Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Esther from Platte Lake, Michigan, asked about Pidgin English. I covered this a little over two years ago, so a rerun may be useful.

A common misspelling today is Pigeon English, which would imply that its speakers, instead of relying on hand gestures, bob their heads vigorously. (To be fair, in the early days of its use, pidgin and pigeon were interchangeable.)

The word pidgin seems to have had its origin in the inability of 19th century Chinese to articulate the word business. It came out as bigeon or bidgin, and since it is a short step from B to P, it finally flattened out as pidgin.

A pidgin language develops when two groups who speak different languages try to communicate by adapting elements of each other’s language. Generally, the result is simple, almost childlike, with an emphasis on readily understandable vocabulary instead of sophisticated grammatical elements. A pidgin is a second language for all parties involved. Ironically, it developed most naturally when two groups engaged in trade. In other words, they were taking care of bidgness.

We come across Pidgin English in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. For example, at one point Crusoe asks Friday why, if his tribe was justifiably famous for its warriors, Friday had been captured. Friday explains, “They more many than my nation, in the place where me was; they take one, two, three, and me: my nation over-beat them in the yonder place, where me no was; there my nation take one, two, great thousand.”

And in 1782, in Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, our own Benjamin Franklin recorded this snippet of a more advanced Pidgin English: “Boccarorra [a form of buckra, ‘white man’] make de Black Man workee, make de horse workee, make de Ox workee, make ebery thing workee; only de Hog. He, de Hog, no workee; he eat, he drink, he walk about, he go to sleep when he please, he libb like a gentleman.” J. L. Dillard, Black English, (Vintage Books 1973), p.89.

Finally, if a Pidgin language perdures and becomes a permanent fixture, it can evolve into Creole. At that point, after several generations of use, it becomes the primary language of a community.

SIDEBAR: Robinson Crusoe

SIDEBAR: Pidgin & Creole

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