A Definition of Pidgin

A Pidgin, or contact language, is the name given to any language created, usually spontaneously, out of a mixture of other languages as a means of communication between speakers of different tongues. Pidgins have rudimentary grammars and restricted vocabulary, serving as auxiliary contact languages. They are improvised rather than learned natively.

As they develop, they can replace the existing mix of languages to become the native language of the current community (such as Krio in Sierra Leone and Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea). This stage requires the pidgin to be learned natively by children, who then generalize the features of the pidgin into a fully-formed, stabilized grammar (see Nicaraguan Sign Language). When a pidgin reaches this point it acquires the full complexity of a natural language, and becomes a creole language. However, pidgins do not always become creoles - they can die out or become obsolete.

The concept originated in Europe among the merchants and traders in the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, who used Lingua Franca or Sabir. Another well-known pidgin is the Beach-la-Mar of the South Seas, based on English but incorporating Malay, Chinese, and Portuguese words. Bislama, as it is now called in Vanuatu, is fairly mutually intelligible with Tok Pisin.

Caribbean pidgin is the result of colonialism. As tropical islands were colonised their society was restructured, with a ruling minority of some European nation and a large mass of non-European laborers. The laborers, both natives and slaves, would often come from many different language groups and would need to communicate. This led to the development of pidgins.

The word is derived from the Chinese pronunciation of the English word business. Pidgin English was the name given to a Chinese-English-Portuguese pidgin used for commerce in Canton during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some scholars dispute this derivation of the word "pidgin", and suggest alternative etymologies, but no alternative has been deemed convincing enough to garner widespread support. In Canton, this contact language was called Canton English.