Pidgin languages

Pidgin Languages

Pidgins are “on-the-spot” languages that develop when people with no common language come into contact with each other. Nobody speaks a pidgin as their first language. Usually a pidgin language is a blend of the vocabulary of one major language with the grammar of one or more other languages. The major languages are usually the languages of the former major colonial powers, such as English, French, and Portuguese. For example, the establishment of plantation economies in the Caribbean, with large groups of slaves from different language backgrounds who came from West Africa, gave rise to a number of pidgins based on English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese. However, there are also pidgins spoken in parts of Africa, South America, and southeast Asia that are based on languages other than those of the colonial powers. A good example of a non-European pidgin is the Chinook Jargon that was once used by American Indians and European traders in the Pacific mapNorthwest.

The term pidgin has nothing to do with birds. The word, first attested in print in 1850, is thought to be the Chinese mispronunciation of the English word business. There are other theories about the origin of the term.

Because of their limited function, pidgin languages usually do not last very long, rarely more than several decades. They disappear when the reason for communication diminishes, as communities either move apart, one community learns the language of the other, or both communities learn a common language (usually the official language of the country). For instance, Pidgin Russian spoken in Manchuria disappeared when Russian settlers left China after World War II. The same is true of Pidgin French which disappeared from Vietnam after the French left the country. However, this is not always the case. Chinese Pidgin English (Chinglish), developed in the 17th century in Canton (Guandong), China,and survived for almost three centuries. Its use spread from master-servant relationships to those between English and Chinese traders and bureaucrats. It continued in use until about the end of the 19th century, when the Chinese started to switch to standard English.

Ethnologue lists 18 pidgins used around the world. Four of them are extinct and many are in the process of disappearing. There are no estimates of number of speakers for many of them.

under 100
no estimate
1.5 million 2nd-language speakers
no estimate
Barikanchi no estimate Nigeria
Iha-based Pidgin no estimate Indonesia
Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin under 50 Australia
Maskoy Pidgin no estimate Paraguay
Motu, Hiri 120,000 2nd-language speakers Papua New Guinea
Onin-based Pidgin no estimate Indonesia
Settla no estimate Zambia
Fanagalo several hundred thousand 2nd-language speakers South Africa
Ndyuka-Trio Pidgin no estimate Suriname

If a pidgin survives, and the next generation of speakers learns it as their first language or if it becomes a stable lingua franca, it becomes a creole.



Sound system
Most pidgins have relatively simple sound systems characterized by five vowels (/i/, /e/, /a/, /u/, /o/) and no consonant clusters.

Pidgins usually have smaller vocabularies, a simpler structure, and more limited functions than natural languages. Some typical features include of pidgin languages are as follows:

  • Subject-Verb-Object word order
  • absence of grammatical markers for gender, number, case, tense, aspect, mood, etc.
  • Tenses are expressed lexically, i.e., by using temporal adverbs such as tomorrow, yesterday, etc.
  • Grammatical relations are usually expressed through simple juxtaposition.
  • Use of reduplication to represent plurals and superlatives, e.g., Hawai’ian Pidgin wiki-wiki ‘very quick’.

Since vocabulary is restricted, words in a pidgin language have a wide range of meanings. For instance, in the Chinook Jargon, the word klahawaya meant ‘How are you?’, ‘Good day,’ or ‘Good bye’.


Pidgin languages are used exclusively for oral communication. Only after they develop into creoles, does the need for a writing system arise.


Language Difficulty

questionHow difficult is it to learn Pidgin languages?
There is no data on the difficulty of Pidgin languages for speakers of English.