Pidgins and Creoles


A pidgin is a sort of proto-language that is invented by adults who are native speakers of different languages in order to communicate between themselves. It has historically happened mostly in colonial situations. The grammatical “form” of the language is different for different speakers, and seems to be based mostly on the grammatical form of the native language of the individual speaker. The lexicon of the language consists of loan-words from the various languages in the society.


The lexicon of a pidgin is primarily comprised of words borrowed from the dominant natural language (usually the language of the colonialists: English in Hawaii). Loan words are taken from many of the contact languages (in Hawaii, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, the Philipino languages, etc.). The sentence forms in pidgin are borrowed not from the dominant language, but from the native language of the pidgin speaker. A Korean speaker who learns pidgin will use Korean word order, a Hawaiian speaker will use Hawaiian word order, etc. Pidgin has no syntax (word order rules) of its own.


NOTE: Because pidgins are learned by adults (by definition), all of the learners have already acquired a native language of their own. (Also note the acquired/learned distinction explained by Fromkin and others: pidgins are learned, creoles are acquired.)


A creole language is a new language that develops when the children of pidgin speakers acquire a language based on their parents’ pidgin and that being spoken around them (by the children of other pidgin speakers). The creole has a standardized grammar, which seems to have been invented entirely by the first generation of children who learned “pidgin” as native speakers. This is now a real language, and it has regular grammatical rules. All of the creole speakers use the same grammatical rules, and they are not tracable to the grammars of any of the native languages spoken by their parents (pidgin speakers). (Some kind of compromise must be worked out among the children from various localities of course, because different versions of creole grammar can spring up in different places.)


It appears that the difference between pidgins and creoles comes down to the fact that creoles are learned by the Generalized Learning Devices of the parents, and creoles are acquired by the LADs of their children.


Some clips from “Creole Languages” by Derek Bickerton (Scientific American, July 1983).


Comparisons between Hawaiian Pidgin and Hawaiian Creole English sentences.


Comparisons between Hawaiian Creole English and standard English sentences, showing that Creole is not based on English grammar.


Comparisons between children’s sentences and English Creole sentences from various Creoles, showing the similarities of Creoles to natural grammars assumed by children while learning non-Creole languages.


Another example from Bickerton of and exchange between a four year old boy acquiring English and his mother:



… the boy complained “Nobody don’t like me,” and the boy’s mother responded by correcting the sentence: “Nobody likes me.” The boy then repeated his sentence and the mother repeated her correction no fewer than eight times. Finally, the child altered his sentence and shouted in exasperation, “Nobody don’t likes me.”