pidgin, a lingua franca that is not the mother tongue of anyone using it and that has a simplified grammar and a restricted, often polyglot vocabulary. The earliest documented pidgin is the Lingua Franca (or Sabir) that developed among merchants and traders in the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages; it remained in use through the 19th cent. Other known pidgins have been employed in different regions since the 17th cent. An example is the variety of pidgin English that resulted from contacts between English traders and the Chinese in Chinese ports. In fact, the word pidgin supposedly is a Chinese (Cantonese) corruption of the English word business. Another well-known form of pidgin English is the Beach-la-Mar (or Běche-de-Mer) of the South Seas. The different kinds of pidgin English have preserved the basic grammatical features of English, at the same time incorporating a number of non-English syntactical characteristics. The great majority of words in pidgin English are of English origin, but there are also Malay, Chinese, and Portuguese elements. As a result of European settlers bringing to the Caribbean area large numbers of slaves from West Africa who spoke different languages, other pidgins evolved in that region that were based on English, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Spanish. Examples of pidgins based on non-European languages are Chinook, once used by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, and Lingua Gěral, based on a Native American language and used in Brazil. The Krio language of Sierra Leone and Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea are examples of creoles, pidgins that have acquired native speakers. See also creole language.

See D. Hymes, ed., Pidginization and Creolization of Languages (1971); E. B. Carr, Da Kine Talk: From Pidgin to Standard English in Hawaii (1972); W. A. Foley, The Papuan Languages of New Guinea (1986); S. Romaine, Pidgin and Creole Languages (1988).

Language with a very limited vocabulary and a simplified grammar. Pidgins usually arise to permit communication between groups with no language in common; if a pidgin becomes established as the native language of a group, it is known as a creole. Pidgins such as Chinese Pidgin English and Melanesian Pidgin English arose through contact between English-speaking traders and inhabitants of East Asia and the Pacific islands. Other pidgins appeared with the slave trade in Africa and with the importation of West African slaves to Caribbean plantations. Most of the small vocabulary of a pidgin language (Melanesian Pidgin has only 2,000 words, Chinese Pidgin English only 700) is usually drawn from a single language (Melanesian Pidgin, for example, has an English word stock of more than 90percnt).

Learn more about pidgin with a free trial on

A pidgin is a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common, in situations such as trade. Pidgins are not the native language of any speech community, but are instead learned as second languages. Pidgins usually have low prestige with respect to other languages.

Not all simplified or "broken" forms of language are pidgins. Pidgins have their own norms of usage which must be learned to speak the pidgin well.


The word pidgin, formerly also spelled pigion, derives from a Chinese Pidgin English pronunciation of business. Originally used to describe Chinese Pidgin English, it was later generalized to refer to any pidgin. Pidgin may also be used as the specific name for local pidgins, in places where they are spoken. For example, the name of Tok Pisin derives from the English words talk pidgin, and its speakers usually refer to it simply as "Pidgin" when speaking English.

The term jargon has also been used to describe pidgins, and is found in the names of some pidgins such as Chinook Jargon. In this context, linguists today use jargon to denote a particularly rudimentary type of pidgin; however, this usage is rather rare, and the term jargon most often refers to the words particular to a given profession.

Pidgins may start out as or become trade languages, such as Tok Pisin; but trade languages are often full blown languages in their own right such as Swahili, Persian, or English. Trade languages tend to be "vehicular languages", while pidgins can evolve into the vernacular.

Common traits among pidgins

Since a pidgin strives to be a simple and effective form of communication, the grammar, phonology, etc, are as simple as possible, and usually consist of:

Pidgin development

The creation of a pidgin usually requires:

  • Prolonged, regular contact between the different language communities
  • A need to communicate between them
  • An absence of (or absence of widespread proficiency in) a widespread, accessible interlanguage

Also, Keith Whinnom (in ) suggests that pidgins need three languages to form, with one (the superstrate) being clearly dominant over the others.

It is often posited that pidgins become creole languages when a generation whose parents speak pidgin to each other teach it to their children as their first language. Creoles can then replace the existing mix of languages to become the native language of a community (such as Krio in Sierra Leone and Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea). However, not all pidgins become creole languages; a pidgin may die out before this phase would occur.

Other scholars, such as Salikoko Mufwene, argue that pidgins and creoles arise independently under different circumstances, and that a pidgin need not always precede a creole nor a creole evolve from a pidgin. Pidgins, according to Mufwene, emerged among trade colonies among "users who preserved their native vernaculars for their day-to-day interactions". Creoles, meanwhile, developed in settlement colonies in which speakers of a European language, often indentured servants whose language would be far from the standard in the first place, interacted heavily with non-European slaves, absorbing certain words and features from the slaves' non-European native languages, resulting in a heavily basilectalized version of the original language. These servants and slaves would come to use the creole as an everyday vernacular, rather than merely in situations in which contact with a speaker of the superstrate was necessary.

See also



  • McWhorter, John (2002). The Power of Babel: The Natural History of Language. Random House Group. ISBN 0-06-052085-X.
  • Sebba, Mark (1997). Contact Languages: Pidgins and Creoles. MacMillan. ISBN 0-333-63024-6.

Search another word or see Pidginon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2014, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature