choose a language or topic »|Monday, November 30, 2015
You are here: Home » Editors Picks » Pidgin Languages
  • Follow Us!

Pidgin Languages 


Pidgins are “on-the-spot” languages that develop when people with no common language come into contact with each other. Nobody speaks a pidgin as their first language. Usually a pidgin language is a blend of the vocabulary of one major language with the grammar of one or more other languages. The major languages are usually the languages of the former major colonial powers, such as EnglishFrench, and Portuguese. For example, the establishment of plantation economies in the Caribbean, with large groups of slaves from different language backgrounds who came from West Africa, gave rise to a number of pidgins based on EnglishFrenchSpanishDutch, and Portuguese. However, there are also pidgins spoken in parts of Africa, South America, and southeast Asia that are based on languages other than those of the colonial powers. A good example of a non-European pidgin is the Chinook Jargon that was once used by American Indians and European traders in the Pacific mapNorthwest.

The term pidgin has nothing to do with birds. The word, first attested in print in 1850, is thought to be the Chinese mispronunciation of the English word business. There are other theories about the origin of the term.

Because of their limited function, pidgin languages usually do not last very long, rarely more than several decades. They disappear when the reason for communication diminishes, as communities either move apart, one community learns the language of the other, or both communities learn a common language (usually the official language of the country). For instance, Pidgin Russian spoken in Manchuria disappeared when Russian settlers left China after World War II. The same is true of Pidgin French which disappeared from Vietnam after the French left the country. However, this is not always the case. Chinese Pidgin English (Chinglish), developed in the 17th century in Canton (Guandong), China,and survived for almost three centuries. Its use spread from master-servant relationships to those between English and Chinese traders and bureaucrats. It continued in use until about the end of the 19th century, when the Chinese started to switch to standard English.

Ethnologue lists 18 pidgins used around the world. Four of them are extinct and many are in the process of disappearing. There are no estimates of number of speakers for many of them.

under 100
no estimate
1.5 million 2nd-language speakers
no estimate
Barikanchi no estimate Nigeria
Iha-based Pidgin no estimate Indonesia
Broome Pearling Lugger Pidgin under 50 Australia
Maskoy Pidgin no estimate Paraguay
Motu, Hiri 120,000 2nd-language speakers Papua New Guinea
Onin-based Pidgin no estimate Indonesia
Settla no estimate Zambia
Fanagalo several hundred thousand 2nd-language speakers South Africa
Ndyuka-Trio Pidgin no estimate Suriname

If a pidgin survives, and the next generation of speakers learns it as their first language or if it becomes a stable lingua franca, it becomes a creole.



Sound system
Most pidgins have relatively simple sound systems characterized by five vowels (/i/, /e/, /a/, /u/, /o/) and no consonant clusters.

Pidgins usually have smaller vocabularies, a simpler structure, and more limited functions than natural languages. Some typical features include of pidgin languages are as follows:

  • Subject-Verb-Object word order
  • absence of grammatical markers for gender, number, case, tense, aspect, mood, etc.
  • Tenses are expressed lexically, i.e., by using temporal adverbs such as tomorrowyesterday, etc.
  • Grammatical relations are usually expressed through simple juxtaposition.
  • Use of reduplication to represent plurals and superlatives, e.g., Hawai’ian Pidgin wiki-wiki ‘very quick’.

Since vocabulary is restricted, words in a pidgin language have a wide range of meanings. For instance, in the Chinook Jargon, the word klahawaya meant ‘How are you?’, ‘Good day,’ or ‘Good bye’.


Pidgin languages are used exclusively for oral communication. Only after they develop into creoles, does the need for a writing system arise.


Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Pidgin languages?
There is no data on the difficulty of Pidgin languages for speakers of English.

26 Responses to Pidgin Languages

  1. Robert

    Hi there,

    This website came in great use recently as I needed to write a 5 page essay for my German linguistics class about Pidgins and Creoles.

    Thanks very much!

    • Irene Thompson

      We are delighted to hear that our page on Pidgins and Creoles was useful. We are hoping to make updates to this page in the near future. Stay tuned!

  2. Miranda Heitmann

    I just used this website for my Human Geography class. It was very useful, thank you!

    • Irene Thompson

      We are glad it was useful.

    • crstina

      Same here :) it is very useful. Tomorrow I’m taking my Exam and now I know I’ll get all answers right on pidgin languages :)

  3. Ling

    Very helpful information. I like the way everything is presented. I used this website to help me understand several terminologies for my Sociolinguistics class. I will definitely send the link to my classmates. Thank you.

  4. Matthew Daniels

    Very usuful website for foreigners entering countries that speak Pidgin as part of the many language spoken in the country (PNG).

    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you. We are glad you find our website useful.

  5. peter Carr

    Have you ever thought that the so called Germanic languages started 2500 years ago as a pidgin between Finnish and Latvian on the island of Gotland. So they should be called Southern Scandinavian, not gwermanic.

    • Irene Thompson

      Can you direct us to sources that support your comment? Thank you.

    • Xavier

      If they started that way, it’d be very easy to trace the Germanic family’s roots to the Ugric family and Latvian’s features.
      But the Germanic languages still have an extremely large degree of distinctly Indo-European roots, and their evolution can be more or less traced to other Indo-European languages, and not to Finnish.

      • Irene Thompson

        You made a very confusing comment. What are you really trying to say?

  6. Arame Mbaye

    I really needed information like this for my research paper. It was very helpful.

  7. M Bilal Khan

    Vry beneficial in my sicolinguistics………..thanx

  8. Serge Ngouffo

    hi there…
    i am currently working on a documentary film on the use of Pidgin English by Poets and Musicians and this website hasn’t been a waste of time. Thanks

    • Irene Thompson

      Glad the website was useful in your work. Good luck.

  9. Ismail

    thank you

  10. Pingback: Pidgins and creoles | Tips Mobil

  11. Alex

    Your map makes no sense. It shows former colonies instead of pidgins. For example, there is no Dutch pidgin in Indonesia, but there is a Dutch pidgin in South Africa, namely, Afrikaans.

    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for pointing this out. We will try to find a more representative map.

  12. nisa

    Seeing d characterbof pidgin can it seems that bahasa indonesia was a pidgin that developed into wondering frm what dominant/native languAge does bahasa indonesia come from?

    • Irene Thompson

      A short description of the history of Bahasa Indonesia can be found at It should answer your question about the history of the language.


Add a Comment