Pidgins and Creoles: Insights into Language Variation and Change

Julién Godman
11 min readMay 15, 2021


Photo Credit: Heather Suggitt

Herein is an abridged review of the development, contexts and processes of creoles and pidgins, with highlights on a certain pidgin-creole continuum. After providing a grounding into the dynamics and development of pidgins and creoles, I pull insights from them regarding language variation and change and what can be extrapolated from pidgins and creoles in a sociolinguistic perspective. In conclusion, I reflect and offer my own perspective on the what can be observed from pidgins and creoles.

Pidgins and Creoles Development and Context

To understand or find insights in language variation and change through the lens of pidgins and creoles (P/C), it is important to first understand some of the basic broad strokes of how P/Cs are formed — the context(s) and developmental aspects of both. Below I highlight these points to extrapolate aspects of language variation and change insights later. It should be noted that these P/C highlights, and the study of P/Cs at-large, are supplied in brevity and in no way are comprehensive in capturing all the complexity, theories, or variance of P/Cs around the world. There are however some primary or ‘basic’ aspects/definitions to P/Cs that I do touch on below.

Development, Contexts, and Processes

A pidgin is essentially a simplified ‘contact language’ that is created often when two or more languages come in contact and the speakers need to communicate (Mesthrie et al., 2000). Pidgins have often historically been connected to trade (especially the slave trade), as these were the environments where such communication needs have arisen, however, this trade environment is not the sole environment where pidgins arise (Mesthrie et al., 2000). This contact and the creation of a pidgin has a number of constraints associated with it, but Keith Whinnom (1971) argues that the level of mutual unintelligibility plays a key role, as well as the level of urgency to communicate between speakers (Mesthrie et al., 2000). As such, ‘rudimentary’ and a quickly assembled language is formed, a pidgin (Mesthrie et al., 2000). Pidgins assembled from three languages, for example, will pull lexical and grammatical elements from each language, but the actual structure of the pidgin formed will usually not directly resemble any one of the source languages (Wardhaugh, 2010). However, Wardhaugh (2010) imparts the lack of resemblance of pidgins to that of their source languages is in many ways because they are stripped of the features that linguists use to ‘relate’ one language to the next.

To ease the exchange of information between speakers, a pidgin is simplified — often taking more of the lexicon/structure from the dominant language that is in contact (usually when there are just two source languages), and often dropping things like the use of a copula and verb inflection or case marking (Mesthrie et al., 2000). Pidgins often utilize word multifunctionality and polysemy (the use of a word in multiple grammatical scenarios, or that a word holds multiple meanings), e.g. in Tok Pisin the word ‘sik’ can be used as a noun, adjective, intransitive verb, and transitive verb — “mi sik” glossed as ‘I am sick’ or “em I gat bigpela sik” glossed as ‘he has got a terrible disease,’ likewise a word such as “shado” in Tok Pisin, which is a noun, may have multiple definitions such as ‘shadow’ or ‘soul’ or ‘reflection’ (Mesthrie et al., 2000, pg.290). Additionally, pidgins show use of reduplication to increase language productivity; or use compounding such as the Tok Pisin phrase “drai bun” meaning ‘tough/toughness’ or literally ‘dry bone’ (Mesthrie et al., 2000, pg.291). There is also use of circumlocution such as the Tok Pisin phrase “wara bilong skin” meaning ‘sweat’ (literally ‘water of [the] skin’) whereas ‘bilong’ is being treated as a preposition from one noun to another (Mesthrie et al., 2000, pg.290–1).

The simplicity of pidgins means that they often have few suffixes, limited use of gender and other grammatical markers, and usually (but not always) are in a simple present tense, utilizing linguistic or environmental context or temporal adverbs to communicate time, e.g. in Chinese Pidgin English tense can be marked by the use of the adverb ‘before’ — “Before my sellum for ten dollar” meaning ‘I sold it for ten dollars’ (Mesthrie et al., 2000, pg.292).

A creole pulls a number of aspects noted above on pidgins, including the often used SVO word order, but is more socially solidified than a pidgin, with an expanded lexicon, grammatical structures and rules, and pointedly native speakers whereby utilizing it as their primary language, or one they acquired in childhood in a multi-lingual environment (Wardhaugh, 2010).

There is a continuum that comes into play when a pidgin is created. Sometimes a pidgin can evolve or permanently establish itself into a creole (creolization), or sometimes the pidgin may diffuse into the source language, simply adding linguistic elements or lexical items to the source language (Mesthrie et al., 2000). In either case it should be noted that a pidgin is a ‘contact language’ that does not have native speakers, as such it is learned and not acquired (Wardhaugh, 2010). On the other hand, a creole does have native speakers — it is established enough for generations to acquire the language and utilize it in everyday functions (Wardhaugh, 2010). Part of the process of creolization, besides expanding grammar and other linguistic aspects, is the social aspect of nativization.

Nativization is essentially a multi-generational expansion of a pidgin (a learned language) to a creole (an acquired one), from one generation to the next, e.g. Nigerian Pidgin English, in part, demonstrates this process from one generation of learned and rather lexically/grammatically constricted speakers, to the next generation of more fluent and lexically productive speakers (Kouwenberg & Singler, 2010).

To reiterate, both P/Cs have grammar and structure in general — though pidgins have worked to simplify linguistic aspects, and creoles have worked to expand and add complexity — yet, interestingly they both have a history of being ignored by linguists or being dismissed as “marginal languages” (Wardhaugh, 2010, pg.53). These governing rules or linguistic parameters, regardless of what linguists thought decades ago, also demonstrate that P/Cs are not universal in their structure or intelligibility but do share common features, e.g. SVO word order, or a lack of a copula. Additionally, P/Cs that share a source language but are separated by great distances share not just grammatical features or lack thereof but also can have a ‘high degree’ of mutual intelligibility, such as French based creoles found across the globe (Wardhaugh, 2010, pg.68).

To recap, pidgins are essentially quick-fix and simplified languages to allow speakers of different languages to communicate, often for an economic or pressing need to do so. From pidgins we see either the pidgin dissolve and/or work its way back into the lexifier (source language), or we see it further establish and expand itself into a creole (Kouwenberg & Singler, 2008). One other option, though less frequent historically, is that a pidgin may become somewhat in transitory form, called a pidgincreole, which isn’t quite fully emerged into a creole, but likely has native speakers and shows more advanced features than a standard pidgin, such as verb serialization and some grammatical markings, e.g. Pijin in the Soloman Islands utilizes /-em/ to mark transitivity (Kouwenberg & Singler, 2008). From a fully emerged creole, the same process may occur, whereby it can work into the original lexifier, or it can stabilize further and remain a separate language (Kouwenberg & Singler, 2008).

Throughout history, P/Cs have somewhat intertwined themselves with the idea of a lingua franca — essentially a ‘ways and means’ language between communities/speakers of different and/or unintelligible languages (Kouwenberg & Singler, 2008). In Cameroon, for example, the linguistic landscape is quite complex, with varied historical forms of P/Cs, lexifiers like English and French, and recently emerging so-called ‘languages’ like Camfranglais — which does indeed have its own structures like any other language (Kiessling & Mous, 2004), though highly variable urban youth languages that are often used outside of most everyday functions, like this Camfranglais, come with a level of linguistic debate. Whereby at any given point in time in Cameroon, a lingua franca, even in a multilingual society, may be needed for communication, and the lingua franca of choice could be French, the often used Cameroonian Pidgin English, or another variant, depending on the communities in contact and/or social context. The complex multilingual and code-switching social landscape in Cameroon, I believe is a prime example of the P/C continuum past-and-present, and accounting for Camfranglais, maybe future.

Concluding this P/C processes and development section, I’d like to last touch on decreolization and its place on the greater P/C continuum. The post-creole continuum that occurs when a creole essentially is ‘decreolized’ is not as simple as I referred above as ‘absorption.’ In the process of decreolization there is often a level of diversification of creole varieties that occur before they are eventually consumed by the lexifier language (Wardhaugh, 2010). These creole varieties that branch off from one another can be based on geographical separation, separate speech communities or communities of practice, other social stratifications, etc. — all of which allow diversification to occur. Such diversification can refer to a variety of different linguistic aspects (morphology, syntax, phonology, etc.), but essentially during decreolization, diversification also has a level of diffusion of the original form of the creole, whereby allowing for a in contact dominant language and/or lexifier to (re)enter the speech community.

The levels to which creoles branch off from one another are not equal in the aspects changed or their resemblance to one another and their lexifier — in other words as a creole changes and diversifies speakers of one variant of the creole may or may not comprehend speakers of another variant (Wardhaugh, 2010). For example Guyanese English varieties have a slew of different ways of producing the exact same glossed phrase ‘I told him,’ such as “ai tɔold hɪm” or “ai tɛl ɪm” or “mi tɛl am” and more (Wardhaugh, 2010, pg.76). On top of this, some varieties, on a purely social class perspective, may be used more frequently than others depending on the speakers and the context, e.g. some varieties of Guyanese English are usually seen as middle class, while others are viewed as lower class varieties (Wardhaugh, 2010).

Insights into Variation and Change

One major point that I’ve only subtly touched on above is that P/Cs have inherent linguistic variability, just like other languages. As they have grammar, speech communities (natively or not), and various social classes and stratifications — so do they have variance and change over time and place. Working off this, below, I provide a few main insights into language variation and change through the lens of P/Cs.

First, Baptista & Guéron (2007) highlight that the way creoles are grouped is counter to how other languages are studied and grouped, e.g. Romance or Germanic languages. Creoles do not share a sole common ancestor, and yet, are lumped together as ‘creoles,’ of which Baptista & Guéron (2007) argue that their shared historical conditions of the slave trade allowed for contact with “at least two,” if not more, distinct languages, which then created the circumstances and pressing environment to which the pidgin-creole continuum was fostered.

This environment-based construct into the so-called ‘birth’ of P/Cs I think in many ways speaks to the inherent variation and change of languages in general, whereby in a relatively brief period of time a ‘new’ language can be formed through the merging of two or more unrelated languages, based on the needs of the speakers and social contexts — and still portray similar grammatical attributes. This malleability to communicate effectively, and with much lexical variance, from say one lexifier and one substrate (less dominant source language), certainly demonstrates the ability of speech communities to adapt, but also demonstrates a certain universal way in which language change can quickly occur via both a simplification ‘template,’ like pidginization, and a grammatically expanding form of language variation and change via both creolization and decreolization.

Second, we can view aspects of language variation and change through diglossic communities, whereas there are present P/Cs and standard language variants being utilized in constrained sociocultural circumstances. In Haiti, for example, there are speakers of both standard French and a slew of Haitian creoles like ‘French creole,’ ‘smooth creole,’ ‘vulgar creole,’ among others — and each with varied levels of intelligibility between themselves, and each with social constraints of class and superior/inferior notations (with the creoles being seen as inferior to French), and each portraying things like poverty or wealth (Wardhaugh, 2010). Besides these variables, creoles in Haiti, when compared to French, portray a sense of solidarity amongst Haitians (Wardhaugh, 2010) — which is noteworthy because it shows the social and community aspect of identity relating to language variation (and choice of variants), and perhaps shows a level of resistance to change, or in this case to a post-creole continuum to French.

Last, social divisions/stratifications such as class and gender in P/C environments show a level of linguistic variation. Rickford (1987) transcribes and analyzes recordings of speakers in Guyana from the mid-1970’s, of whom represent different sexes, age groups, and social classes. The findings of his work, in short, show linguistic variance between these different groupings, particularly between the two main social classes present — “estate class” and “non-estate class.”

Focusing just on the social classes herein, Rickford’s (1987) work shows variance in Guyanese speakers, in not just linguistic terms but also in variance of social networks — which can be derived from social contexts, e.g. the choice of one variant as the marked, or more proper, or more urban, or the more appropriate option over another variant of the same creole.

This stratification adds to the complexity of both social aspects in play but also linguistic variability in general — whereby identity can drive variation in a speech community, and this variability based on social aspects can (but not necessarily) move a language to change, e.g. decreolization processes, or added lexical items, or optimal diglossic situations like in Haiti. As such, I believe P/Cs are a prime environment to study language variation and change because 1) social stratification is still present, such as gender, class, and age, and 2) because of their fluctuant or rapid development over time — providing interesting vantages for things like comparative apparent-time studies, or further theory development of universal grammar.

Conclusive Statement

In closing, I found this review of pidgins and creoles, in relation to language variation and change to be most insightful and productive. It is clear that pidgins and creoles themselves are highly variable in the way words are constructed/pronounced, to the multiple meanings words may carry, to the grammar and lexical items that are taken from lexifiers and substrates, to the social class and networks they are associated. And the one resounding insight I see from a sociolinguistic perspective, regarding the pidgin-creole continuum, is that language change can be, under the right conditions, both highly accelerated, and/or perpetually unstable.

Copyright © Julien Godman, 2021


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