Pidgin vs Creole: What They Are And How They Differ

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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Pidgin vs Creole: What They Are And How They Differ

There are many different types (and variations) of languages found around the world today.

Among these, you’ll find dialects (e.g. different, geographically-determined ways of speaking a first language, such as Spanish in Spain and Spanish in Mexico, Brazilian and European Portuguese or the many different varieties of Arabic), creoles (a combination of two first languages which has become a new, native tongue for a group of people), and pidgins (an alternative language developed to facilitate communication between speakers of two, different languages).

Below, I’ll clarify the difference between pidgins and creoles, and give some examples.

What’s a pidgin?

A pidgin (also written pijin​) is a simplified language which has been derived from an existing language (or multiple languages) and used to bridge communication between groups of people with different languages.

Historically, most pidgin languages were developed to make trade easier between European and non-European people.

As speakers of vastly different languages began having constant contact with each other along popular trade routes and in busy ports, these groups were forced to devise a way to communicate with each other.

Where interlanguages did not exist (interlanguages are second languages held in common by speakers of different native tongues… a great example of this is Modern Standard Arabic), pidgins sprung up in their place.

Examples of pidgin languages around the world

Chinese Pidgin English

The first language to officially be designated as a pidgin was Chinese Pidgin English (other, older languages were eventually, retroactively labeled as pidgins).

The English first arrived in China in the 17th Century, and international trade was born almost overnight.

Chinese Pidgin English first appeared at a few of the major trade cities and ports. In fact, the word pidgin is believed to a mispronunciation by Cantonese speakers of the English word business, which supports the prevalent explanation that pidgins are primarily trade languages.

If you’re curious about how this happened, here’s an interesting hypothesis I found:

First, “business” was a little difficult (as it had three syllables) for most Chinese people at that time, so they would like to miss the third syllable, only pronounced it like “busin”.

Second, both Mandarin and Cantonese (no matter now and then) did not have the exact /z/ sound, so we would transliterate it into the /tɕ/ sound (aka j in pinyin) – similar situation for Japanese, they say ビ(bi)ジ(ji)ネ(ne)ス(su) for “business” – Unfortunately, the /dʒ/ sound followed the same way because there’s no /dʒ/ in Mandarin and Cantonese either. So, even today, when I hear “the letter /tɕiː/” from a Chinese native speaker, I have to ask whether it’s a G, Z, or even J.

Finally, the Chinese people at that time would pronounce “business” like /ˈbɪtɕɪn/, and then Europeans could not distinguish it from “pigeon” with a similar Chinese accent (the reason for /b/ to /p/ might also be the influence of the “Wade–Giles system”, which transliterated the b sound in pinyin back to “p”. Peking vs. Beijing is a perfect example): as a consequence, “pigeon” and later “pidgin” was used for that pidgin word.

Chinese Pidgin English, however, became extinct by the end of the 19th Century as the Chinese people began to learn how to speak proper, British English.

International sign language

International Sign Language is a good example of a modern pidgin language.

Although most people don’t think of sign language when speaking of languages, it is a primary form of communication between millions of deaf people. International Sign Language is a pidgin variety of many other regional sign languages which is universally understood by most people proficient in sign language regardless of which country they call home.

The World Federation of the Deaf often holds events during which International Sign Language has become a primary form of communication.

It is purposefully less complex than other sign languages and has a much smaller vocabulary or lexicon.

Tok Pisin and Solomon Islands pidgins

Tok Pisin and Solomon Islands Pidgin are also good examples of pidgins currently in use. Technically, Tok Pisin is a creole language, not a pidgin, as it is learned from infancy by much of the native population. And Solomon Islands Pidgin includes elements of a creole called Bislama from the small island of Vanuatu.

However, due to the close proximity, active trade routes, and small populations of the South Pacific Isles, these languages are often hard to distinguish from each other. Some have even argued that all of these languages are in fact dialects of one island language.

Solomon Islands Pidgin, though, meets all of the strictest criteria of pidgin languages.

West African and Jamaican pidgins

West African Pidgin English provides yet another example of pidgin language development along busy trade routes.

Slave merchants from Europe and the Americas once met with African traders along the West Coast of Africa, and over time several pidgins and creoles developed.

Nigerian Pidgin English, Sierra Leone Krio, and even the Jamaican Maroon language (slaves brought to the Americas who spoke West African Pidgins eventually settled in Jamaica) are some of the more influential of these West African pidgins.

The Jamaican Maroon pidgin eventually evolved into what is known today as Jamaican Creole. Many Jamaicans, though, still maintain the old pidgin language which they now call Deep Patois.

These are just a few examples of pidgin languages both historical and still in active use.

What’s a creole and how is it different to a pidgin?

Pidgin languages are often confused with creoles as both involve the combining of two first languages.

The most notable difference between pidgins and creoles is that a creole language must be a native tongue learned as a first language from infancy.

Pidgins, on the other hand, must be learned as a second language and are not considered native tongues by many (if any) people. Some popular languages are often mislabeled as pidgins, such as Hawaiian Pidgin and Yiddish. Neither of these technically qualify as pidgin languages according to linguistic requirements.

One notable creole that I’ve mentioned in the past is Australian Kriol, spoken primarily in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Linguists are also beginning to look at some types of Internet communications as a new type of pidgin language.

Certain images (memes) and words like lulz and pwn3d invoke a common understanding between people who don’t share a first language. It’s entirely possible that we’ll see an Internet pidgin language develop steadily over the next few decades.

I hope that clarified pidgins and creoles. 🙂

Know of any other examples?

Comment below.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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