PIDGIN: any simplified or broken form of a language, especially when used for communication between speakers of different languages.


You may have heard about Pidgin English, but you may not realize that there are any number of “mixed” languages which fall under the category known as Pidgin.  The definition of the word Pidgin which is given by  lays it out as well as anyone:

[Pidgin is]an auxiliary language that has come into existence through the attempts by the speakers of two different languages to communicate and that is primarily a simplified form of one of the languages, with a reduced vocabulary and grammatical structure and considerable variation in pronunciation.”

What the editors are saying is that:

  1. Pidgin is an auxiliary language.… That is to say, it is a language that is a supplement to the native or adopted language of a people.   In many cases, the primary language may be English, and all the official documents and procedures are done in English.  But the pidgin language is the commonly-used language of the people.
  2. It is a combination of two (or more) languages….  As in the case of Creole, there are traces of English, French, Spanish languages in the mix.
  3. Pidgin is a simplified form of one of the base languages….  While there are elements of two or more languages incorporated, one of them is the basic language, and may be able to be understood by speakers of that language at a very simple level.
  4. Pidgin is easy to learn, as it has a simplified system of vocabulary and structure.  Little children, learning to communicate at an early age, are able to pick up the Pidgin language easily and it may become the primary language for them.   However, family members and schools will attempt to teach them the primary language of the region or country in order to be able to participate fully in the mainstream of the people.
  5. Because of the simplicity of the structure of the Pidgin language, there are many variations within a culture, based upon local traditions and practices.  Therefore, in some places it may be more accurate to speak of Pidgin languages, rather than Pidgin language. 

One of the more interesting examples of Pidgin language I have experienced is that of the  Gullah community off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.   Their language, a variation on Creole, is rich and colorful, almost defying the definition of simplicity. It has a strong African-American influence.   Their music is flowing and lively; their art is bold and sophisticated; their diet is simple, mostly related to fish, but with unique spicing and flavor.   The Gullah people are proud of their heritage, with their Gullah language being a primary language.   The children learn other forms of Creole, but also learn American English as their form of academic and formal speech.

The word pidgin is traced to the mid-19th century in China, where a simplified form of English began to be spoken by the Chinese people who were experiencing intercourse with European merchants and tourists on a regular basis.   The term pidgin (pigeon) was applied to the language which evolved, as the Chinese character for the word “business” was shaped like a pigeon.


Photo Credit:  J. Tirrell  [It is the logo for the Pidgin company, an Internet chat group.]

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