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Pidgins and Creoles: Genesis, Differences and Similarities

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In recent years, exploring the deep roots from which contact languages, such as pidgins and creoles, had grown become a subject of interest for many scholars in the fields of linguistics, sociolinguistics, and anthropology. Hugo Schuchardt (1842-1927), a German linguist, was undoubtedly the first to attract attention to the field of pidgin and creole studies when he published articles on them during the end of the nineteenth century. Many leading scholars’ works followed his articles, as increased attention was paid for those long-neglected languages and to the remarkable theoretical, practical, social, cultural, and educational issues that they arise.

Soon after linguists realized the importance of Pidgins and Creoles, the people who were using them also became aware of their importance and that they were not bad varieties of languages as earlier generations thought.

Hall wrote that “pidginized and creolized languages represent one of the most interesting frontiers of linguistic science, and offer points of the special challenge in all respects”. In spite of the fact that in the meantime “this fascinating but hitherto neglected field” has been, and still is, the object of numerous studies, three questions remain the source of controversy among linguists until today: the definition of these languages, their origins and the future of their existence. 

The present paper will represent some definitions and explanations of both pidgins and creoles with a number of examples, in addition to their main features, similarities, and differences. Some information provided by different linguists about what is meant by a true pidgin and the stages of its development will be briefly mentioned in the following paragraphs.

What is a “Pidgin”?

Pidgins are simplified languages that occur from two or more languages. They are developed by people who do not have a common language to communicate in the same geographical area. Pidgins can turn into creoles when they have been used for a long time and their structure evolve and become more complex.

There is no fixed definition of what exactly constitutes a pidgin, as different linguists used various definitions to refer to such a term. A useful definition to take as a starting point is that of Sebba- who focused in his research on the use of English and Creole among Caribbeans in London- as he affirms that a pidgin is a stable language variety and sometimes considered imperfect learning of a second language that has a unified vocabulary and grammar, and used for a limited number of functions when we compare it with another ordinary language. From a more practical point of view, pidgins are products of human creativity as well as conscious strategies to promote effective interaction and fulfill communication needs. In a similar definition, Rickford says that pidgin is a “marginal language which arises to fulfill certain restricted communication needs among people who have no common language”. 

Children who are born within an area where a pidgin is used, acquire it as their first language, in this case, the pidgin becomes a creole. An example for such a case is Tok Pisin which was first a pidgin that developed to become a creole in Papua New Guinea and afterward became the National Language and children started to acquire it as their first language.

Features of Pidgins

Linguists who studied pidgins have long been fascinated by the notable linguistic similarities found among pidgins spoken in different places around the world. There are some similarities between most languages that are called pidgins regardless of what fully-fledged language they are based on or what time during which they were or are spoken, such as a pronounced lack of inflectional morphology with a strong preference for analytic structures, reduced verbal, nominal and pronominal paradigms compared to other languages, and a tendency to use SVO word order.

These shared features are more likely to result from the simplification or reduction process of the most complex phonological, morphological, syntactical, and lexical patterns of the Target language. Sebba lists the main characteristics shared by pidgins as follows:

  1. Phonological Features: They share an avoidance to use some difficult sounds and there is no tendency to use tone as a tool to distinguish words.
  2. Morphological Features: Pidgins witness very few, rather no inflections, e.g. no morphologically marked number (singular-plural), case (subject-object), gender, tense or grammatical agreement. Moreover, there is an intensive usage of analytic constructions to mark possessive.
  3. Syntactic Features: Among pidgins, no definite or indefinite articles, copula, passive form or complex sentences can be found. Moreover, tense, aspect, modality, and negation are marked extremely to the verb- often by a content word like an adverb.
  4. Lexical Features: Pidgins always contain a limited short vocabulary and a very reduced amount of compounds.

What is meant by a “true pidgin”?

Many scholars argue that a “true pidgin” can only take place in an environment where speakers of at least 3 languages are required to communicate. The American linguist, Romaine extends this criterion to establish a clear distinction between pidgins and other interlanguage varieties such as foreigner talk, which is a term coined in 1971 by Stanford University’s Professor Charles Ferguson (one of the founders of sociolinguistics) and refers to a simplified version of a language used by native speakers when addressing non-native speakers. However, there is no absolute agreement on this, and especially when we consider the opinion of scholars who prefer to focus on the process of pidginization rather than on the resulting pidgins and seem to accept a two language contact situation as a possible environment for this communication.

Development of pidgins

Winford considers that the term “pidgin” is derived from a reinterpretation of the word “business”, as it was first applied to Chinese Pidgin English, which emerged on the South China Coast from about 1715 onwards. He claims that other English- lexicon pidgins that served as lingue franche include Hawai‘i Pidgin English and early Melanesian Pidgin English, both used in an agricultural setting and went through changes in lexicon and grammar. Meanwhile, Indian Butler English emerged in domestic settings to serve the purpose of employer/servant interactions. All of these pidgins, with the possible exception of the last, have long ceased to be spoken.

Most pidgins were derived from the domination of French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Dutch because of their power on colonies. In addition, slaves who were brought from Africa in the nineteenth century to North America to work on sugar plantations were from different parts of their countries and they had no shared languages among themselves. Their bosses chose them from different regions to prevent them from communicating or escaping, as a result, they developed a language in order to communicate with each other. According to Bakir, the pidgin-creole hierarchy begins with “pre-grammatical systems of early pidginization and ends with the fully stabilized and expanded creoles”. After its formation, pidgins go through different developmental stages toward becoming more stabilized and their functions become more expanded.

Winford believes that in the first stage, a pidgin consists of a very small repertoire of nouns, and verbs words in addition to some adjectives, adverbs, a few quantifiers, function words, and a three-way pronominal system with the aim of understanding the context. This stage resembles a grammatical stage, or individual jargon, and shows no consistency across its speakers. In the second stage, Winford also notes that pidgins are “characterized by a clear though the rudimentary grammatical organization, in other words, regular though simple rules of production”. At this stage, inflections and bound derivational morphemes are rarely found but there is some degree of consistency among speakers.

The very first theory about pidgin and creole genesis is that they are all descendants of a Portuguese-lexifier pidgin which existed in the fifteenth century. It is considered to be a relic from the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean which was spoken in West Africa. Hall says that in the course of their imperial expansion, the Portuguese spread pidginized versions of their language by traders and slavers who replaced the Portuguese lexicon with their own, in a process known as ‘relexification’.

What is a “Creole”?

Hall explains the term Creole by claiming that it is a pidgin that has acquired native speakers, who are mostly the descendants of pidgin speakers who grow up using the pidgin as their first language. In other words, Aitchison says that creoles arise when pidgins become mother tongues, as they are developed by children that are born into a multilingual environment. Wardhaugh asserts that in contrast to pidgins, creolization involves the expansion of the morphology and syntax, regularization of the phonology, deliberate increase in the number of functions in which the language is used, and development of a rational and stable system for increasing vocabulary. Sometimes it is very difficult to say whether a variety is a pidgin, expanded pidgin, or a creole. For example, some pidgins like Nigerian Pidgin English, which can also be referred to as a creole due to the fact that there are people who learn the pidgin as their mother tongue so a pidgin becomes a creole. He refers to Sierra Leone which has both a pidginized version and a creolized version of English as another example, in addition to the West African Pidgin English and the creole Krio which can be found in and around the capital.

Features of Creoles

Napoli explains the main features shared by creoles as follows:

  1. Phonological Features: Creoles have simplified vowel systems; generally they have only five vowels.
  2. Lexical Features: They have relatively restricted vocabulary and a single word is used for various things. This is considered an issue found in many languages as it causes difficulties to understand meanings.
  3. Syntactic Features: Creoles express negation by placing a negative word immediately in front of the first verb, and they follow the SVO pattern in terms of word order.

Differences and similarities between Pidgins and Creoles

It is a certain fact that the distinction between pidgins and creoles remains somewhat blurred, although there is a great deal of diversity among the languages referred to as pidgins and creoles. Pidgins and creoles have many similarities with the standard languages but they are simplified in terms of morphology and phonology. Meanwhile, Wardhaugh claims that the difference lies in the rate of change for creoles and pidgin, as pidginization occurs very quickly, almost over a night but creolization takes approximately two generations to form. In general, creoles are usually more complex and structurally elaborated than pidgins. Although it seems that pidgins are in certain ways similar in their structures, the main distinguishing feature for a pidgin is its genesis as a first-generation contact language. There seems to be a scholarly consensus that a pidgin does not have native speakers, since the classic definition of a creole is a pidgin that has acquired native speakers, although some linguists prefer to refer to creoles as “expanded pidgins”.


Studying pidgins and creoles has become an essential part in the scope of sociolinguistics. It enables linguists to explore the birth of languages and the changes that take place while they grow. Such exploration shows how people are attracted or attach themselves to certain languages, and how they shape new identities and nationalities through using them. Wardhaugh notes on studying those two fields that :

“We do not have to wait a millennium to see how a language changes; a few generations suffice. The speakers of such languages have come to recognize that what they speak is not just a ‘bad’ variety of this language or that, but a language or a variety of a language with its own legitimacy, history, structure, functions, and the possibility of winning eventual recognition as a ‘proper’ language. ”

The current paper presented some essential information to recognize the importance of both pidgins and creoles through definitions and characteristics in which they are similar and different, as the main research efforts in pidgin and creole studies have been focusing on comparative analysis and finding a principled explanation for their genesis.


  1. Aitchison, J. (1981). Language change :Progress or decay?, Bungay, U.K. Fontana Paperbacks.
  2. Bakir, M. (2010). Notes on the verbal system of Gulf Pidgin Arabic. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, 201-228.
  3. Cassidy, F.(1971). Tracing the Pidgin Element in Jamaican Creole. In Hymes, D. (ed.), Pidginization and Creolization of Languages. Proceedings of a Conference held at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, April 1968. Cambridge: University Press, pp. 203-221.
  4. Hall, R. (1966). Pidgin and Creole Languages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  5. Kaye, S. and Tosco, M. (2001). Pidgin and creole languages. A basic introduction.
  6. München: Lincom Europa 
  7. Napoli, D. (2003). Language Matters, New York: Oxford University Press
  8. Rickford, J.(1977) The field of Pidgin-Creole studies: A review article on Loreto Todd’s
  9. Pidgins and Creoles. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974, Journal of Postcolonia l Writing, 16: 2, 477 — 513
  10. Romaine, S. (1988). Pidgin & Creole Languages. London/New York: Longman Group.
  11. Schumann, J. (1978). The pidginization process: A model for second language acquisit ion.
  12. Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers
  13. Sebba, M. (1997). Contact Languages. Pidgins and Creoles. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press.
  14. Winford, D. (2003). An introduction to contact linguistics. Oxford. Blackwell
  15. Wardhaugh, R. (2010). An introduction to sociolinguistic. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

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