin, Nigerian, Papua New Guinea Pidgin English, Papuan Pidgin English, Port Jackson Pidgin English, Queensland Kanaka English, and many more.
The emergence of these languages, which being primarily oral, have for many years escaped standardisation, only proves that people of different languages and cultures can always find ways to communicate with one another – even invent a new language. But this raises yet another question: is Pidgin English official? And if yes, which variety and where?

Hawaiian Pidgin English, an official language

With a rich oral heritage dating back decades, Hawaiian Pidging English has finally attained official language status. In November 2015, the US Census Bureau listed the creative language among the official languages spoken in Hawaii, following a five-year survey reviewing answers from bilingual speakers.
Between 2009 and 2013, the US Census Bureau interviewed over 325,000 Hawaii residents, asking whether at home they spoke languages other than English. The answers uncovered a considerable number of Hawaiian Pidgin and Pidgin speakers. Both were added to the Bureau’s list of over 100 languages spoken on the islands.
As a combination of words and phrases understandable only to speakers, Pidgin may sound like slang to non-Pidgin speakers. The word “dat” means “that”, and “fadda” means “father” or “dad”.
What about other Pidgin English…es? Will any of them be classed as official? If not, are they endangered? Read on as we reveal more exciting facts about this intriguing language.

Pidgin, a language of the web?

Wetin dey’ appen? Pidgin is actually a language of the internet. Well, this is really big. Not only because it extracts Pidgin out of the danger zone but primarily because it offers the prominence it should have enjoyed for decades.
Fair enough, but how do you tackle writing anything in a language that is oral by default? Journalists of the BBC World Service’s Pidgin platform found a way. It started with listening and listening again. Until it’s clear.
“In terms of its text life it lives pretty much on social media”, Miriam Quansah, Digital Lead for Africa at BBC explained. As Pidgin is a highly “interactive” language, BBC staff made the first standardisation attempt by involving local West African speakers in the process by asking them if specific words and phrases are used correctly in context.
In an effort to preserve consistency throughout any written material they produced, the team travelled to West Africa, interviewed local speakers and language professors and language experts to become familiar with their way of communicating.
The endeavour proved successful. Adverts, radio broadcasts, films, and music are some of the materials that thanks to their initiative to foster cultural diversity, started being produced and popularised across Pidgin English-speaking communities in West Africa.

The (d)gin in Pidgin

It may still be a long way until the world’s classics are translated into Pidgin English, but an important statement has been made – Pidgin English is here to stay, be spoken, written, enjoyed, listened to, and learnt – just like any other language.
Moreover, the first step towards language standardisation has been made. Babawilly’s Pidgin English Dictionary is one of the first attempts to compile a list of frequently used words, phrases and expressions in Pidgin English, and the context in which they should be used. The good news? It’s a work in progress. So, we’ll be hearing and reading some more Pidgin English in the coming years. That’s official enough.
Meanwhile, if you have any queries regarding localization, translation, copywriting, or marketing, don’t hesitate to reach out. Our over 600 language professionals and local project managers will be more than happy to cater to your needs.
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