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PIDGIN A term used in both a general and a technical sense for a CONTACT LANGUAGE which draws on elements from two or more languages: pidgin Portuguese; a Spanish pidgin.

The general sense

As generally understood, a pidgin is a hybrid ‘makeshift language’ used by and among traders, on plantations (especially with and among slaves of various backgrounds), and between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, especially during the heyday of European expansion (17–20c). Because the word has often been used and discussed pejoratively, it carries such connotations as ‘childish’, ‘corrupt’, ‘lazy’, ‘inferior’, ‘oversimplified’, and ‘simple-minded’. Etymologically, there appears to have been only one pidgin: Pidgin English, also known as Business English, Pidgin-English, pidgin-English, Pigeon English, Pigeon-English, bigeon, pidgeon, pidjin, pidjun. This was a TRADE JARGON used from the 17c onward between the British and Chinese in such ports as Canton. In 1826, B. Hall wrote: ‘I afterwards learned that “pigeon”, in the strange jargon spoken at Canton by way of English, means business’; in 1845, J. R. Peters noted: ‘Pidgeon, is the common Chinese pronunciation of business’ (OED). It should be noted, however, that Chinese (Coastal) Pidgin English or China Coast Pidgin is now a technical term referring to a contact language used between speakers of English and Chinese from the first half of the 18c until the early 1970s.

The technical sense

Sociolinguists in particular use the term to describe a phenomenon whose study has greatly increased since the Second World War. For them, a pidgin is a marginal language which arises to fulfil certain restricted communicative functions among groups with no common language. In sociolinguistic terms, there have been many pidgins and the process known as pidginization is seen as liable to occur anywhere under appropriate conditions. This process of simplification and hybridization involves reduction of linguistic resources and restriction of use to such limited functions as trade. The term is sometimes extended to refer to the early stages of any instance of second-language acquisition when learners acquire a minimal form of the target language often influenced by their own primary language. There is, however, some disagreement among scholars over the number of languages in sufficient contact to produce a pidgin. Some investigators claim that any two languages in contact may result in a degree of linguistic improvisation and compromise, and so lead to pidginization. Such a viewpoint includes in the category of pidgin FOREIGNER TALK and other classes of makeshift and often transitory communication. Other investigators argue that only in cases where more than two languages are in contact do true pidgins spring up. In situations where speakers of more than two languages must converse in a medium native to none of them, the kinds of restructuring are more radical than in other cases and likely to be more durable.

The names given to pidgin languages by linguists refer to their location and their principal lexifier or base language: that is, the language from which they draw most of their vocabulary. Papuan Pidgin English therefore refers to the pidgin that is spoken in what was formerly the Territory of Papua, and that draws most of its vocabulary from English and is therefore an English-based pidgin; HAWAII PIDGIN ENGLISH is the pidgin English spoken in Hawaii. In addition and often prior to such academic names, pidgins may or may not be identified as such and often have specific names, retained by scholars when discussing them, such as Bazaar Hindustani/Hindi, Korean Bamboo English, français petit-nègre. Even after a pidgin develops into a CREOLE, the name may continue to be used, such as Roper Pidgin, also known as Roper River Creole. A language may also have both pidgin and creole varieties, as with TOK PISIN in PAPUA NEW GUINEA.


A pidgin is characterized by a small vocabulary (a few hundred or thousand words) drawn largely from the superstrate language (that is, the language of the socially dominant group), together with a reduction of many grammatical features, such as inflectional morphology, as in Tok Pisin mi kam can mean ‘I come’, ‘I am coming’, ‘I came’, and wanpela haus means ‘house’ while tupela haus means ‘two houses’. One source of grammar is the socially subordinate substrate language(s). Often though not always, where pidgins develop, one group is socially superior and its full language is more or less inaccessible to the other group(s), so that there is little motivation or opportunity to improve performance. Where the needs of communication are minimal and confined to a few basic domains such as work and trade, a casual and deficient version of language can be enough, as has been the case with Kisettla (settlers' language), the pidgin Swahili used between the British and Africans in Kenya. Many pidgin languages arose in the context of contact between European colonizers who enslaved or employed a colonized or transported population on plantations, in ports, in their homes, etc.

A notable feature of pidgins is lack of grammatical complexity; for this reason, they are often referred to at best as simple or simplified languages, at worst as bastardized or broken forms of another language. In popular accounts, simplicity is attributed to lack of grammar, but linguists agree that pidgins have a distinctive grammatical structure. The grammar of a pidgin language is constructed according to a principle which dictates that there should be a close relation between form and meaning. There is a tendency for each MORPHEME (or word element) to occur only once in an utterance, and for it to have only one form. Non-pidgin languages generally have built-in redundancy and require the expression of the same meaning in several places in an utterance: for example, in the English sentences One man comes and Six men come singular and plural are marked in both noun and modifier, and concord is shown in both noun and verb. However, the equivalents in Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea Pidgin English) show no variation in the verb form or the noun: Wanpela man i kam and Sikspela man i kam.

Because they lack redundancy, pidgins depend heavily on context for their interpretation. Most pidgins have little or no inflectional morphology. Where English marks possession by adding 's (as in John's house), Tok Pisin has haus bilong John. Here, bilong has been taken from English, but has shifted its function from verb to preposition, and can be paraphrased as ‘belonging to’. Pidgin languages tend to have only a small number of prepositions and they use them to mark a variety of grammatical relations which in other languages would be expressed by a much greater number of prepositions. Pidgins are highly regular and have fewer exceptions than many other languages, which makes them easier to learn. Another property is multifunctionality: the same word can function in many ways. In English, the word ill functions as an adjective (in He is ill, an ill wind). The corresponding noun is illness, derived by a regular process of word-formation. In Tok Pisin, however, the word sik can function as both noun and adjective: Mi sik I am ill; Em i gat sik malaria He has malaria. Pidgins may compensate for lack of vocabulary by circumlocution: in Tok Pisin, Singsing taim maus i pas to sing with the mouth closed (= to hum). Where English has branch. Tok Pisin, has han bilong diwai hand of a tree.

In analysing the syntactic elements of pidgins, it is often impossible to separate the influence of substrate from superstrate language: as in the case of Tok Pisin, the influence of local languages from that of English. In Tok Pisin, the particle i is a socalled predicate marker, occurring in such sentences as Ol man i kisim bigpela supia (The men—predicate marker—got big spears). It is plausible to derive this marker from the use of resumptive pronouns in non-standard English, such as he as in John, he got a new car, as well as from similar syntactic patterns in Austronesian languages. Such a use of pronouns as predicate markers is widespread across pidgins, occurring in some of the French-based Indian Ocean creoles as well as in Chinook Jargon.


Pidgins can be classified into four types according to their development: JARGON, stable pidgin, extended or expanded pidgin, and creole, each characterized by a gradual increase in complexity. (1) Jargon. In this stage, there is great individual variation, a very simple sound system, one- or two-word utterances, and a very small lexicon. Jargons are used for communicating in limited situations: trade jargons generally, and Chinook Jargon, a trade language spoken along the north-west Pacific coast of North America from the 18c. (2) Stable pidgin. This is more regular and more complex and there are social norms regarding its use, was with Russenorsk, a trade pidgin used in northern Norway by Russian merchants and Norwegian fishermen over some 130 years (1785–1917). Because the language was used for seasonal trade, it did not expand much structuarally and had a core vocabulary of c.150–200 words. (3) Extended or expanded pidgin. Other pidgins, such as Tok Pisin, not only stabilized but expanded to become more grammatically complex, and to serve as well-established lingua francas, sometimes with official or other status. (4) Creole. At this stage, the pidgin is creolized: that is, it is acquired as a first language by children, particularly in urban areas. This is the stage of, for example, Tik Pisin in Papua New Guinea and KRIOL (also known as Roper River Creole) in the Northern Territories of Australia. It is generally impossible to identify structural features which distinguish expanded pidgins from emerging creoles, since both exhibit increased structural complexity and share many features. The difference lies more in social use than in form.

Theories of origin

Various theories have been proposed to account for the origin of pidgin languages, and fall into three broad types: monogenetic, polygenetic, and universalist.


This theory asserts a common origin for all European-based pidgins. Some monogenetic theorists claim that they all descend from a nautical jargon used for communication among sailors from different backgrounds. Others have argued that they descend from a 15c Portuguese pidgin which could in its turn have been a relic of Sabir, the LINGUA FRANCA of the Crusaders and a Mediterranean trading language. It is claimed that this language was relexified (that is, renewed with vocabulary from different sources) as it came into contact with such other European languages as English and Dutch. Both the nautical-jargon and Sabir theories take as supporting evidence the fact that many pidgins share common words like save (to know; compare English savvy) and pikinini (child: compare English piccaninny). Both words are of Spanish/Portuguese origin, from saber/sabir (to know) and pequeño (small), and are widely used in English-based pidgins and creoles in the Caribbean and Pacific. Such words could either have been directly inherited locally or transmitted from one location to another by sailors, who undoubtedly account for some of the lexical sharing across unrelated pidgins, although their role in the formation of stable pidgins was probably not great. However, it is difficult to account for the many differences among pidgins by appealing entirely to relexification, and neither approach explains the origin of the many non-European-based pidgin languages.


This theory stresses distinctness and appeals to the influence of substrate languages, such as the influence of African languages in the formation of the Atlantic pidgins. According to one view, pidgins arise out of the imperfect learning of a model language by slaves or as a result of deliberate simplification, for example by Europeans in a master/slave relationship. There is evidence that the Portuguese taught a simplified version of their language to those they traded with along the west coast of Africa.


This view argues for the universal nature of the social and psychological factors which occur in language contact. The baby-talk theory is based on the idea that certain systems of communication emerge in response to particular social and historical circumstances. There is evidence for this hypothesis in the fact that BABY TALK, foreigner talk, and pidgins show certain similarities of structure. Baby talk expressions such as Daddy go bye-bye are similar to the reduced versions of language used to address foreigners.

There is no doubt that the native languages of colonized, enslaved, and transplanted populations provided important input to pidgins, but there are also many features which can be explained only by reference to the superstrate languages of the colonizers, enslaves, and transplanters. At present, therefore, no single theory can adequately explain the origin of pidgin language.


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pidg·in / ˈpijən/ • n. [often as adj.] a grammatically simplified form of a language, used for communication between people not sharing a common language. Pidgins have a limited vocabulary, some elements of which are taken from local languages, and are not native languages, but arise out of language contact between speakers of other languages. Compare with creole, sense 2. ∎  (Pidgin) another term for Tok Pisin. ORIGIN: late 19th cent.: Chinese alteration of English business.

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pidgin •Aladdin • stand-in •Dunedin, lead-in •Blondin, Girondin •Odin •paladin, Saladin •Borodin • Baffin • elfin •biffin, griffin, tiffin •boffin, coffin •dolphin • endorphin • bowfin •yellowfin •muffin, puffin •ragamuffin • paraffin • perfin •bargain • Begin • Kosygin •hoggin, noggin •imagine • margin • engine •pidgin, pigeon, smidgen, wigeon •stool pigeon • wood pigeon • origin •Pugin • virgin

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pidgin Simplified form of a language, differing from other lingua francas by comprising a very limited vocabulary and being used for communication between people who do not speak the same language. Most pidgins in use today are based on English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese, with a certain number of native words and structures added. The Pidgin English of Papua New Guinea (Tok Pisin) is an official national language.

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pidgin a grammatically simplified form of a language, typically English, Dutch, or Portuguese, with a limited vocabulary, some elements of which are taken from local languages, used for communication between people not sharing a common language. Pidgins are not normally found as native languages, but arise out of language contact between speakers of other languages. The word comes from a late 19th-century Chinese simplification of English business.

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pidgin, pigeon2 in P. English, commercial jargon used esp. in the Far East. XIX. Chinese corruption of BUSINESS.