A Pidgin, or contact language, is the name given to any language created, usually spontaneously, out of a mixture of other languages as a means of communication between speakers of different tongues. Pidgins have rudimentary grammars and restricted vocabulary, serving as auxiliary contact languages. They are improvised rather than learned natively.

Pidgins can develop to become creole languages. This requires the pidgin to be learned natively by children, who then generalize the features of the pidgin into a fully-formed, stabilized grammar (see Nicaraguan Sign Language). At this stage the language is no longer a pidgin, as it has acquired the full complexity of a human language, and becomes a creole. Often creoles can then replace the existing mix of languages to become the native language of the current community (such as Krio in Sierra Leone and Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea). However, pidgins do not always become creoles—they can die out or become obsolete.

The concept originated in Europe among the merchants and traders in the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, who used Lingua franca or Sabir. Another well-known pidgin is the Beach-la-Mar of the South Seas, based on English but incorporating Malay, Chinese, and Portuguese words. Bislama, as it is now called in Vanuatu, is fairly mutually intelligible with Tok Pisin.

Caribbean pidgin is the result of colonialism. As tropical islands were colonised their society was restructured, with a ruling minority of some European nation and a large mass of non-European laborers. The laborers, both natives and slaves, would often come from many different language groups and would need to communicate. This led to the development of pidgins.

The creation of a pidgin usually requires:

  • Prolonged, regular contact between the different language communities
  • A need to communicate between them
  • An absence of (or absence of widespread proficiency in) a widespread, accessible lingua franca.

Spanglish is not a Pidgin, it is a portmanteau because it shares vocabulary rather than inventing a new one.


The word is said to be derived from the Chinese pronunciation of the English word business. The pronounciation for business in Cantonese, the dialect of Chinese used in Pigdin, is 生意 saang1 yi3 or 商業 soeng1 jip6 (Mandarin Chinese: sheng1 yi4 and shang4 ye4 respectively). Likely the origins lie in the exclusively-Cantonese term 幫襯 bong1 can3 which means establishing a good business relationship. A universal Chinese term 辦公 baan6 gung1 (ban4 gong1) which means to handle official business would also be a likely candidate. Scholars though dispute this derivation of the word "pidgin", and suggest alternative etymologies since it was known also as "Pigeon English" in reference to imagery of the passenger pigeon. Unfortunately there exists no historical evidence for the term's origins to prove any suggestion.

Pidgin English was the name given to a Chinese-English-Portuguese pidgin used for commerce in Canton during the 18th and 19th centuries. In Canton, this contact language was called Canton English. Also referred to as chinglish ("Chinese English") or engrish ("English Chinese").

In fact, certain expressions from Chinglish have made their way into colloquial English. Many expressions are literal translations from Cantonese grammar. These include:

  • long time no see (好耐冇見 hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3)
  • look-see (睇見 tai2 gin3)
  • no can do (唔得做 m4 dak1 zou6)
  • no-go (唔去 m4 heoi3)

The most popular American Pidgin language is that of the surf culture in Hawaii, where locals mix the traditional dialect of Hawaiian with English. However, this Pidgin language is not based on a need for communication, but instead on the Hawaiian people's need to "stand out" from "regular" Americans.


Pidgin English from "God's Chinese Son", written by Jonathan Spence

Language might seem [like] a problem, since in all of Canton, China and the foreign hongs [a grouping of offices and factories] there is no Chinese who can read or write in English or other European languages, and only a few Westerners who know enough Chinese to write with even partial elegance. This has not always been the case.

In the 1810s and 1820s, when the East India Company was at its peak of power, there were a dozen or more young men from England studying Chinese in the Canton factories. They translated Chinese novels and plays, and even the Chinese legal code, so they could assess the equity of the government's rules more carefully. Though the local officials on occasion imprisoned Chinese for teaching their own language to foreigners, and even executed one, and Chinese teachers often had to shelter privately in their pupils' lodgings, the East India Company representatives fought back. By tenacity, they won the right to submit commercial documents in Chinese translation, rather than in English, and to hire Chinese teachers, for study of classical texts as well as Cantonese colloquial dialect. And though the company directors never won official acknowledgment of their right to hire Chinese wood-carvers, they went ahead anyway and block printed an Anglo-Chinese dictionary using Chinese characters; in addition, they managed to accumulate a substantial library of four thousand books, many of them in Chinese, which they housed in their splendidly appointed hong, with the company's senior physician doubling as the librarian.

With the termination by the British government in 1834 of the company's monopoly of China trade, these glory days were over. Most of the language students and experts were reassigned to other countries; their finest teacher, Robert Morrison, died the same year; and the great library was scattered. Only three young men, who had been classified on the company's roster as "proficient" enough to receive an annual student's allowance, are left in Canton by 1836, and their main role is to be caretakers of the company's former buildings and oversee their closing down. Nor are there any established bookshops to be found in the foreigners' restricted zone of residence, for specific laws forbid the sale of Chinese books to foreigners, and even make it a crime to show them one of China's local histories or regional gazettes. Those who wish to search out books must walk some distance to the west, where two bookshops on a side street (a street with gates locked and barred at night) will break the law to the extent of selling novels, romances,and "marvellous stories" to the foreigners, and sometimes arrange for purchases of other titles from the larger stores within the city.

But years of experience have led to the growth of a language shared by nearly all who live among the foreign hongs, a language known as "Canton Jargon" or "Pidgin English." This serves to keep the differing communities in touch, by mixing words from Portuguese, Indian, English, and various Chinese dialects, and spelling them according to Chinese syntax, with r transformed to l, and b to p. "Pidgin" itself comes from the word "business," via its intermediate mispronunciation "pidginess"; gods are joss [images in shrines] from Deos; and a religious service is thus a "joss pidgin." Sex is "lofpidgin." Thieves become la-de-loons from ladrao, ships become junks, markets bazaars, lunch tiffin, a letter a chit, one who commands (mandar) a man-ta-le or mandarin, a document a chop, an urgent document chop-chop, one hundred thousand of anything a lac, a laborer a coolie, a conference a chin-chin, one's good acquaintance number oneolo flen. Double ee is added after dental consonants, so want becomes wantee, catch catchee. Chinese shopkeepers have at hand little books of terms compiled locally as guides to business, guides in which the Chinese characters for a given object are also glossed below, with other characters suggesting-in Cantonese dialect-the way to say the English. Scales are rendered sze-kay-lesze, January che-na-li-le, west wind wi-sze-wun, and one-two-threewun, too, te-le. Thus can the wealthy merchant Howqua (see list of famous drug smugglers), forewarned that a senior Chinese official is coming to demand a massive bribe, say with resignation to a young American trader "Man-ta-le sendee one piece chop. He come tomollo, wantee too-lac dollar" and everyone knows what he means.

See also

eo:Pigxino fi:Pidžin fr:Pidgin id:pidgin ja:ピジン言語 nl:Pidgin pl:Języki pidżynowe pt:Pidgin ru:Пиджин sl:pidžin sv:Pidginsprk zh:皮钦语


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