Towards a grammar of Chinese Pidgin English

supported by the Committee on Research and Conference Grants,
University of Hong Kong

Investigators: Stephen Matthews, Linguistics Department, HKU
Geoff P. Smith, English Centre, University of Hong Kong
Umberto Ansaldo, University of Amsterdam


The project seeks to develop a gramatical sketch of the grammatical structure of Chinese Pidgin English (CPE). In particular the work will evaluate the role of Cantonese as substrate language. Grammatical issues to be addressed include:
1. Use of personal pronouns (my wanchee vs. me wanchee vs. I wanchee)
2. Presence vs absence of wh-movement (you pay me what offer vs. you pay me what offer)
3. Placement of prepositional phrases and time adverbials (we tomorrow makee move)
4. Null subjects and objects (must likey or no likey)
5. Use of  have/hab as an auxiliary (have bring rice this voyage?)
The work also aims to provide analyses of the grammatical functions of key words such as 'long' as a comitative preposition (do littee pidgeon long you) and 'make' as a ‘dummy’ or light verb (I makee mendee).These usages do not suggest Cantonese influence, but have typological and possibly historical parallels in other contact languages of the Pacific region such as Tok Pisin which have been studied by the co-investigators. These parallels will be addressed with particular attention to the respective roles of historical contacts between contact languages and typological factors.  The findings will be published in a book on the history and structure of Chinese Pidgin English to be co-edited by the investigators.


In a project funded by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the researchers have completed a transcription of a major new source for Chinese Pidgin English (CPE), the ‘Chinese-English Instructor’ by Tong King-Shu (1862) in which Pidgin English is represented in Chinese characters (Li et al. 2005). This new data set complements existing data sets derived from English-language sources, which suffer from well-known problems of reliability. Together, the Chinese and English sources make it possible to attempt a grammatical sketch of this extinct contact language. While the historical context of CPE is relatively well understood (Selby and Selby 1995, Bolton 2003), investigations of its structure have been hampered by the limited and unreliable nature of the sources. Even basic issues such as the role of the Cantonese substrate remain poorly understood, and not even an overall sketch of the grammar exists. The project aims to produce such a sketch for the first time. The analyses will contribute to the field of pidgin and creole linguistics where relatively little is known about the structure of CPE, and substrate influence in general remains a controversial issue. The work will also enrich the teaching of courses in Language Contact taught by the investigators, courses for which CPE data are of particular local relevance.

Research plan and methodology

The two data sources, (a) the newly transcribed Chinese source and (b) a corpus of English-language attestations compiled by Philip Baker will be compared systematically in qualitative and quantitative terms. Qualitatively, we will establish which structures are attested in one source or the other, e.g. whether prepositional phrases preceding the verb (‘my long you makee alla proper’) under Cantonese influence are found only in the Chinese sources. Quantitative issues involve the proportions of various alternative structures in each source: for example, for each type of wh-question (‘what’, ‘how muchee’, etc.), the percentage of wh-movement (‘what time he go?’) vs. wh in situ (‘he go what time?’) needs to be established in order to evaluate the extent of substrate influence. Preliminary fundings on these questions have been presented by the investigators at conferences in Leiden and Leipzig in 2005.

Li, Michelle, Stephen Matthews and Geoff Smith. Pidgin English texts from the Chinese English Instructor. In G.P.Smith & S. Matthews (eds), Chinese Pidgin English: Texts and Contexts. Special Issue of the Hong Kong Journal of Applied Linguistics (September 2005), 79-167.