Pidgins and creoles


in Language

Some of the most interesting theories about language development in recent years have been put forward by Derek Bickerton, an English-born professor at the University of Hawaii, who noticed that creole languages all over the world bear certain remarkable similarities. First, it is important to understand the difference between pidgins and creoles. Pidgins (the word is thought to be a Chinese rendering of the English word business) are rudimentary languages formed when people from diverse backgrounds are thrown together by circumstance. Historically, they have tended to arise on isolated plantation-based islands which have been ruled by a dominant Western minority but where the laborers come from a mixed linguistic background. Pidgins are almost always very basic and their structure varies considerably from place to place—and indeed from person to person. They are essentially little more than the language you or I would speak if we found ourselves suddenly deposited in some place like Bulgaria or Azerbaijan. They are makeshift tongues and as a result they seldom last long.

When children are born into a pidgin community, one of two things will happen. Either the children will learn the language of the ruling class, as was almost always the case with African slaves in the American South, or they will develop a creole (from French créole, “native”). Most of the languages that people think of as pidgins are in fact creoles… Feel free to smile. But it would be a mistake to consider these languages substandard because of their curious vocabularies. They are as formalized, efficient, and expressive as any other language—and often more so…

So creoles are not in any way inferior. In fact, it is worth remembering that many full-fledged languages—the Afrikaans of South Africa, the Chinese of Macao, and the Swahili of east Africa—were originally creoles.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. HarperCollins, 1990. p. 27–9


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