LING2040 Languages in Contact 3: The Nature of Pidgins

1. Definitions


Pidgin: "a contact vernacular, normally not the native language of any of its speakers… characterized by a limited vocabulary and elimination of many grammatical devices such as number and gender." (DeCamp 1971)

Etymology:   English  business and/or Cantonese bei cin 'pay money'?

    That belong he pidgin "That's his business" (CPE)

Multiple etymologies in contact languages (Mühlhäusler)

2. Origins


Pidginization as second language acquisition by adults

  • simplification: elimination of inflectional morphology e.g. number, gender, tense
  • limited vocabulary, semantic transparency: Tok Pisin stilman ‘thief’ (< steal man)
  • first language transfer: phonological features, syntax

Functions of pidgins: basic communication between groups with various native languages
Limited social functions:

  • trade, as in Bazaar Malay (bazaar < Malay pasar "market"), Russenorsk (used between Russian and Norwegian fishermen: )
  • workplace communication, as in Fanakalo (used by mine workers in South Africa)
  • tourism, as in "English" used by tour guides in Thailand

Expanded pidgins: a further stage of development, e.g. Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea (see lecture 5)

  • expansion of functions to include everyday communication between groups with different native languages; newspaper Wantok (< one talk) and the constitution of Papua New Guinea
  • expansion of vocabulary, grammaticalization

3. China Coast Pidgin or Chinese Pidgin English (CPE)


3.1 History

18th Century: the China Trade in Macau and Canton

  •  Teaching of Chinese to foreigners forbidden
  •  compradores (Portuguese: "buyers") served as intermediaries and interpreters
  •  Pidgin English developed with Portuguese influence (savee "know")

19th Century: European settlements in south China

  • The treaty ports (c. 1842-1949): Canton (Guangzhou), Hong Kong, Amoy (Xiamen), Fuzhou, Ningpo, Shanghai
  • Chinese Pidgin English developed for limited interaction between Chinese and Europeans

20th Century: demise of CPE

  • Education in HK produced a class of Chinese people able to speak more or less standard English
  • Foreign settlements in mainland China disbanded after 1949
  • Pidgin last spoken in Hong Kong by Chinese 'black and white amahs ' and cooks in 1960s? extinct in 1973?
  • Retired dock workers did not remember any pidgin in 1990
  • "Pidgin English" in HK today: remnants of CPE, or re-creation of pidgin-like features?

3.2 Written records of CPE

Studying CPE is like studying dinosaurs: it involves digging up occasional bones and fossils, and fitting them together to make a composite picture (Selby & Selby, 1995. China Coast Pidgin English. Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 35, 113-141.)

‘Archaeology’ of CPE (Bolton, Chinese Englishes. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

3.2.1 "Pidgin" verses as caricature

    Ping-Wing see gentleum walo- go
    He scleamee, 'Hai yah -- fan-kwei lo!'
    All-same you savvy in Chinese,
    'One foleign devil lookee see!' (Leland, Pidgin-English Sing-Song, London, 1872)

    Olom man talkey, 'No can walk!'
    By'mby rain come--welly dark
    Have got water, welly vide.
    Maskee! My wantchey go topside
    Topside-galow!   (anonymous, cited in C. Elder, China's Treaty Ports, Oxford, 1999)

    See also fictitious dialogue in Sebba: Contact Languages, p. 68-9 (my catch dat piece wifoo "I acquired this wife")

3.2.2 Historical: letters, travellers' memoirs, ships' logs

Capem, hab pilort? ("Captain, do you have a pilot"?) (Ball, B. L. Rambles in Eastern Asia. Boston, 1855)
Suppose he no small feet, no man wantjee make he number-one wife. (Davidson, G. F. Trade and travel in the Far East. London, 1846)

I heard in conversation, the Chinese never allow themselves to be beaten. They pretend to know already all you tell them, usually replying, ‘Can savey that pigeon, Pekin sye’. (Smith, To China and Back. London, 1859, p.43)

Letter from the sculptor Chitqua to three English women he met in Oxford

"The two Wife-woman and the Single-woman Chin Chin Chitqua the China gentleman - and what time they quiere flirt those nice things truly never can forget for him. Some time he make voyage to Oxford, Christchurch will then open his gates and make Chitqua so welcome he no more tinkee go Canton again. There he find much bisn as he so well savee Art of Modelling Heads, thing much wanted among Mandarinmen of that place. Once more tankee fine present, Adios."

(Clarke, David. 2005. Chitqua's English adventure: an 18th Century source for the study of China Coast Pidgin and early Chinese use of English. Hong Kong Journal of Applied Linguistics 10)

3.2.3 Phrase books in Chinese

The Guangzhou Pidgin Phrasebook: Hongmao Tongyong Fanhua (c. 1850)

  • Cantonese characters used phonetically to indicate English pronunciation: '1' glossed as wan1 ("temperature"), '10' = din ("crazy"), 'me' = mai  ("rice")
  • 'China trade' terms no longer used in English: mandarin, supercargo
  • 'English' words also include Portuguese, Hindi and Malay words (picul)
  • Compare similar practice in Chinese almanacs(通勝) today

The Chinese-English Instructor by K.S.Tong (1862)

  •  a phrase book using Chinese characters to represent English
  •  additional entries in margins give pidgin equivalents in Guangdong faan waa (Canton pidgin)
  •  see sample in assignment 1

3.2.4 Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood by Martin Booth (2004)


  • a memoir of Hong Kong in the 1950s when CPE was still widely used between foreigners and Chinese speakers  
  • Booth arrived in HK in 1952 at age 7, acquiring pidgin English as well as Cantonese as a child
  • Much of the dialogue in the book appears to be in pidgin:


'What you likee you burfday cake, young master?'

'A cake,' I replied, puzzled by the enquiry, 'with nine candles'.
'What shape you likee? Maybe you likee house?' he suggested, seeing my bewilderment.

'Likee tempul?' Wong can do tempul good for you'. Without really thinking about it I answered,

'I'd like a battleship'. Several days later I went to the kitchen to find my way barred.

'You lo can come kitchen-side now', Wong declared. 'You wantee somefing, makee bell.'

  • Booth as "rememberer" of the language 50 years later: his pidgin dialogues must be reconstructed based on his remembered knowledge of CPE.
  • But this is not so different from the other English-language sources, which were mostly written some years after the authors' experiences with pidgin.

3.3 Structure of CPE (see sample text in Sebba, p. 68, but beware of caricature)

  • no distinction between voiced and voiceless consonants:  din "ten"
  • bare verbs in place of inflected verbs: whafo no have see taipan sot langim?
  • use of  have/hab as an auxiliary: have bring rice this voyage?
  • conditional sentences with suppose: spose likee can do, spose no likee marsakee.
  • use of makee as a ‘dummy’ or light verb: I makee mendee

3.4 Chinese substrate influence


  • Vocabulary: taipan "boss", cin-cin "greetings"
  • Loan translation: befoo tim wun moon "one month ago", numba wan ledda "top quality leather"


  • CV(C) syllable structure, avoidance of consonant clusters: popa ledda "proper leather"
  • No v, r or th sounds (very -> belly, that -> dat, think -> tinkee)


  • null subjects (wanchee finis chopchop) and objects (must liky or no liky)
  • preverbal negation: no can maykee
  • classifiers:  one piece wifoo  "a wife"
  • serial verbs: sen one piece cooly come my sop look see "send a servant to come to my shop and see"; you sendee three dozen go my houso "Send 3 dozen to my house"
  • Placement of time adverbs:  he every day tipsy "He gets drunk every day"