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date: 19 October 2017

Pidgin Languages

Summary and Keywords

Pidgin languages sometimes form in contact situations where a means of communication is urgently needed between groups lacking a common code. They are typically less elaborate than any of the languages involved in their formation, and in comparison to those, reduction characterizes all linguistic levels.

The process is relatively uncommon, and the life span of pidgins is usually short – most disappear when the contact situation changes, or when another medium of intergroup communication becomes available. In some rare cases, however, they expand (both socially and structurally), and may even nativize, i. e. become mother tongues to their speakers (when they may be re-labelled “creoles”).

Pidgins are severely understudied, and while they are often mentioned as precursors to creoles, few linguists have shown a serious interest in them. As a result, many generalizations have been based on extremely limited amounts of data or even on intuition. Some frequently occurring ones is that pidginization is a case of second language acquisition, that power and prestige are important factors, and that most structures are derived from the input languages. My work with pidgins has led me to believe the opposite to be true in these cases: pidgins form through a trial-and-error process, where anything that is understood by the other party is sanctioned, this process is one of collaborative language creation (rather than one involving one group of teachers and one group of learners), and much of what finds its way in the resultant contact language do so independently of what the creators spoke prior to their encounter.

As for theoretical implications, pidgins may shed light on which features in traditional languages are necessary for communication, and which are superfluous from the point of view of pure information transmission.

Keywords: pidgins, pidgin languages, pidginization, language contact, typology, linguistic complexity

There is no agreed-upon definition of what a pidgin really is. While a bewildering array of intended referents can be found in the literature (by both linguists and non-linguists), there are at least a small core of properties that are included in most attempts at a definition. The most common would seem to be the following:

  • Not spoken natively or used as a community language

  • A lingua franca, i.e., a medium for interethnic communication

  • Having some norms (i.e., is not an ad hoc creation on an individual basis, but has to be learnt)

  • Lexically and structurally highly reduced in comparison to its input components (and languages in general)

For anyone keen on reducing the definition to an absolute minimum, a possible minimal definition might be:

A pidgin is a language which (a) functions as a lingua franca, and which (b) is lexically and structurally extremely limited.

That the variety has norms follows from its being a language, and its limited nature could be said to be a logical consequence of its not being a community language, as a language that is not used in all walks of life would presumably not need all the lexicon and grammatical devices that traditional languages have.

Regardless of the merits of my attempted minimal definition, I suggest that the label should be handled with a certain caution and that some conservatism should be applied when choosing which varieties to include. Otherwise, as Posner (1997, p. 131) put it with regard to creoles,

we are in danger of so diluting the scope of the term creolization that it designates nothing more than a rapid period of linguistic change in which language contact plays a part.

While referring to a different (but related) group of languages, Posner’s statement sums up my own attitude regarding an overly liberal definition of the pidgin label.1

A pidgin typically draws its lexicon from pre-existing languages. In most cases, the bulk of the vocabulary comes from one such language, which is therefore referred to as the “lexifier”. While the terminology can be questioned, the other languages involved in pidgin genesis are customarily labelled “substrates.”

If one (for the sake of the argument, if nothing else) accepts my delimitation of the term, one cannot avoid the conclusion that pidginization is rare. Speaking a foreign language with an accent is obviously not, but the development of a highly reduced, but yet (somewhat) conventionalized linguistic system apparently is. I would certainly not deny that the number of pidgins (even by my more restricted sense of the word) that have existed at some point in time must, by a considerable margin, exceed the number that have come to scholarly attention. Yet, a simple arithmetic exercise based on the number of mutually unintelligible languages that do exist or that have existed, combined with the (on geographical or other grounds) likelihood that their respective speakers might come in contact with one another, cannot but indicate that the vast majority of language contacts have not led to pidgin formation. It would seem that there are usually bilingual individuals available who can take care of the interethnic contacts without creating a new medium and that people throughout history have preferred solutions other than pidgin creation, whenever such an option has been available.

A final introductory point that may surprise the nonspecialist is that pidgins are extremely understudied. Again, for anyone wanting to include any learner variety or any language with more than a handful of loanwords, the literature is of course plentiful. But with a more restrictive use of the term, it is everything but voluminous. This is in stark contrast with the enormous literature on creoles (where quite a few contributions include “pidgin” in the title, without discussing this language type other than in passing). There do exist descriptions—of highly varying quality—of a number of pidgin languages, but extremely few comparative studies drawing conclusions on pidgins in general. Among the few exceptions are Heine (1973), Bakker (2003, 2009), Parkvall and Bakker (2013), Parkvall (in press), and Roberts and Bresnan (2008).

1. Linguistic Characteristics of Pidgins

What first strikes probably any observer is the markedly analytic character of pidgins. This, however, is only part of the story, since a non-inflecting language may mark a host of intricate distinctions by means of free morphemes (or word order).

The fact that pidgins typically refrain from doing so indicates that a drift towards analyticity is not the hallmark of pidgins. What instead makes them special (in terms of morphosyntactics) is rather their not marking such features at all—be it by means of bound or free morphemes or word order.

To further illustrate the character of pidgins, I have chosen to present ten core traits of three varieties: Chinook Jargon, Français-Tirailleur, and Yokohamese.

The first was used in the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada from about 1800 until the early 20th century between Euro-Americans and Native Americans, but also within these groups by people sharing no other common language. The primary lexical contributor was Chinook, a now extinct language spoken along the mouth of the Columbia River, but important lexical shares of the vocabulary also derived from Nootka, French, and English. The language is unusually well documented for being a pidgin, though the lexifier is less so. Data on and examples from Chinook Jargon in the following sections draw primarily on Vrzić (1999) and Robertson (2011), with most of the examples coming from the latter.

Français-Tirailleur developed in Africa as a means of communication within France’s African army, whose officers were European, and whose recruits were drawn from several indigenous peoples. As the name suggests, the lexicon was first and foremost of French origin, and the period of use was roughly from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. The main single body of material is an anonymous phrase book (Anon., 1916), but I have myself compiled a corpus drawing on several hundred contemporary sources, including autobiographies and travel accounts.

Yokohamese, finally, was a Japanese-lexicon pidgin that emerged in Yokohama after the American navy forcibly opened the port to Western trade in the 1850s. It was used (probably until around the First World War) in the so-called Foreign Settlement between Japanese, Chinese, and (chiefly Anglophone) Westerners. Virtually the only source of primary data known is Atkinson (1879).

Thus, the languages involved in the creation of these three pidgins can be summarized thus:

Table 1. The three pidgins discussed and their input languages.

variety

lexifier

primary substrates

Chinook Jargon

Chinook

French, English, pidgin Nootka, various indigenous languages of Oregon and Washington

Français-Tirailleur

French

Bambara, Wolof, Moore, other West African languages

Yokohamese

Japanese

English, other European languages, Mandarin

The reader may want to note that the three pidgins considered here are from three different continents, and that their lexifiers represent vastly different morphological types (Chinook≈polysynthetic, French≈fusional, Japanese≈agglutinative) with differing basic word orders (Chinook=variable, French=SVO, Japanese=SOV). With the limited data available, no pidgin sample can lay claim to being perfectly representative, but these three are intended to represent three rather different typological points of departure. In addition to that, they were also used in differing sociolinguistic contexts, involving settlement, military activities, and trade, respectively. Limiting ourselves to only three varieties, I would therefore argue that this is about as varied as a pidgin sample can get. Yet, the three pidgins are in most aspects a lot more similar to one another than any of them is to their respective lexifier (or substrates).

Let us now have a look at how these pidgins (and their lexifiers) behave with regard to the following features, which the reader will hopefully acknowledge as belonging to the core structure of languages:

Table 2. Features considered from the three pidgins.

personal pronouns

gender/noun classes/classifiers

tense/mood/aspect

copula

adpositions

negation

articles

nominal number

demonstratives

word order

2. Personal Pronouns

Most languages on earth feature a system of personal pronouns that distinguishes three persons and two numbers, and many (most?) also include additional features, primarily case, but sometimes also gender, more numbers (duals, trials, or paucals), more persons (obviatives), polarity, clusivity or politeness distinctions.

All our lexifiers have such “extras”. The pronouns of Chinook had three genders, duals, clusivity, and a case system distinguishing absolutive, ergative, and possessive.

The French pronominal system features two genders, a T–V politeness distinction, and different case marking for subjects, direct and indirect objects, possessives, and absolute possessives, as well as reflexive and disjunctive forms, including elision rules when the following word is vowel-initial.

For Japanese, what from a Western perspective is seen as pronouns in fact constitute a relatively open class of words, most of whose members can with equal ease be considered nouns. To the extent that we want to postulate a class of pronominals in Japanese, its most striking characteristics would be an intricate system of indicating biological gender and several degrees of politeness.

Meanwhile, the three pidgins have pronominal systems that are, to say the least, considerably less complex. The relevant forms are:2

Table 3. Personal pronouns in the three pidgins.

Chinook Jargon

Français-Tirailleur

Yokohamese

1sg

najka

mwa

watakʃi

2sg

majka

twa

omaj

3sg

jaka

lwi

aʧirasto

1pl

nsajka

nu

2pl

msajka

vu

3pl

klaska

e

This represents the virtually complete set of personal pronouns of these pidgins3. Two of them indicate three persons and two numbers, whereas Yokohamese—so far as is known—did not even make any number distinctions. In none of them do we find any elaborations beyond this—no politeness, no indication of gender, syntactic role, or the like.

3. Tense/Mood/Aspect

The vast majority of languages, to the best of my knowledge, have grammaticalized at least some tense, mood, or aspect morphemes.

The tense/mood/aspect system of Chinook, for instance, included, apart from present and future forms, also no less than four grammaticalized pasts, and French and Japanese also make use of a fair number of grammaticalized distinctions with regard to these features.

The pidgins, on the other hand, do not.

Chinook Jargon represents a typical pidgin in having no grammaticalized tense/mood/aspect marking whatsoever, and the intended interpretation of the clauses is largely left to the context, and the same goes for Yokohamese.

In the Chinook Jargon examples below, only the adverbials help the listener identify the intended message:

(1a)

Pidgin Languages

(1b)

Pidgin Languages

(1c)

Pidgin Languages

(1d)

Pidgin Languages

The one candidate for a tense/aspect marker in Français-Tirailleur is a mysterious morpheme ja ~ jãna, whose function remains to be established,4 but its use is in any case not obligatory.

4. Adpositions

When it comes to adpositions, our three pidgins follow different paths, both of which are common in languages of this type. Français-Tirailleur often altogether omits the adpositions that would be required in the lexifier:

(2)

Pidgin Languages

Chinook Jargon, on the other hand, illustrates the other common option: Adpositions do occur where they—from the point of view of other languages—would be expected to, but the inventory is severely reduced. The all-round preposition kopa is derived from a lexifier adverb meaning ‘over there’, but serves to indicate virtually all spatial relations, as well more abstract relations, including the marking of syntactic function:

(3)

Pidgin Languages

(4)

Pidgin Languages

(5)

Pidgin Languages

(6)

Pidgin Languages

(7)

Pidgin Languages

(8)

Pidgin Languages

In available material on Yokohamese, there are no adpositions whatsoever.

5. Articles

While Chinook does not have articles proper (but may indicate definiteness by means of demonstratives), the other two lexifiers do. Japanese marks indefinites, but not definites, while French uses articles for both.

Pidgins typically do not include whatever articles that the lexifier may have offered,5 and instead chose one of two paths, depending on their developmental stage. The default choice is illustrated by all three pidgins under discussion here:

(9a)

Pidgin Languages

(9b)

Pidgin Languages

(10a)

Pidgin Languages

(10b)

Pidgin Languages

(11a)

Pidgin Languages

(11b)

Pidgin Languages

The other reasonably common option is to embark on a well-known grammaticalization path—to begin using demonstratives as definite articles.

(12)

Pidgin Languages

(13)

Pidgin Languages

6. Demonstratives

Apart from features such as gender and number (discussed below), demonstratives in the world’s languages frequently encode proximity. All three lexifiers do so, though French only by means of a supporting adverb (celui-ci ‘this’ vs. celui-là ‘that’). Japanese and Chinook go a step further in this area, by including three degrees of proximity and visibility respectively.

In the pidgins, there is no trace of any such distinctions:6

(14a)

Pidgin Languages

(14b)

Pidgin Languages

(15a)

Pidgin Languages

(15b)

Pidgin Languages

7. Gender/Noun Classes/Classifiers

Chinook had a gender system that divided nouns into three classes, namely masculines, feminines, and neuters. Somewhat unusually for the languages of its area, it marked biological gender on pronouns. French, like many other European languages, distinguishes between masculines and feminines for both animate and non-animate referents. Japanese, finally, indicates biological gender, but for inanimates adheres to the typical East Asian system of classifiers, which has in common with gender systems a partly arbitrary division of nouns into various classes.

None of the pidgins here, as indeed pidgin in general, show the faintest trace of such systems. There are no noun classes of any kind, nor, as we have already seen, any marking of biological gender in the pronoun system.7 In cases where distinctions such as ‘bull’ vs. ‘cow’ are felt necessary, they are made with simple juxtaposition of the head noun and a noun meaning ‘man’ and ‘woman’ respectively.

8. Copula

Chinook being a polysynthetic language, it is difficult to identify elements corresponding to copulas in other languages, but both French and Japanese do contain such morphemes.

They are often absent in the pidgins:

(16)

Pidgin Languages

(17)

Pidgin Languages

In this particular case, however, the three showcase pidgins are somewhat unrepresentative. For Français-Tirailleur, there is the difficult-to-interpret item ja ~ jãna already mentioned, which might be a copula (and has, among other things, been suggested to be one),8 and Yokohamese frequently uses arimas ‘to have’ in a copula-like fashion.

Chinook Jargon, finally does have a copula mitlajt (from a lexifier form meaning ‘to exist’), which is obligatory in locative contexts, leaving equationals, and predicatives zero-marked (Vrzić, 1999, pp. 100–102).

These facts might overshadow the fact that copular verbs normally correspond to zero in pidgins.9 On the other hand, none of the three pidgins discussed here has inherited the predicational strategies of their lexifiers, which thereby illustrates the general tendency towards reduction in pidginization.

9. Negation

The Chinook negation was a free, non-inflected, and pre-verbal particle nikʃt. In spoken (as opposed to written) French, the sentence negator is a postverbal pas (/pa/). Negation in Japanese is in some ways a complex affair, which has received a good deal of attention in the literature, but the most basic form seems to be a suffix -na.

Among our pidgins, Chinook is unusual in having two basic negators (helo ~ elo ~ ilo and wek ~ wik), which are seemingly in free variation, but does confirm to expectations in negating by means of a free particle. It is placed before the subject, which normally implies that it is clause-initial.

(18)

Pidgin Languages

In Français-Tirailleur, the negator pa (in the older sources often ɲapa) was placed in the immediate preverbal position:

(19)

Pidgin Languages

Yokohamese negates by means of a clause-final arimas(en):

(20)

Pidgin Languages

The sentence negator in pidgins may have a tendency towards preverbal position, though the actual placement could be due to the input languages of the varieties which happen to have been documented. More significant is that it is almost without exception realized as a free, invariable particle. While this happens to be the represent a plurality (but not a majority) among languages in general, strategies such as affixation, negative verbs, and double negation are more than anything else conspicuous by their absence in pidgins.

10. Nominal Number

Chinook included grammatical marking not only for plurals, but also for duals, and did so by means of affixes. Overt marking is mostly confined to determiners, although in the written form, French noun phrases obligatorily distinguish singulars from plurals. In Japanese, meanwhile, nominal number is weakly grammaticalized, in being highly sensitive to animacy, and in many cases optional. When overtly indicated, it is marked by affixation.

The pidgins, not unexpectedly, do not mark nominal number in the way their lexifiers do—in fact they usually do not do so at all:

(21a)

Pidgin Languages

(21b)

Pidgin Languages

(22a)

Pidgin Languages

(22b)

Pidgin Languages

(23a)

Pidgin Languages

(23b)

Pidgin Languages

11. Word Order

Among the three lexifiers involved here, French is SVO, while Japanese is SOV. Chinook has been variably described as VSO and VOS, but according to Mithun (1999, p. 386), word order is entirely determined by pragmatics.

The substrates are for the most part SVO in the case of Français-Tirailleur, SVO for Yokohamese, and VSO (native American languages), and SVO (English and French) for Chinook Jargon.

Two of the pidgins (Français-Tirailleur and Chinook Jargon) are clearly SVO, while Yokohamese is SOV. The latter thus appears to have adopted the lexifier pattern, while the ordering in Chinook Jargon rather seem to have been copied from (some of) its substrates. Both are common in pidgins in general, without any obvious systematicity. While there have been suggestions in the literature regarding the unmarkedness of certain word orders (SVO), pidgins only very rarely opt for something other than what was offered by lexifier or (a significant subset of) the substrates. Again, why one or the other of these is chosen is far from clear.

We might possibly get closer to finding pidgin (quasi-)universals by going beyond basic word order and relationships between other elements, such as nouns and numerals or adjectives, but as already mentioned, comparative pidgins studies is only in its infancy (or perhaps more fittingly, in some kind of fetus stage).

Many a language requires word order alterations in specific contexts. European languages typically do so in interrogatives clauses, while some impose certain orders in subordinate or negative clauses, use word order to encode ergativity, or employ different orderings depending on whether the agent-like argument is a pronoun or a lexical NP.

Such elaborations are basically unheard of in pidgins (as usual, depending on our definitions). Some deviations from the standard word order are allowed for pragmatic purposes, but not required.

Summarizing the presentation of the ten features in the three pidgins, then, we arrive at the following typical configuration, which also, by and large, applies to pidgins in general:

Table 4. Summary of the features considered in the three pidgins.

personal pronouns

Usually three persons and two numbers, but little else

tense/mood/aspect

No grammaticalized markers at all

adpositions

Often zero, sometimes extremely frequent use of one single item

articles

Usually absent

demonstratives

Usually no distance contrasts

gender/noun classes/classifiers

Neither grammatical nor biological gender (or comparable systems)

copula

Not inherited from the lexifier. For the most part absent, but sometimes grammaticalized from other material

negation

Free and invariable particle, often preverbal

nominal number

Not obligatorily marked

word order

Few or no exceptions to whatever order is dominant16

Of course, not all of these need apply to every single pidgin. They are, however, representative, and illustrate the relative simplicity of pidgins. This simplicity goes beyond the question of mere synthesis, and with an unlimited amount of space, one could easily add more features and more varieties.

Finally, a note on lexical matters may not be amiss. Most estimates of pidgin vocabularies tend to be in the hundreds or (at the most) low thousands. This hyperpolysemy can conveniently be illustrated by Swadesh list items. The majority of the basic concepts on that list are expected to be expressed in single morphemes, and most of them with a morpheme not occurring elsewhere in the list. Most languages present a few mergers (e.g., right ‘not left’ and right ‘correct’ in English). Chinook Jargon, however, has at least 11 such pairs on the 200-version of the list, in addition to two triplets and even one quadruplet (‘leaf’ = ‘feather’ = ‘hair’ = ‘grass’). Moreover, several other concepts are expressed by combinations of items present elsewhere on the list. Examples include {full water} ‘wet’, {go foot} ‘to walk’, {much earth on} ‘dirty’, {do five} ‘to count’, {not far} ‘near’, and {not many} ‘some’. Frequent use is also made of the light verb mamuk ‘to do, to make’, as in {make die} ‘to kill’, {make earth} ‘to dig’, {make fire} ‘to burn’, {make laugh} ‘to play’10.

12. The Birth, Life, and Death of Pidgins

Most known pidgins are relatively short-lived. There is considerable variation, with lifespans ranging from a few months to several hundred years, but around a century may be thought of a relatively representative.

12.1 Birth Of Pidgins

There are some accounts of the very first contact between various groups, though not necessarily the same contacts that generated documented pidgins. In any case, these typically involve frequent use of gestures and words from various languages that it is hoped that the other will be able to understand. In these initial stages, typically characterized by a macaronic vocabulary and few norms, the budding contact variety is usually referred to a “jargon” or a “pre-pidgin.”

By time, more and more conventions develop. Just how much time is necessary presumably depends on the intensity of contacts. In her unique case study, Gilmore (2015) was able to see stabilization occur before her own eyes, while in other locations, we know that some norms were present at least after a few years. Pidgins involving only seasonal trade, on the other hand, typically developed very slowly (Chinese Pidgin English) or only acquired a small amount of structure in the first place (Russenorsk) (Lunden, 1978, p. 1; Broch & Jahr, 1984, p. 21; Baker, 1993, p. 14; Shi, 1991, p. 27; Baker & Mühlhäusler, 1990, p. 94).11

A highly relevant question regarding pidgin genesis is not only how it happens, but also why it happens. As mentioned above, most language contact situations fail to generate a pidgin. My experience suggests that two factors favoring pidginization are suddenness (i.e., no previous experience to fall back on) and lack of intimacy. A typical example of the former would be explorers crossing an ocean (as opposed to an overland trail which often offers the possibility of chain interpreting), while the latter could be typified by two groups realizing the economic benefits of trade, while mutually distrusting and despising the other. Reinecke (1938, p. 111) fittingly described the use of Chinese Pidgin English as a way of holding the other “at arm’s length.”

12.2 Life of Pidgins: Change Over Time

For some pidgins, the documentation is sizeable enough to enable an assessment of the changes that the language underwent during its service. This is particularly true for the English-lexicon varieties of the Pacific Ocean. Some of the changes can be classified as elaborations, i.e., a drift towards higher stability and an increase in lexical and grammatical resources. Such a development is primarily associated with creolization (but more generally dependent on increased usage and the language assuming more of a communicative burden), which will be subject to discussion below.

Other diachronic developments may include changes in the etymological composition. It is for instance well documented that many German-derived words have been replaced by English counterparts in Tok Pisin, following the Australian take-over of north-eastern New Guinea after the first world war (e.g., Smith, 2002, p. 93). Similarly, it is tempting to see the non-English contribution (underlined) to the Moroccan Pidgin English sentence in (24) as reflecting growing French influence in the area at the time (the glossing and translation are tentative, and the spelling as in the original):

(24)

Pidgin Languages

The historical records also allow us to observe an increased reliance on English lexicon in Australia, where the embryo of what developed into the Australian and Melanesian Pidgin Englishes started out as a “barbarous mixture of English with the Port Jackson dialect [i.e., Dharuk].” Early sentences typically include a mixture of English and Aboriginal material, as in You know me murrey jarrin ‘You know that I'm very afraid’; Baker 1993:35), while later attestations are dominated by English lexicon. This is quite likely a result of the larger mobility of Anglophone users (cf. Baker, 1993; Grant, 1999, p. 3; Amery & Mühlhäusler, 1996, pp. 37, 39; Mühlhäusler, 1996, p. 144).

Apart from the lexicon, shifting circumstances may also have structural repercussions. In Roberts’ (2009, p. 3) corpus, for instance, Pidgin Hawaiian drifted towards SVO word order (the lexifier is VSO) during the second half of the 19th century, presumably reflecting an increased proportion of speakers of Portuguese and Cantonese (and to a lesser extent, English and Japanese). Similar changes that can be related to demographic developments have also been attested for Pidgin Fijian and Nyungar Pidgin English (Siegel, 1992, pp. 290–291; Mühlhäusler & Dineen, 1996, p. 104).

Other developments are less amenable to a straightforward explanation. In Chinese Pidgin English, the item hab gradually shifted from being an equative (and to some extent a predicative) copula and a habeo verb, to serve mostly as a completive marker (Baker & Mühlhäusler, 1990, p. 103).

Another feature of the same language has a more unusual explanation—a shift from aj to maj as the 1sg pronoun is noticeable in the material, and Baker and Mühlhäusler (1990, p. 104) and Ansaldo, Matthews and Smith (2010) invoke phrase books printed in Chinese characters as the most likely source of the innovation. The spread of pidgins through printed material is rare, but not unheard of.

12.3 Death of Pidgins

The most obvious reason for the demise of a pidgin language is the end of contact. When the French were driven out of Vietnam, there was no longer a need for Tay Boi, and the liberation of concentration camp inmates spelt the death of Lagersprache. The political split between China and the Soviet Union made Manchurian Pidgin Russian redundant, and the virtually simultaneous dissolution of France’s African army had the same effect on Français-Tirailleur. Greenlandic Pidgin Eskimo seems to have died out around 1900, when whaling activities ceased in the area (de Reuse, 1996, p. 57). Huttar (1982, p. 1) explains the diminishing trade between the Ndyuka and the Trio (for which Ndyuka-Trio Pidgin was still used at the time of his writing) by the current availability of the trade items in ordinary stores.

In other cases, however, contact is maintained, but another lingua franca is recruited to fill the functions that the pidgin formerly had. In a few instances, this happened to be another pidgin (most notably the replacement of Pidgin Hawaiian by Hawaiian Pidgin English in the 1890s; Roberts, 2004, p. 114), but more often by English (which has engulfed Pidgin Delaware, Herschel Island Pidgin Eskimo, Mobilian, Chinook Jargon, and Plains Indian Sign, among others) or another traditional language. Common factors here include massive demographic changes (as in North America and other settler colonies) and organized schooling.

Slightly less expected, perhaps, is that pidgins can die out not because of a lack of contact, but because of too much of it.

In the Hawaiian islands and in pre-independence South Sudan, the lexifier (English and Arabic, respectively) had such a strong presence that the pidgin began to “depidginize”, i.e., drift in the direction of the lexifier (e.g., Roberts, 2004; Versteegh, 1993), and similar (though perhaps less far-reaching) developments have been mentioned with regards to Kenyan Pidgin Swahili, Hiri Motu, and Sango (Heine, 1991, p. 31; Dutton & Voorhoeve, 1974, p. xi; Samarin, 1988, p. 159; 2000, p. 313).

For the usual socio-economic reasons, the lexifier may provide also an attractive target for language acquisition, and at the end of its career, there was a tendency among Norwegian fishermen not to make Russenorsk more like Russian (or Norwegian), but to actually learn Russian, and use that language instead (Jahr, 1996, p. 108; Lunden, 1978, p. 2; 1996).

13. Creolization

The final (and no doubt most interesting) reason for the death of a pidgin is its development into a creole. Readers familiar with the traditional definition of a creole as a vernacularized and nativized pidgin, should be aware that the current mainstream view in creolistics is that creoles are not by definition derived from pidgins,12 but although it is a rare occurrence, there is no doubt that a few pidgins have acquired native speakers and become household and community languages.

The best example is probably Tok Pisin (along with its sisters Solomons Pijin, Bislama, Broken, and Australian Kriol), which began developing in Australia shortly after the arrival of Europeans there, and which have since nativized independently in several different locations in Australia and Melanesia (Baker, 1993; Mühlhäusler, Dutton, & Romaine, 2003).

Descendants of an Arabic-lexicon variety known as Bimbaši Arabic (Prokosch, 1986, p. 73) are, just like Tok Pisin, still spoken both natively and non-natively (in Southern Sudan), and its Ugandan offshoot Kinubi is also documented both before and after nativization (Kaye & Tosco, 1993; Prokosch, 1986; Tosco & Owens, 1993; Heine, 1982; Luffin, 2005; Wellens, 2005).

A third case is that of Chinook Jargon in Oregon, where the vernacularized version spoken on the Grand Ronde reservation has been documented by Zenk (1984, 1988), Grant (1995, 1996), and Chinuk Wawa Dictionary Project (2012).

Hawaiian Pidgin English (still known under that name even after creolization) nativized in the first decade of the 20th century, and the process has been studied in great detail by Roberts (2004).

In the Central African Republic, the Ngbandi-lexified Sango is spoken by virtually the entire population, and it has had (an ever-growing number of) native speakers since about the second world war. Both the language and its development has been meticulously documented in a large number of publications by William Samarin, including one of the best reference grammars of a contact language ever written (Samarin, 1967).

To this list, one might want to add Nicaraguan Sign (e.g., Kegl, Senghas, & Coppola, 1999), and more sporadic reports of nativization or vernacularization of Plains Indian Sign (Clark, 1885, p. 144; Davis, 2005, pp. 187, 195, 208; 2010, p. 6; McKay-Cody, 1996, pp. 23, 24; Taylor, 1996, p. 1243), Primorye Pidgin Russian (Belikov, 1996, p. 1027), Samoan Pidgin English (Mühlhäusler & Baker, 1996, p. 515), Mobilian Jargon (Drechsel, n.d., pp. 158), Fanakalo (Mutsila, 2003, p. 70), Manchurian Pidgin Russian (Bakich, 2011, p. 29), and Hiri Motu (Dutton, 1996, p. 13; Swan & Lewis, 1987; Kituai, 1998, p. 299).13

Nativization of pidgins received a good deal of attention within creolistics in the 1980s, mainly in the wake of Derek Bickerton’s (1981, 1984) work. His claim was that creoles to a great extent reflect the preferences of the innate language faculty, since children with an inadequate input would have been forced to expand and elaborate on the deficient pidgin input, in order to produce a full-fledged language. While the idea is fascinating indeed, and while it contributed a lot to the raison d’être of creolistics at the time, it has few adherents today. Yet, the fact remains that vernacularization (not necessarily by children) and nativization do seem to bring about far-reaching changes in the pidgin/budding creole. Most would probably agree that these are not different in kind from lexicalization and grammaticalization processes taking place in any language, but they do seem to be characterized by their pace and their number (plenty of such processes going on at the same time), and also their resulting in an increased redundancy (and possibly expressive potential).

Good (2008) illustrates graphically the entire development cycle, by means of a cloud, a square, and a box. These shapes would represent the inherently fuzzy and only partly structured nature of the jargon, the more norm-governed (but still lacking in elaboration) pidgin, and finally, the full-fledged (and therefore three-dimensional) language—the creole. A possible improvement of his illustration might be to also include differing sizes (from small to large) of the three geometrical objects.

Pidgin LanguagesClick to view larger

Figure 1. Jeff Good’s ingenious illustration (redrawn by the present author) of the jargon-to-creole development.

14. Theoretical Issues and Points of Controversy

The number of pidginists in the world, in the sense of people with an active research interest in pidgins (in my conservative use of the term) in general, probably amounts to a handful. It is, in other words, a matter of definition whether such a subdiscipline of linguistics at all exists (in stark contrast to creolistics, which has attracted a considerable number of linguists). As one of the few people laying claim to the title “pidginist,” I do of course think that the research area is more than worthy of investigation. But how should we explain to others why pidgins are interesting?

My suggested research agenda includes, among others, the following questions:

  • How similar is pidginization to Second Language Acquisition (SLA)? Do speakers of the lexifier only provide the input, which is then altered and reinterpreted by others? What role does “foreigner talk” play?

  • Is the choice of a lexifier intimately connected to concepts such as “power” and “prestige”?

  • To what extent does a pidgin draw on existing languages, and to what extent does the process “follow its own logic”? Do the similarities (if any) between the input languages play an important role?

  • Why do certain cases of language contact result in pidginization, whereas others do not?

There exist tentative answers to these questions, provided on the one hand by me and the few other “pidginists” that there are, and on the other hand by contact linguists in general. Members of the latter group, who do not always agree with us, do of course represent a much larger group of people. On the other hand, however, I would argue that I, and the few who agree with me, have looked closer at pidgins than anybody else. In any case, the reader should be aware that the answers from both camps must be regarded as tentative, and that there exist few agreed-upon points.

The following represents a consciously and highly simplified summary of the various stances, which the reader should take with a grain of salt:

Standard answer

My proposed answer

How similar is pidginization to Second Language Acquisition (SLA)?

Pidginization is essentially a case of SLA.

Not necessarily – SLA involves a target language, i.e., something that a learner tries to acquire. In pidginization, on the other hand, “there is no target language, but only a target audience.”14 In other words, achieving communication, by whatever means available, overrides any desire to achieve eloquence in any specific, pre-existing language. The lexica of pidgins are of course typically derived from the lexifier, but the number of structural features transferred from the lexifier (or other input languages) are more limited than many others would have it.

Do speakers of the lexifier only provide the input, which is then altered and reinterpreted by others? What role does “foreigner talk” play?

They are for the most part passive emitters – this follows from the axiom that pidginization is a kind of SLA. The role of foreigner talk is rarely denied, but also rarely discussed.

In a pidginogene setting, everyone typically has an interest in communication, including speakers of the lexifier. Speakers of the lexifier too would have more of an interest in establishing successful communication than they would have been in teaching past subjunctives to alloglots.

Is the choice of a lexifier intimately connected to concepts such as “power” and “prestige”?

Yes, this again follows from the axiom that pidginization is a kind of SLA.

Not obviously—while I would not deny the role of these factors entirely, the reasoning is circular more often than not (“X became the lexifier, because its speakers were more powerful, and the main proof of this is that X became the lexifier”). Also, European colonizers (“powerful” in the reasonably objective sense that they subjugated various indigenous populations) sometimes introduced European-lexicon pidgins, but in other cases used (contributed in creating?) and spread pidgins lexified by indigenous languages.

To what extent does a pidgin draw on existing languages, and to what extent does the process “follow its own logic”?

It is mostly based on existing language patterns, though influenced by general processes associated with SLA.

There are numerous cases where both the lexifier and the main substrates have included a certain feature, but where this is nevertheless lacking from the pidgin.

Do the similarities (if any) between the input languages play an important role?

Yes.

Yes, but with reservations. Mutual intelligibility may lead to a streamlined (McWhorter, 1999) contact language and may also determine whether a pidgin forms in the first place (if people understand each other in the first place, there would be little incentive to create an entirely new language). And again, even when all input languages shared a given feature, this is often lost in the pidgin.

Why do certain cases of language contact result in pidginization, whereas others do not?

For demographic and social reasons, the second language learners have inadequate access to the target language.

Suddenness and social barriers.

Again, the above is highly simplified, and I cannot obviously claim to be impartial in providing this summary. Rather, readers are encouraged to examine the literature for themselves in order to make up their own minds.15

Further Reading

As mentioned in the main text, there are very few comparative studies of pidgins. Bakker (2003, 2009), Heine (1973), Juvonen (2016), Parkvall and Bakker (2013), Parkvall (in press), and Roberts and Bresnan (2008) are among the few that there are (and still, most of these concentrate on a limited number of pidgins and/or one or a few specific linguistic features). There exist several descriptions of individual pidgins, though they are usually short and of highly varying quality. Among the finest examples are Davis (2010), Kaye and Tosco (1993), Robertson (2011), and Samarin (1967), but there are many more worth consulting. Baker (1993) is a good example of the historical development of a pidgin.

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Notes:

(1.) There are a few specific languages typically referred to as pidgins, which I am hesitant to include under this umbrella. First and foremost, this applies to the moderately simplified varieties which McWhorter (1999) calls “semi-pidgin”. A few others can be excluded on historical grounds, e.g., the “Pidgin” Englishes of West Africa, which are more than anything else offshoots of New World Creoles. The reader should be aware, however, that a perfectly digital definition cannot even be hoped for, since concepts such as “complexity” and “reduction” (and even “lingua franca”) are continuous.

(2.) Here and in the following, I have made an effort to produce the examples in (approximate) IPA, unless otherwise noted.

(3.) There are a few minor exceptions—example 22a below shows one such.

(4.) There is a tendency for ja to appear with past dynamic verbs, which may or may not be part of its functions. It is also not even clear whether ja and jãna represent two allomorphs of the same morpheme. In examples used below, it will simply be glossed with a question mark.

(5.) One should not be fooled by appearances—in the etymologizing spelling typically used in the sources for Français-Tirailleur, examples such as un peu ‘a little’, la nuit ‘night’ and la poitrine ‘chest’ are frequent, and look like they include a French article. Etymologically, they do, of course, but a closer examination of the material suggests that they are synchronically monomorphemic.

(6.) The Yokohamese material hardly contains any demonstratives in the first place, so nothing can be said about it with regard to this feature.

(7.) With the reservation that there is no pronominal reference to females in the Yokohamese data.

(8.) Manessy (1984), Corne (1999), and Wilson (1999) contain discussions on the status of this marker.

(9.) Unless the pidgin is at a more advanced stage in its development, in which case new copulas may develop along lines familiar from traditional languages, such as from verbs meaning, e.g., ‘to live’ or ‘to sit’. But even when such a development leads to a non-zero form, this forms non-cognacy with the lexifier counterpart suggests an earlier copula-less stage.

(16.) Dictated by the grammar, that is. Speakers may of course exploit certain pragmatic factors for stylistic effect.

(10.) Light verb constructions are extremely conspicuous in Chinook Jargon, but (to my own surprise, admittedly) not particularly common in pidgins in general.

(11.) It is useful here to draw a parallel between the Chinese situation and that found in Australia, where the British became sedentary from the very beginning and could be in touch with Aborigines on a daily basis. And just as one would expect, the pidgin English in New South Wales developed at a far higher pace than its counterpart in China (Baker, 1993, p. 35).

(12.) I personally think there are excellent reasons to maintain the traditional view, but that discussion is outside the scope of this overview. The foundations of this belief of mine are set out in Parkvall and Goyette (forthcoming).

(13.) We could further add a number of languages which are too mesolectal to be considered pidgins by me, but which are often seen as such by others, and which have likewise acquired native speakers. These would include, among others, Shaba Swahili, Lingala, Kituba, and Nagamese.

(14.) I am indebted to Annette Nielsen for this formulation.

(15.) Many of my own arguments have, unfortunately, not been made (in detail) in print, but readers are more than welcome to contact me to get electronic copies of my work-in-progress files, which also include some details and references regarding the positions I am arguing against.