Chapter Twelve: Pidgins and Creoles

Anyone who has found themselves off the tourist trail in a foreign country, with whose inhabitants they share no common tongue, may have witnessed the first stage of a contact language in action. Although basic requirements in such a situation may be communicated via sign language, a few words representing relatively complex ideas, not quite so easily gestured, are already so ubiquitous that those who have the means to travel abroad may gain a helpful response by uttering them even in provincial areas of almost any nation: these magic words include: "'otel, taksi, telefon, banko".

This contact language is the beginnings of an international auxiliary language, which is emerging unofficially through the commercial world well ahead of any official endorsement. Such contact languages appear through necessity. Grammar is superfluous, given the immediacy of the context, and so is linguistic purity. Moreover, whether or not the affix pertains to a particular language is irrelevant, so long as the word-root conveys meaning: e.g. "bank, banque, banco, banko" - any such word will suffice.

Today the contact language phenomenon, like everything else, takes place on a world stage - such is the power of the mass media. But these most rudimentary of tongues are not a new invention; they have appeared throughout history wherever international communication has been essential: thus war zones, e.g. Vietnam, have provided a number of examples. Likewise "Russonorsk", a primitive Russian/Norwegian hybrid tongue, developed between whalers from these countries based on the inhospitable Svalbard archipelago and Kola peninsula in pre-Soviet times.

Such auxiliary languages have naturally come to an end with the circumstances which produced them. However, another kind of situation exists where contact is long-term, but neither party wishes to learn the other language. Typically this has been because both sides are more interested in trade than fraternisation. Thus the contact language has remained an auxiliary, but used and elaborated so much over time that it has developed structure and grammatical rules.

This type of auxiliary language is called a pidgin for a reason which is no longer obvious. The most popular explanation points to Chinese Pidgin English where "pidgin" means "business"; but about six other possible derivations for the word have been advanced. One theory suggests encounters with the Pidian Indians in Venezuela as the source; another harks back to the merchant adventurers who set sail from Southern European ports such as Genoa and Lisbon in the 14th and 15th Centuries, initially in an attempt to secure the spice trade by sea routes, since the land route had been cut by the westward thrust of the Turks.

A prominent member of the crew in these sailing ships was the translator. Who would such a figure have been? As often as not, he came from that race of scholars - the Jews. He would have spoken Ladino - the Mediterranean Yiddish. Thus it might be supposed that the word pidgin comes, via Ladino, from the Hebrew word for barter - "pidjom".

Some details concerning the origins of pidgins are still disputed, but the central facts correspond in broad outline with the general development of language in communities and individuals. This topic might be approached by considering the following example in the development of an international vocabulary: although underground railways began in London, the word "underground" has not travelled in this connection, nor has the New York word "subway" - which in Britain rather means an underground tunnel for pedestrians. The word for "underground railway" which has prevailed internationally, even within the English-speaking world, is "metro", and it is not difficult to see why: the word is short (Zipf's Law), its phonemes are both common and easy, and it has the right associations in various ways - e.g. with "metropolis".

Briefly, the word "metro" has the right resonance in many cultures. Similarly it seems that indigenous peoples, approached by seafarers bearing goods which they wished to barter, but speaking a language quite unlike their own, seized upon certain of the words being enunciated in connection with these goods, and signified affirmation of a proposed exchange by repeating these words, perhaps in a modified form, with appropriate expressions and gestures.

Had the merchantmen been linguists they would have found that the words thus emerging with cross-cultural resonance were nearly all short and simple, with perhaps only four or five vowels, and no phonemic difficulties like consonant clusters. In any case, when they discovered which words were acceptable and could be readily understood, they proceeded to teach and use them as a business or barter contact language wherever they went. After a number of such trading encounters, this contact language of appropriate words began to arrange itself according to the bare minimum of syntax and grammar required by a strictly commercial language, i.e. it became what would now be defined as a pidgin.

Once a pidgin was successfully formed in one place, it was apparently considered expedient to try it elsewhere; there is evidence that the Portuguese-based pidgin spoken in West Africa around 1500 AD was actually taught by the Portuguese. Moreover, the fact that many pidgins around the world contain words of Portuguese origin such as "savvy, save" etc. from Portuguese "saber" ("know") and "pikin, pikinini, pickaninny, piccanin" etc. ("child") from "pequenino", the diminutive of Portuguese "pequeno" ("little"), is a further indication that pidgins were taught by these pioneers of global exploration and trade.

The many pidgins based upon reductions of French, Spanish, English and other languages, e.g. Sango - an African tongue, seem to have appeared in a similar way. The first pidginised English arose between American Indians and settlers at the beginning of the 17th Century. The activities of British seafarers gave rise later the same century to Pidgin English on the Chinese coast and also to the West African English-based pidgins. By the end of the 19th Century, English-based pidgins had come into existence in various parts of the world, but principally in West Africa, the Caribbean area, S.E. Asia and the South Seas.

Some pidgins share some words or word-roots, but the lexical differences between these tongues are still great, mostly as a result of originating from different base languages. However, the pidgins also share a universal characteristic called "transparency", which is simply a receptiveness to linguistic innovation. This can be difficult to see, due to the obtrusion of base languages, but the same concern for the mundane efficiencies of life which has mostly eliminated from the pidgins grammatical categories such as number, gender, case, person, tense, mood and voice, is always on the lookout for new economies of expression.

The signal result of this transparency is that, even if a useful linguistic feature is rare in the world's literary languages, it is likely to appear sooner rather than later in the pidgins. For example, subject-verb-object syntax along with the associated jettisoning of inflections, first appeared in the Indo-European language group around 1000 AD. This innovation has been slow or unsuccessful in penetrating literary languages, but entered the pidgins immediately. The coming international auxiliary language has a lot to learn from the pidgins: for to begin with it too will be mostly concerned with the groundwork of international communication - rights, laws, rules and agreements. Much of the linguistic superstructure will probably have to come later.

A creole is a pidgin which children have learned as a mother-tongue, while elaborating it according to inherent linguistic rules, and adding words from different sources. In practice the distinction between creoles and pidgins is not clear-cut; a pidgin may become a mother-tongue for some and yet remain an auxiliary for others. Hence "pidgins" may be partially or almost wholly creolised. Another factor which should be mentioned is that some pidgins and creoles are closer to the base language than are others. For example some West Indian creoles are, depending on the speaker and the circumstances, more or less accessible to English speakers from elsewhere; whereas other English-based creoles will always be completely incomprehensible to outsiders.

In many countries of the world creoles are growing at the expense of indigenous tongues and borrowing freely from the major languages; in this way, English and French are being effectively marginalised in former colonies where they are still the official languages. A not atypical example is Mauritius, where English is the official language, but hardly anyone speaks it, and very few speak French. Nearly everyone speaks creole. Like an egg sucked dry by a weasel, English may appear to be unaffected by the burgeoning of these creoles; but the very fact that primary creative activity is going into other languages is depriving English of vitality and impetus: starving it of development except in narrow and specialised areas such as are found within commerce and science. That languages like Tagalog, Malay and even Korean are becoming anglicised is not necessarily indicative of the triumph of English; it could rather be a sign of it being devoured.

The simple grammar and phonology of the creoles, and the transcultural resonance of their vocabulary, allows them to become common languages for the speakers of diverse minority ethnic tongues: a feat which linguistic remoteness prevents great European languages from fully achieving. For example, although Cameroon was divided (in an approximate 4:1 ratio) between French and British colonial administrations in 1919, under 20% of the population speaks French or English (the two official languages) in contrast to the 50% who now speak creole - which has become a vital lingua franca between Cameroon's 24 major African languages and more than 220 minority tongues. Likewise the exclusive or auxiliary use of creole is expanding in both Nigeria and Papua New Guinea which have over 400 and 860 minority tongues respectively.

However, the role of pidgins and creoles should not be overemphasised. Popular they might be; but they are still phonetically restricted, lexically utilitarian and grammatically reduced languages which have to struggle to express complicated or abstract concepts by using unwieldy circumlocutions or inelegant grammatical bolt-ons. Whether in words, speech or grammar, the pidgins and creoles dominate the mass-market - as it were; but the major languages are ahead of them in range and flexibility.

The quality of creoles is as tongues which have developed entirely orally, and specifically as trading languages, primarily concerned with sounding good, and being as comprehensible as possible to a wide variety of peoples. Thus any "threat" which the pidgins and creoles present to the great national languages is only because the dead hand of literary orthodoxy has stopped the orthographic revision which would allow the popular sounds, words, speech-patterns and grammatical short-cuts developed by the creoles to be incorporated or transliterated. Such beneficial linguistic innovations will no doubt figure strongly in the forefront of the minds of those who construct the international auxiliary language, whether or not they are heeded by the guardians of the great national languages.

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