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Learn about Pidgin English Language and Culture

Overview of Nigerian Pidgin English

Nigeria is a land of many languages, with over 500 spoken by its inhabitants. As a result, the country has a great need for a common form of communication across ethnic groups. English, introduced to Nigeria during the colonial era, was chosen as Nigeria's only official language with this goal in mind. It is widely learned as a second language by speakers of many different Nigerian languages, and frequently used in business and education.

However, not all the English spoken in Nigeria is the "standard" English recognizable in most English-speaking countries. As is commonly the case when a language is heavily used between non-native speakers, a new way of speaking has developed, with its own unique grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. This form of communication is Nigerian Pidgin English, often referred to simple as "Pidgin" by those who speak it.

Nigerian Pidgin English Language Status

There is debate among scholars and speakers as to how to formally classify Nigerian Pidgin English. Historically, some have looked down upon it as a type of "broken English", or dismissed as merely an uneducated dialect of the standard language. More recent understanding, however, recognizes it as a language in its own right, with sufficient differences in vocabulary and structure to distinguish it from standard English. Nonetheless, there is discussion as to whether it should still be considered a pidgin - as the name implies - or whether it has developed sufficiently to be considered a creole.

In linguistic terms, a pidgin is a simplified language developed for communication between two or more groups of people who do not share common languages, and must thus speak to one another using a language in which none of them are fluent. In the process, they may dramatically change the language - greatly reducing the complexity of the grammar, adapting the pronunciation to eliminate difficult sounds, and adding words from their own languages as needed. Pidgins are thus created out of necessity, and do not have native speakers. They also rely heavily on context and non-verbal clues, although basic standards tend to emerge over time.

A creole, in contrast, is what happens when children grow up speaking a pidgin as their primary language. At that point, it ceases to be merely a second language learned as needed and becomes the native language of a new generation. Creoles have a more stable form than pidgins, both in vocabulary and grammar. Not all pidgins evolve into creoles, however, and even when they do, the transition may be gradual, or may take place unevenly in different areas.

Nigerian Pidgin English is a good example of a language on the border between a pidgin and a creole. It was formed during the colonial era early in the 1900s, when the region came under the rule of Great Britain and many native Nigerians who spoke mutually incomprehensible languages were required to communicate with each other in English. Even today, the vast majority of its speakers learn it as a secondary form of communication, not as a primary language. It is still used mostly between speakers from different ethic groups rather than speakers from the same group, and there are wide variations in how the language is spoken from place to place in Nigeria. Nonetheless, the language has become extremely widespread within the country, and communities of native speakers have developed in certain areas. The number of natives may be small compared to the total number of speakers, but it is sizeable enough to have drawn increased attention to Nigerian Pidgin English in recent years.

The Pidgin English Alphabet and Pidgin English Pronunciation

Because it evolved from English, Nigerian Pidgin English is written with the Latin alphabet. However, not all of the letters are used, and the pronunciation has been influenced by various native African languages. In particular, sounds that do not occur in many of those languages and may be difficult for their speakers to pronounce are usually eliminated. Spelling, too, is greatly simplified and usually phonetic. The result is that many words look and sound quite different from the standard English terms from which they were derived.

Pidgin English Vocabulary

The meanings of words in Nigerian Pidgin English may also differ from their standard English counterparts. During the formation of a pidgin, words often take on expanded meanings so that a limited vocabulary can cover a wide range of situations. As the pidgin evolves, some of the new secondary meanings may eventually become more widespread than the initial meanings. For example, in Nigerian Pidgin English, "chop" can mean "food" and "yarn" can mean "talk".

Nigerian Pidgin English also draws a considerable amount of vocabulary from the other African languages spoken around it, particularly from Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba. It is not unusual to find words from these languages mixed into Pidgin English sentences, and some have become regular parts of the language. These terms often vary from place to place in Nigeria, depending on the ethnic and linguistic background of the speakers involved.

Pidgin English Grammar

The grammar of Nigerian Pidgin English reflects the simplification process that is typical of pidgin formation. For example, tenses are usually indicated by context or time-related words, rather than by changes within verbs. The grammar, like the vocabulary, also reflects the influence of the surrounding languages. Speakers with different native languages may use different grammar structures when they speak Nigerian Pidgin English, based on what is most familiar and comfortable to them. Furthermore, speakers who are regularly exposed to standard English will tend to use a more standard sentence structure than those who rarely hear it.

Transparent Language's Pidgin English software program can be a unique resource for those interested in Nigerian Pidgin English. Best of luck with your language learning endeavors!