The teaching of pidgin and Creole studies

Author: Mark Sebba


This article suggests ways in which different areas of linguistics can be illuminated by including a discussion of pidgins/creoles, as well as giving a suggested outline for a stand-alone course.

Table of contents


Pidgin and Creole studies have come to be seen as important for the development of  linguistic theory (particularly in the areas of language acquisition, language contact, typology and sociolinguistics) since the 1970s. For this reason, many courses in general linguistics or sociolinguistics will include some element of pidgin and creole studies, though few undergraduates will have an entire course solely on pidgins and creoles. Because of their many points of interest, pidgins and creoles can be used to provide engaging examples of various aspects of syntax, morphology, language acquisition, second language learning, language planning, language rights, globalisation and multilingualism. There are also interdisciplinary links, for example to literature studies (particularly postcolonial literature) and development studies. Furthermore, because of their inherent interest, pidgins and creoles can be approached at any level of study: some students will have done something in this area at A-level, while a course can be tailored to suit students in the first, second or third year of undergraduate study.

Students and resources

Few British students will have personal experience of any established pidgin, but many will have some experience with Caribbean creoles directly or indirectly, through knowing speakers personally or being familiar with music such as rap and hip-hop where Creole plays a part. It is valuable to build on any personal knowledge which the students may have. Since both pidgins and creoles tend to attract strong prejudices, it is worth talking about these and challenging them early on. This may help some students to talk more openly about their (or their family's) use of a pidgin or creole which they may have previously labelled as 'bad English' or 'bad French'.

Resources are an issue when teaching about pidgins and creoles. There are a reasonable number of books available, but teaching materials such as texts can be harder to come by. The Caribbean creoles are best represented in Britain, as the works of authors like Linton Kwesi Johnson are easy to obtain and contain a lot of Creole. However, it is also possible to find materials in other pidgins and creoles, especially via the internet.
Since websites tend to be quite ephemeral I will list only a few which may be useful. A web search, preferably using the names of specific pidgins or creoles, will usually yield something of use.

Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages
Home page has links to related sites.

Online journal of the Groupe Européen de Recherches en Langues Créoles with articles in English and French, and useful links.

Dr Goodword's site
Links to pidgin and creole resources.

Umeå Krio Research Centre, Sweden
Provides texts in Krio of Sierra Leone.

Mark Sebba's British creole resources page

ABC radio Australia: Taim bilong Toktok
Site including radio programmes with audio files and transcripts in Tok Pisin.

ABC radio Australia: Tok Pisin service
Links to live streaming in Tok Pisin.

University of New England (Australia): Bislama (Vanuatu)
Page on Bislama by the late Terry Crowley.

University of New Mexico: Hawaiian pidgin/creole
Page about Hawaiian Creole.

Pidgins and Creoles - core areas of study

These are areas which would be covered in any course with a substantial element on pidgins and creoles.

1. Pidgin genesis: definition of a pidgin, pidgin types, theories of pidgin origins, developmental stages of pidgins. The role of substrate and superstrate languages. Related phenomena such as foreigner talk, imperfect second language learning, tourist pidgins and Gastarbeiterdeutsch.

2. Creole genesis: definition of a creole, development of creoles from pidgins whether abruptly (as apparently, in the case of some plantation slavery pidgins) or over a longer period (as with New Guinea Pidgin). The nature of the relationship between pidgins and their related creoles. Bickerton's 'bioprogram hypothesis' – an important driver of research in the 1980s but now discredited.

3. Linguistic characteristics of pidgins and creoles: morphological, syntactic and lexical simplicity and transparency. Phonological characteristics and development of phonology through time. Greater complexity (in syntax especially) characteristic of creoles.

4. Developmental issues in Creoles: the ongoing influence of (or absence of influence from) the lexifier (where it is the official language, for example) and the substrate languages (where they continue to be used in the community). The development of post-creole continua in some places and their absence in others. The significance of these continua for sociolinguistic theory.

5. 'Diaspora' issues: migration of Creole speakers to Britain from the Caribbean (and Nigeria, though this is hardly documented). The establishment of 'London Jamaican' as a British urban variety of Jamaican Creole. The transfer of Creole elements, especially lexis, to youth language (the 'multi-ethnic vernacular') and its popularisation through music styles like hip-hop, and media personalities like Ali G. the phenomenon of Crossing (Rampton 1995) where adolescents use a language variety which 'belongs' to another ethnic group.

Extension areas

These are related topics and areas where pidgins and creoles have high relevance (and where pidgins and creoles might be incorporated into another subject area). Some of these areas provide good scope for small-scale research projects and data collection.

1. Morphology and semantics – the simplicity and transparency of pidgins and creoles makes them good examples of a typological extreme. See, e.g. McWhorter 2005.

2. Language acquisition – there are numerous interesting questions raised by pidgins and creoles with respect to language acquisition, for example regarding the salience and learnability of grammatical and phonological structures and order of acquisition of structures/rules. The means of transmission across generations and the exact circumstances of language acquisition are particularly important issues, and are an area where the study of pidginisation and creolisation has contributed to the development of linguistic theory.

3. Second language learning – incomplete or imperfect second language learning appears to be a key part of the formation of pidgins and/or creoles. How does this relate to informal / untutored learning strategies, e.g. of migrants, or to strategies of second language learners more generally?

4. World Englishes – certain of the 'New Englishes' – particularly in the Caribbean and West Africa, can be regarded as creoles or partially creolised forms of English, while for others which are not, processes similar to those involved in pidgin/creole development are still likely to be relevant. Pidgins like Bislama (see Crowley 1990) and Tok Pisin and Creoles like Nigerian Pidgin English, Jamaican Creole, Sranan Tongo, Hawaiian Creole English and Gullah can all be treated as members of the English 'family'.

5. Language contact and bilingualism – pidgins/creoles can be treated as outcomes of specific types of language contact. They can be discussed alongside, but also provide examples of, such contact phenomena as code-switching, lexical borrowing, semantic and syntactic calquing etc. Pidgins and creoles almost always arise in, and continue to be used in, situations of multilingualism where more than one kind of language contact is taking place. Pidgins and creoles can also be the agents of language shift, as documented for example in Papua New Guinea, where vernaculars are being lost in favour of Tok Pisin.

6. Language planning and language rights – countries such as Vanuatu (with over 100 languages) where the pidgin Bislama is official, Papua New Guinea (with over 800 languages) where Tok Pisin is official, and the Seychelles and Haiti, where French-lexicon Creoles are official, provide interesting studies in language planning. Different, but equally interesting and important issues are raised by countries like Jamaica where the Creole is the vernacular and the first language of the majority, but only Standard English is acceptable as a medium of instruction or administration.

7. Sign Language – arguments have from time to time been made about similarities between creoles and sign languages (see Sebba 1997 for a discussion). However, the two fields connect most significantly in research on the sign language of Nicaragua which underwent dramatic development from 'pidgin' to 'creole' in the 1980s. See Kegl (in press).

8. Literature and music – a number of authors in different countries have used pidgins or creoles for literary expression. Probably the best known of these writers are Nigerian (for example Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro-Wiwa), Jamaican (for example Louise Bennett) or British/Jamaican (for example Jean Binta Breeze and Linton Kwesi Johnson). There are many other others, however, particularly from the Caribbean. The popularity at various times of certain musical styles which have close associations with Creole, e.g. reggae, hip-hop, means that a lot of texts are available for analysis – with the possibility of interesting social and cultural analyses as well as structural linguistic ones.

9. Urban adolescent language and the emergence of multi-ethnic vernaculars – an extension of the 'diaspora issues' (Topic 5 above). Diversity and hybridity in the vernacular speech of urban British adolescents. Creole on the internet and in text-messaging. The language of Ali G and its use on the Internet (see Sebba in press).

Sample outline of a 9-week course on pidgins and creoles

Note 1: this is an outline of a course which has successfully been taught to first-year students, but which is flexible enough to be adapted for higher levels with the use of more advanced textbooks and materials. It could also be adapted by the expansion, for example, of the first 5 sessions to create a course mainly on the linguistic structure of pidgins and creoles, or by the elaboration of the second half to create a course which emphasises the sociolinguistic aspects of the topic.

Note 2: In this outline, pidgins and creoles are treated separately in the first part of the course. An alternative, which would emphasise their structural and historical similarities, would be to deal with them simultaneously, e.g. 'linguistic characteristics of pidgins and creoles', 'theories of the genesis of pidgins and creoles', 'lexical and morphological simplicity in pidgins and creoles' etc. In such a case a session might be added on the structural and developmental differences between pidgins and creoles.

Note 3: Course tutors will know best which case studies would be suitable for their students. The examples suggested here are mostly reasonably well-documented English-lexicon pidgins or creoles but are not representative of the diversity that exists, nor are they necessarily the most interesting ones to study for certain purposes.

1: Introduction to the notion of pidgins, creoles and 'contact languages' generally. Discussion about popular beliefs and prejudices surrounding pidgins and creoles. Discussion of pidgin/creole texts, e.g. literary texts in Nigerian Pidgin or materials in a pidgin from the Pacific region.

2: Linguistic and social characteristics of pidgins. The origins of pidgins: theories of pidgin genesis and development. A case study of a pidgin which existed in stable form but never acquired native speakers, e.g. Chinese Pidgin English.

3: A more detailed case study: a look in depth at a particular pidgin which stabilised and has recently become a creole, e.g. Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin), for which a relatively large amount of material is available (note that this language is now technically a creole, though still a pidgin for some speakers).

4: Discussion of "simplification" in pidgins and how this manifests itself. Looking at the morphology and lexicon of pidgins showing how they are more regular and transparent in most cases than those of non-pidgin languages.

5:  Creole genesis hypotheses and the development of creoles. Optionally, a discussion of the Creoles of West Africa and case studies of Krio or Nigerian Pidgin English.

6: Creoles of the Caribbean – origins in the plantation slavery system, comparison of French-lexicon creole (e.g. Haitian) with English-lexicon creoles (a) divergent from the lexifier, e.g. Sranan Tongo and (b) convergent to the lexifier, e.g. Jamaican. The post-creole continuum. Case study of a long-standing Creole, e.g. Jamaican, for which old texts are available.

7. Creole in an urban setting: the arrival of Creole speakers in Britain, the development of London Jamaican and subsequent expansion of Creole into the multi-ethnic adolescent vernacular.

8. Language planning and political issues. Must "creole" mean inferior? What kind of orthography is best for a creole? Should Creole be on the school curriculum?

9. Review. Overview of the course. (A useful exercise at this point is to ask the students how they would respond to the popular beliefs and prejudices discussed at the start of the course. Have their views changed? Are their arguments stronger and better informed?)


References used in this article

Crowley, Terry (1990): Beach-la-Mar to Bislama : the emergence of a national language in Vanuatu. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kegl, Judy (in press). The Case of Signed Languages in the Context of Pidgin and Creole Studies. In Singler, J. V. and Kouwenberg, S. (eds.), The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies. London: Blackwell.

McWhorter, John 2005: Defining Creole. New York: Oxford University Press,

Rampton, B. (1995) Crossing. Language and Ethnicity among adolescents. London, Longman.

Sebba, Mark (2007). Identity and language construction in an online community: the case of ‘Ali G’ in : Peter Auer (ed.) Style and Social Identities: Alternative Approaches to Linguistic Heterogeneity. Mouton/de Gruyter.

Useful resources for an overview of recent research and development (for tutors)

Baptista, Marlyse 2005: New Directions in Pidgin and Creole Studies. Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 34: 33-42

McWhorter, John H. 2003. Pidgins and Creoles as models of language change: the state of the art. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, Volume 23, pp 202-212

Textbooks and reference works on pidgins, creoles and language contact

These vary in their suitability for different levels.

Arends, Jacques, Pieter Muysken and Norval Smith (editors) (1995): Pidgins and Creoles : an introduction. Amsterdam /Philadelphia : John Benjamins

Holm, J. (2000): An introduction to Pidgins and Creoles. Cambridge University Press.

Holm, J. (1988): Pidgins and Creoles. Vol. I: Theory and Structure. Cambridge University Press. (For advanced students of linguistics)

Holm, J. (1989): Pidgins and Creoles. Vol. II: Reference Survey. Cambridge University Press. (Advanced level, but contains a lot of information about individual languages which may be accessible to readers with little linguistic knowledge)

Mühleisen, Susanne (2002): Creole discourse: exploring prestige formation and change across Caribbean English-lexicon Creoles. Amsterdam ; Philadelphia, PA : John Benjamins

Mühlhäusler, Peter (1997): Pidgin and Creole linguistics (Expanded and revised edition). Westminster Creolistics series 3. London : University of Westminster Press.

Romaine, S (1988): Pidgin and Creole Languages. London, Longman. ( A detailed account, by a linguist. Requires some specialist knowledge.)

Sebba, Mark (1997): Contact Languages: Pidgins and Creoles. London, Macmillan.

Singh, I. (2000): Pidgins and Creoles: an introduction. London, Arnold. (A basic introduction)

Singler, J. V. and Kouwenberg, S. (eds.) (in press). The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies. London: Blackwell.

Thomason, Sarah Grey (2001). Language contact : an introduction. Edinburgh U.P.

Todd, Loreto (1991): Pidgins and Creoles. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul

Todd, Loreto (1984): Modern Englishes: Pidgins and Creoles London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Books on Creole in a specifically British context

Edwards, V. (1979): The West Indian language issue in British schools: challenges and responses. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Edwards, Viv 1986 Language in a black community. Multilingual Matters 24.

Gilroy, P. (1987): 'There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack'. London, Hutchinson.

Hewitt, R. (1986) White Talk, Black Talk. Cambridge University Press.

Rampton, B. (1995) Crossing. Language and Ethnicity among adolescents. London, Longman.

Sebba, M. (1993) London Jamaican: language systems in interaction. London, Longman.

Sutcliffe, D. (1982): British Black English. Oxford, Blackwell.

Wells, J. C. (1973): Jamaican pronunciation in London. Oxford, Blackwell.

Sources of information/texts for specific pidgins/creoles

Bailey, Beryl L 1966 Jamaican Creole Syntax. Cambridge: CUP.

Baker, P & Bruyn, A 1999 St Kitts and the Atlantic Creoles. The texts of Samuel Augustus Mathews in prespective. London: University of Westminster Press.

D’Costa, J & Lallah, B 1989 Voices in exile. Jamaican texts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Deuber, Dagmar 2005 Nigerian Pidgin in Lagos. London: Battlebridge.

Lallah, B & D’Costa, J 1990 Language in exile. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Mühlhäusler, P, Dutton, T E, & Romaine, S Tok Pisin texts: from the beginning to the present. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Smith, Geoff P 2002 Growing up with Tok Pisin. Contact, creolization, and change in Papua new Guinea’s national language. London: Battlebridge.

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