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Do you know Pidgin languages?

Published on 04/12/2023

With colonization and migration, people of different nationalities and languages had to work together. However, due to language barriers, communication was often difficult.

This is why many social groups worldwide have created Pidgin languages - simplified codes enabling basic communication for work and survival.

What are Pidgin languages?

Pidgin languages result from interactions between people who don’t share a common language but need to communicate somehow.

Typically, they blend lexical, phonetic and morphological features of one language with the lexical structures of another. Pidgin is unstable and can evolve and persist among users over time.

It’s not a single, fixed language. Pidgins involve mixes of English, Spanish, Italian, German or Portuguese. Depending on speakers, context, culture, nation, and language, they are constantly evolving.

History of Pidgin languages

The term “pidgin” has uncertain origins, but many believe it's a Chinese variation or distortion of the word "business”. The term dates back to the 17th century when Chinese traders encountered English speakers. As the code emerged for business purposes, it became known as pidgin.

Over time, any mixture of languages began to be called pidgin. More than a language, it could be considered a method for creating communication.

Tracing back through history, pidgin has been used for a long time, just not by that name. With the discovery of the New World and colonization, communication between different peoples became necessary.

In contexts of social differences, Pidgin languages have always been present. With mineral exploitation, slavery, trade or trafficking of goods.

Pidgin languages today and their lasting presence

Pidgin languages may seem like a resource from centuries ago, but the truth is that today they are still used in African countries and beyond.

Although Pidgin languages are no one's mother tongue, unlike Spanish, English or Portuguese, they became deeply rooted in generations and eventually became many people's native language.

It’s unclear how many people speak Pidgin today, but in Nigeria, around 5 million people are estimated to be proficient. It is not the official language, but it’s used casually among family, friends, and daily life.

Pidgin speakers don’t need translation agencies to communicate internationally, as the official language of Nigeria is English and therefore they must be fluent in English. However, for convenience, they use pidgin, just like in parts of China, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and other countries worldwide.

Importance of these languages

In the past, Pidgin languages facilitated trade relations and master-slave interactions. They served as provisional contact for survival. Thanks to these languages, exchange operations were carried out and certain conflicts were avoided.

Nowadays, these languages have become many people’s mother tongues, evolving from pidgin to creole, which speaks volumes about the identity and unity among communities.

But the use of pidgin doesn't end there. Translation agencies and companies comment that Pidgin languages are fluid, constantly changing, and highly expressive, which helps, if the right word for something is not found, to generate an onomatopoeia that will help to make an idea or thing understood, making it easier to translate into more common languages like English, Spanish, German, Italian or Portuguese.

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Virginia Pacheco's picture
Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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