Pidgins and Creoles

We’ve talked in previous posts about the roles which can be played by a lingua franca in trade and politics – mainly in the context of English and its place in the world.  The lingua franca is, of course, a language which already exists and is common between two parties, even where neither is a native speaker.  Even where it is used in a very different way than in its home culture – such as in ‘euro English’, the variety used by EU diplomats – it can still just about be understood. 

Things are slightly different where there is a lack of formal education in the dominant language, though, and in the past this has resulted in the evolution of ‘pidgin’ languages.  In the West, we’re most familiar with these from old and probably racist depictions of foreign peoples – such as native Americans portrayed in spaghetti westerns (“How.  Me big chief Sitting Bull!”), Tarzan (“Me Tarzan; you Jane.”) and even comics like Tintin, which represented black Africans as French-speaking idiots. 

Culturally, the simplified pidgin syntax and vocabulary have often contributed to infantilisation of colonised peoples.  Pidgins aren’t only found in a colonial setting, however; languages like Russenorsk, a 50/50 mix of Russian and Norwegian, arose in voluntary trading contexts. 

Pidgins are often utilitarian, and originally used for trading; they were often found today in countries which had this sort of relationship with imperialist powers, including those with so-called ‘cargo cults’.  In Papua New Guinea, for example, a road sign might be bilingual, bearing the message “turn on your headlights” in English, as well as “putim on hedlait bilong yu”. 

Creoles arise where a pidgin is localised and becomes the primary language of children, taking more of its lexicon from the native language – although a creole can appear independently of a pidgin, and vice versa.  More recently, it’s been suggested that similarities between creoles across the globe can teach us about the way children learn language.  In any case, pidgins and creoles together are a clear reminder of the human urge to communicate and create a common ground against the odds. 

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