Language has been a subject of study, examination, philosophy and criticism for thousands of years, and complex terminology has been developed to discuss its nuances. Language differs by geography, social class, economic status, age, gender and religion. "Pidgin" and "creole" are two terms that are sometimes used interchangeably by the general population, but have specific differences in the world of linguistics.
The Pidgin Mix
"Pidgin" describes a blend of several different languages spoken by a multicultural population into one mutually understood language. These multiple languages are combined in communication on a regular basis, but none of the languages of the population have primacy over the others. This often occurs when multiple societies trade together or where slave populations from multiple locations have been brought into one area. The speakers create a mutual language using words from the speakers' mother tongues and an extremely flexible, simplified grammar.
A creole language is also a mixture of multiple languages, but in this case, the new mixed language becomes the native language for the majority of its speakers. Vocabulary is extensively borrowed from other languages, but the grammar often shares few traits with the languages that contributed vocabulary. Grammar and syntax are as fully developed as any other long-established tongue.
From Pidgin to Creole
If the situation that creates a pidgin endures, the first generation of children will learn pidgin as its mother tongue. Linguist disagree as to whether this immediately develops the pidgin into a creole, or if it takes more than one generation to do so. Neurolinguists point out commonalities in how all humans learn language from birth and that the first generation of creole speakers create the aspects of language missing in pidgin languages. Historians point out the frequent changes in vocabulary, syntax and pronunciation found in creole languages during their first 20 to 30 years, indicating that it takes more than one generation to stabilize.
Because both pidgin and creole languages tend to be spoken by those in the lower echelons of a society, they are often held in contempt as degenerate forms of the parent tongue. Creole languages often survive even when government and economic forces work against them. Creole thrives where the population of speakers retain their cultural and social identities apart from those who speak the parent languages natively.
Creole Around the World
Native Hawaiians speak a creole language that represents a mix of Hawaiian, English, Chinese, Spanish and other languages introduced over the years by immigrants and sailors. The language is referred to as Pidgin or Hawaiian Creole English. Haitians speak a creole based primarily on French and the languages of West Africa. It is the most widely spoken creole in the world. Malay, a language spoken in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, has been widely pidginized and creolized as the area was settled by Dutch and Portuguese colonists. There are now at least 14 recognized creole languages based on Malay.
- The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language; David Crystal
- The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way; Bill Bryson
- University of Chicago:The Study of Pidgin and Creole Languages
- University of Hawaii at Manoa: What is Pidgin
- Photo Credit XiXinXing/iStock/Getty Images
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