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7 February 2011
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When languages collide
Your experiences of patois
"Should it be labelled a creole or a patois? I grew up knowing it as "patois" and it was intermittently smattered with English words where the user (grandmother or mother) either didn't know the right word or had forgotten it, or where there was no equivalent (e.g. snow).

I use it only occasionally in the home to my mother and grandmother who were born in St Lucia in the West Indies. I have heard it used in modern music by The Fugees.

When living and working in Paris the fact that I could speak and understand "patois" caused a stir among the black people I met (many of whom hailed from Guadeloupe and Martinique where the same "patois" is also spoken), as they all assume that any black British person would be of Jamaican origin. This presumably because the "patois" that Jamaicans speak is an English one and therefore it would make sense that they would choose an English speaking country in which to settle."
Natalie Lapite
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Pidgins and creoles
Dialects in contact

When languages collide by Philippa Law

Pidgins and creoles
Imagine that you find yourself stuck on a desert island with a Serbo-Croat speaker who doesn't know any English. You don't speak Serbo-Croat either, but after a few awkward minutes of smiling and gesturing, you discover you both learnt a smattering of German at school. Neither of you are very good at it, but you need to communicate, so it's better than nothing.

You settle into speaking hesitant German with your fellow castaway and soon the pair of you are speaking it all the time. You'll pretty quickly give up trying to remember which things are which gender (it doesn't matter whether the ravenous beast you're being pursued by is der or das) and you'll probably find plenty of English and Serbo-Croat words creeping in to fill the gaps.

Providing you survive the ravenous beasts, at some stage, your means of communication may become consistent enough to be considered a full, if fairly simple, language: Desert Island Pidgin German. Of course, by then, it's hardly worth calling it German - any Standard German speaker would be hard pushed to understand much of what you're saying.

"'s helpful to think about any pidgin as a separate but related language rather than a dialect of one of its ancestors.''

Peter Trudgill says it's helpful to think about any pidgin as a separate but related language rather than a dialect of one of its ancestors, not just because it's likely to be so different, but also for social reasons:

"...many people have objected to pidgins on the grounds that they have corrupted the 'purity' of English (or some other European language). Views like this are often accompanied by sentiments about racial and cultural 'purity' as well. If one regards a pidgin as a debased and inferior form of English, it may be quite easy to regard its speakers, mostly non-Europeans, as also being 'debased' and 'inferior'."

Our desert island example is a bit far-fetched, but on a larger scale, groups of linguistically diverse people who are forced together often form new languages in this way. Many pidgins arose around trade routes, colonisation and the slave trade, because people with different native languages were thrown together and all exposed to one socially dominant language.

Probably the most well-known is Tok Pisin, a language of Papua New Guinea. It's so widely used - even in the media and in schools - that many children are acquiring it as their first language. It's no longer 'just' a lingua franca; it's also many people's native language.

Native speakers have naturally expanded and complicated Tok Pisin until the language has the full characteristics of any normal language. It's now not only good for communicating, but also, for example, writing poetry.

When this happens to a pidgin, it often becomes known as a creole. A creole is just like any other natural language - it just has an interesting background!


Your Comments
Do you use any pidgin phrases?

What are the main factors that led to the transformation of English from a vernacular to a 'national language'?

Liam from Inverness
Pidgins are looked down on, and I think this is very wrong. In the beginning, there was a small number of languages (debatably one, I don't buy that, I reckon more than 4, less than ten), but I digress. These languages turned into the 6,500 we have today. All of these languages, or at least the vast vast majority were created because two people who lived ten miles apart spoke slightly differently, so these languages merged when they met, creating a third language, which evolved. This is how pidgins become creoles, which then become fully fledged languages. I think it's unfair to say they haven't learned to use a language properly, if anything, I'm impressed by these people and their abilities to have absolutely no language and create one from scratch purely by pointing and gesturing in the beginning, right the way up to complete fluency.

Nick P from Dorset
Many years ago I lived in Amsterdam, where I became friendly with a Morrorcan who spoke no English. He spoke Arabic, some Dutch, some French and some Spanish. I spoke a smattering of all of these, and somehow we developed a pidgen with bits of all four. I remember having long,(but slow!), conversations with him, which went well beyond the "me Friday" level, but which nobody else could understand a word of. Is this a record? Seriously though it says something about our ability to create a means of communication under the strangest circumstances.

richard from birmingham
but DP, whats the point of language? in my opinion to be able to communicate with the people around you. Instead of rejecting a foreign language speakers of a patois have compromised, blending two linguistic identities together

Bob from Gibraltar
The Janito dialect spoken in Gibraltar is a combination of Spanish and English - with some Italian variants thrown in for good measure. Janito speakers do have a tendency to put down how they speak saying its "bad Spanish" and that they speak the language of the street. The truth is they don't speak bad Spanish but instead good Janito.In reality they have three languages, English Spanish and Janito because they have to do business in the two base languages but somehow Janito has survived.

DP from barcelona
Nice illustration abot pidgen languages, but the reason many may think them inferior is surely because they haven't learned either language properly and thus speak a bizarre hybrid useful to no-one but themselves!

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