"Do de rite ting": World Englishes

(©Daniel W. Mosser)

Pidgins & Creoles

Elsewhere in this module I discuss the hypothesis that Black English developed through the processes of pidginization and creolization.

Pidgins were long regarded as corrupted versions of a more "legitimate" language (e.g., English, Portuguese). Many still regard pidgins and creoles as "parasitic" language systems. Now that the processes that produce pidginization and creolization are better understood, the stigma that was often attached to them has lessened. The graphic at the top of this page illustrates that, in Jamaica, creole has become accepted enough to be used in commerical advertizing. There is even a movement to establish creole as the national language. The international popularity of Bob Marley and other reggae bands and songwriters has also helped to boost the status of Jamaican Creole.

One creolist, Derek Bickerton, believes that creoles hold the key to understanding how human languages originally evolved many centuries ago.

Pidgins operate with a highly-reduced repertoire of language tools; a creole, functioning as the first language of a group of speakers, necessarily expands this repertoire. The term pidgin does not have a precise etymology, but at least five possibilities have been proposed:

  1. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it is a Chinese "corruption" of the English word business.
  2. Others have proposed that it is a Chinese corruption of the Portuguese occupação (also meaning "business").
  3. Yet another proposal is that it derives from the Hebrew pidjom, meaning "exchange, trade."
  4. Or, it could be from a Yago (Latin American Indian language) word pidian, meaning "people."
  5. Finally, there is the hypothesis that it derives from two Chinese characters, pei+ts'in, which collectively mean "paying money."

Most of these suggested etymologies illustrate the circumstances under which such languages are constituted: conditions of economic exploitation.

David DeCamp defines a pidgin language as "a contact vernacular, normally not the native language of its speakers...it is characterized by a limited vocabulary, an elimination of many grammatical devices such as number and gender, and a drastic reduction of redundant features" (15; quoted in Romaine 23).

But what is the relationship of pidgins and creoles to the languages from which they derive their vocabulary? Should we regard pidgins and creoles as dialects of those "donor" language? Or are they languages in their own right?

One problem in coming to terms with these questions is that while the vocabulary may derive from the word-stock of the prestige language of the dominant group, its grammar retains many features of the native languages of the subordinate groups.

Any language which is closely related to another in a portion of its vocabulary or structure could, when looked at from the perpective of the other language, be said to be a debased, corrrupt or ridiculous version of the other language.

Serious misunderstandings can arise from the assumption that words which look like English words also share the same meaning.

Characteristics of Pidgins

There are few, if any, stylistic options. Emphasis on referential or communicative rather than the expressive function of language. DeCamp believes that any two languages in contact can result in "interlingual improvization," but that more than two languages in contact are required for a true pidgin (22; quoted in Romaine 24).

There are somewhere between 100 and 200 pidgins and creoles in the world. This, of course, depends on one's definition: for instance, one could add Middle English to the list, or possibly sign languages. Another difficulty is that speakers are usually at the bottom of the social scale and are regarded by those in charge of statistics as speaking a corrupt version of the "standard or official" language of the country." Also, the speakers may themselves claim to be speaking English or Portuguese, or whatever. Should Afrikaans, for instance, be regarded as a Dutch-based creole?

Tok Pisin English

In Tok Pisin (a New Guinean pidgin), there is only one pronoun, em, to refer to maculine, feminine, neuter, singular or plural subjects or objects. Because of the characteristic lexical impoverishment, Tok Pisin extends the range of reference for its basic wordstock through metaphoric extension, as illustrated in the following table (from Romaine 35):

Tok Pisin

English gloss





gras bilong fes


gras bilong hed


gras bilong pisin


gras antap long ai


gras nogut




han bilong diwai

branch of a tree

han bilong pisin

wing of a bird

Misconceptions about Tok Pisin

An inexperienced European, attempting Tok Pisin ("Talk Pidgin"), often employs a corrupt form called "Tok Masta." Thus one might utter the following:

Im fellow Matthew e got im three fellow egg.
"Mattew has three eggs"
The "correct form" would be:
Matthew i gat tripela kiau.

The morpheme -pela, generally construed as "fella," is used as a suffix with monosyllabic adjectives, e.g. blakpela pik ("black pig")

The morpheme em [<him] serves as a third person singular pronoun and as an emphasizer when preceding nouns. The suffix -im [<him] marks transitivity and causativity with verbs (e.g., as an adjective bik "large"; causative verb bikim "to make large"). It is not sufficient or grammatical to sprinkle a sentence with -im.

Many Tok Pisin words, especially those referring to aspects of flora and fauna, are not of English origin. The word for egg is kiau.

Preliminary Definitions of Creoles

The term creole derives from the Portuguese word crioulu through English and French. The term originally referred to "a white man of European descent born and raised in a tropical or semitropical colony." Its present meaning encompasses "indigenous natives and others of non-European origin" and has also been extended to signify languages spoken by creole peoples as well as other languages that result from the processes of pidginization and the evolution from a pidgin form into a primary language (Romaine 38).

DeCamp defines a creole as being:

the native language of most of its speakers. Therefore its vocabulary and syntactic devices are, like those of any native language, large enough to meet all the communicative needs of its speakers. (16; quoted in Romaine 38)

The primary difference between a pidgin and a creole lies in terms of the feature referred to as "vitality" (i.e., "the language has a viable community of native speakers"; Romaine 42).

Pidgins, especially early in their development, rely primarily on nouns and verbs. The functions associated with auxilliary verbs and the inflectional markers of tense, aspect, and mood are performed by adverbs (Romaine 47). When the language becomes the first language of a speech community, it must expand its syntactic, morphological, and lexical repertoire to accomplish those purposes required of a language.

As a creole is employed by successive generations, one of the following will occur (quoted from Romaine 157, summarizing DeCamp 349):

  1. A creole may continue without substantial change, as Haitian Creole seems to be doing.
  2. It may become extinct as Negerhollands and Gullah are doing.
  3. It may further evolve into a normal language.
  4. It may gradually merge with the corresponding standard language, as is happening in Jamaica.

The last option in the list above is known as decreolization. Decreolization occurs whenever a creole language is in direct contact with its "superstrate," or primary "donor" language. A characterisitic feature of this process is the emergence of a "linguistic continuum of varieties between the creole language and the standard language that was the main contributor to the creole's formation" (Romaine 158).

Some argue that this is what is happening to Black English in America; alternatively, some, like Labov, see Black English and Standard American English diverging every more sharply.


The children of West Indian immigrants in some of the large cities of England (such as London and Birmingham), who early in life exhibit no evidence of creole linguistic features, have been observed to acquire such features in their teens, as part of the process of identity formation. This process is known as recreolization (Romaine 188). developing new varieties of the language such as London Jamaican.

Pidgin/English Dictionary

Tok Pisin site at the University of New England

Speech Accent Archive at George Mason University

The Inflections of Present-Day Standard English


third person singular, present tense (verbs)


plural (nouns)

-s ('s)

possessive (nouns)


past tense (verbs)


progressive aspect/ present participle (verbs)


perfect aspect/past participle (verbs: in weak verbs, this is realized as -ed)


comparative (adjectives)


superlative (adjectives)

PDE Noun Paradigm

singular (Ø inflection)


plural (-s)


possessive ('s)

PDE Pronoun Paradigm

First Person



Nominative (Subject)






Pronominal Genitive



Adjectival Genitive



Second Person



Nominative (Subject)






Pronominal Genitive



Adjectival Genitive



Third Person





Nominative (Subject)










Pronominal Genitive





Adjectival Genitive





Germanic Personal Pronouns
Old English Personal Pronouns
Middle English Personal Pronouns
Early Modern English Personal Pronouns