Pidgins and Simplifications: Partial Versions of Actual Languages


By John McWhorter, Ph.D.Columbia University

Pidgins may appear to be languages, but they are actually not. What defines a pidgin is the massive simplification that occurs when it is formed from mixing other languages. This is an artificial development. Let us look at what distinguishes pidgins from proper languages.

Handwritten word hello in different languages.
Pidgins develop when people of totally different languages begin to communicate with each other. (Image: Anna Kutukova/Shutterstock)

Vowels in Pidgins

Let us first look at the sound system in pidgins compared to languages. The sound system in a pidgin is very simplified. English has five vowel symbols in its alphabet—a, e, i, o, and u. But that actually is an abbreviation of the actual number of vowel sounds we have.

So, we have not just ‘ah’, ‘ay’, ‘ee’, ‘oh’, ‘oo’, but also ‘aa’, ‘eh’, ‘ay’, ‘ee’, ‘ih’, ‘uh’—we have all sorts of vowel sounds. The symbols are just a vague representation of the enormous complexity that is going on in languages.

The spelling system of English is notoriously awful, and we just learn to deal with that misfit between how we actually talk and what these alphabetic symbols are. But, pidgins actually do tend to drop down to only five basic vowels. A well-behaved pidgin will have [a], [e], [i], [o], [u]. The extra vowel sounds that we have in languages tend to be leached out in pidgins.

Fanakalo: Dropping the Clicks

Pidgins also drop the sounds that are harder to learn. There’s the famous example of the clicks in southern Africa. Zulu is one of the languages that has clicks.

There’s a pidgin Zulu very commonly spoken in South Africa—Fanakalo, a very simplified Zulu. In pidgin, Fanakalo means ‘you go do that’. This indicates that the pidgin probably developed in a situation of coerced labor. (Fanakalo developed among the people working in mines, who were brought from various places near South Africa.)

One would predict that the first thing that would go in any click language would be those clicks. They are very difficult to learn after you have passed a certain critical phase of language acquisition ability. Fanakalo speakers tend to replace all those click sounds; they just become ‘k’ in Fanakalo. Similarly, Zulu has tones. Tones are hard to learn if your language doesn’t have tones. So, Fanakalo doesn’t have any tones.

Learn more about how sounds change in languages.

Reduced Vocabulary in a Pidgin

Then there is the case of a very small vocabulary. So, if you want to say things beyond the very basic in a pidgin, then you use circumlocutions, like in the Chinese Pidgin English that developed in Canton.

Chinese and British traders in Canton.
A Chinese Pidgin English, which developed in Canton after the British began trading there, had a stripped-down vocabulary. (Image: Wesleyan Missionary Society/Public domain)

The English speakers in China were rarely allowed to come inland, and they were only spoken to in a pidgin kind of English. That was Chinese Pidgin English, and it lived for a long time.

Let’s look at an example. The word for ‘goose’ in Chinese Pidgin English was ‘big fela kwak kwak maki go in wata’, which is what a goose is—Geese are big, they can hurt you, they do make a kind of quacking sound, and they swim in water. You don’t talk about geese much. But if you were in Canton and you had to talk about those obnoxious birds, then you’ll put something together, and you would probably come up with ‘big fela kwak kwak maki go in wata’.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human LanguageWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Eskimo Pidgin

The languages that the Eskimos speak are hideously complex, and because the weather is so hideously cold, most people who aren’t natives don’t go there to stay. You don’t vacation there; you’re just there for a short period of time.

But there was an Eskimo Pidgin for a long time. If you wanted to say something like ‘I want the dogs to come’, the way you would say it would be: ‘kim-mik ka’i-li pi-cu’k-tu’. These words basically mean ‘dog come want’. But that could answer various questions. You could say ‘dog come want’—kim-mik ka’i-li pi-cu’k-tu—in various situations. Someone might ask you, ‘Why are you whistling?’ and you will say ‘kim-mik ka’i-li pi-cu’k-tu’, meaning any of ‘because I want the dog to come’; ‘because I want the dogs to come’; ‘because I want my dogs to come’; ‘because I want your dogs to come’.

Learn more about meaning and word order in languages.

Contextual Meaning in Pidgins

Context means a lot in a pidgin. It would be hard to write complex prose because it’s not disembodied. It’s about what’s going on now, and in a way you use language just to illustrate what is going on in very broad strokes.

Coming back to Eskimo Pidgin. You could answer ‘Why do you want Jim?’ with ‘kim-mik ka’i-li pi-cu’k-tu’ meaning ‘because I want him to bring me a dog’. Or for ‘Why are you locking the door?’ to mean ‘because dogs keep trying to get into the house—the dogs they want to come in’. Or ‘Why did Jim go to Fort McPherson?’ to mean ‘because he wants to get some dogs’.

All that could be said with ‘dog come want’ because this isn’t a real language. It’s really just kind of telegraphically indicating the high spots of a language. Context has to do the rest. So this little three-word sentence will take care of any lack of clarity you have about implications or desires or what’s going to happen next.

We are clear on what the difference between a language and a pidgin. It’s not just about endings, it’s about there not being anything complicated. It’s about there not being a real vocabulary. That’s what a pidgin is. They are not real languages. What they are is adults’ partial version of real languages.

Common Questions about Pidgins

Q. What is the basic feature that defines a pidgin?

The basic feature of a pidgin is the massive simplification that occurs when languages are mixed to form a pidgin.

Q. What happens to vowels in a pidgin?

Pidgins tend to drop down to only five basic vowels. The well-behaved pidgin will have [a], [e], [i], [o], [u].

Q. How does Eskimo pidgin conveys meanings?

Eskimo pidgin relies largely on context to convey meaning.

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