linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Thursday 03 January, 2013]
Imagine you are a fifteenth-century explorer, looking for the New World. You find it. There are people in it. But they don’t speak your language, and you don’t speak theirs. You’ve got to talk to them somehow. You need to tell them who you are, and to find out who they are. And there’s trade to be done. What will you do?
You’ll have a go of course. You’ll probably simplify the way you speak, as if you were talking to babies. You won’t say, ‘Excuse me, I’m terribly sorry to trouble you, but I wonder if I could explain which part of Europe we come from.’ Being a typical explorer, you’ll say something like: ‘We come over sea,’ You give us food.’ This gun - make bang - you no like us, we shoot you dead.’ After a few days, and assuming you haven’t shot them dead you’ll hear the natives talking. You’ll start to pick up some of their words. ‘Me like bananas,’ you might say.
Imagine this kind of dialogue going on over a period of several months. After a while, you’ll get into a routine. You’ll use the same phrases day after day. The natives will begin to pick up some of your speech. ‘Hey, Massa Captain. You want plenty banana?’ When you hear them speak like this you’ll be pleased that they’re making progress, and you’ll start talking back to them in the same way. ‘Hey, you boy come see Massa Captain now, chop chop.’
This process of copying and half-understanding each other will go on for some time. Eventually, some of the sentences will get quite long. ‘Me-you go walk see big fella lion.’ The speech will develop a pattern of its own, with its own grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Everyone in the area will come to talk in the same simplified way. And in the end, you have a pidgin language. Notice that, apart from being very simplified, pidgin is nobody’s mother tongue. People just use it when they talk to ‘the foreigners’. But eventually, they might come to use it among themselves. And it might even be written down and used in public places.
Here’s an example from one of the best-known pidgins which has developed a widespread community use - Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea, spoken by over a million people. It’s taken from a road safety leaflet, and it shows just how advanced a pidgin language can become.
Sapos yu kisim bagarap, kisim namba bilong narapela draiva.
(Suppose you catch-him accident, catch-him number belong other fellow driver.)
‘If you have an accident, get the other driver’s number.’
This is a long way from ‘Me Tarzan. You Jane.’
Related notions: creole

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