Pidgin languages—most simply defined as a blend of two languages—are used around the world. Official estimates of the number of pidgin languages vary, but Ethnologue lists a total of 16 pidgin languages with speakers spread around the globe. Nigerian Pidgin English, for example, has an impressive 75 million speakers in Nigeria, Haitian Creole has 12 million speakers and Jamaican Creole has 3.2 million.
So why are pidgin languages barely present in marketing and advertising content? We explore this topic below, but first, let’s take a closer look at what pidgin languages are and where they are spoken.
What is a pidgin?
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of a pidgin is:
“A language containing lexical and other features from two or more languages, characteristically with simplified grammar and a smaller vocabulary than the languages from which it is derived, used for communication between people not having a common language; a lingua franca.”
Pidgin languages are blended tongues that are born of necessity. They combine two languages in a way that facilitates communication where it would otherwise not be possible.
Over time, it’s possible for a pidgin to become a creole.
What is a creole?
It’s essentially a pidgin language that ends up being spoken as a first language. According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, a creole is defined as:
“A language formed when a mixture of a European language with a local language (especially an African language spoken by slaves in the West Indies) is spoken as a first language.”
In reality, the two terms are often used somewhat interchangeably. West African Pidgin English, for example, is also known as Guinea Coast Creole English. Born out of the slave trade along the Atlantic coast during the 17th and 18th centuries, it is spoken across much of West Africa today, meaning that it is technically a creole. However, it’s still widely referred to as Pidgin English.
Where are pidgin languages spoken?
Pidgins are spoken all over the world: Africa, the Caribbean, northern South America, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. You may even have heard of Louisiana Creole in the US. However, there are none documented in Europe (see this fascinating map).
What is the base language for many pidgin languages?
It’s often English, meaning that Pidgin-to-English and Creole-to-English translations are regularly delivered by professional translation service providers around the world. However, some pidgins are Portuguese-, French- or Spanish-based.
Is there an unexplored business opportunity?
Many pidgin languages were born out of cultural, societal and business opportunities, yet the modern business world largely shuns their use. In West Africa, for example, a pidgin originated in order to facilitate trade—in large part, the trade of humans being shipped to the New World to be sold into slavery.
With so many pidgin speakers out there (ranging from hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions), the potential use of pidgin languages in business has all the hallmarks of an opportunity that is ripe for the taking.
Imagining pidgin marketing campaigns
Let’s look at Nigerian Pidgin English as an example. Somewhere between three million and five million Nigerians speak it as their first language, while a staggering 75 million Nigerians speak it as a second language (out of a total population of around 190 million people). Variations of it are also used across West and Central Africa.
It’s easy to imagine how effective it could be to use Nigerian Pidgin in marketing campaigns. It would not only suit topical marketing strategies linked to current events, but would also serve to create a deeper sense of engagement with consumers. With so many speakers, Nigerian Pidgin has become a cultural force in its own right. From Afrobeat tunes to films coming out of Nollywood, this language is being used in new avenues.
Why, then, should it not be embraced by the food and beverage industry, for example? Food is an intrinsic part of any culture and has unshakable linguistic ties with Nigerian Pidgin, just as it does with other languages.
Alternatively, Nigerian Pidgin English could serve a far more practical purpose. Imagine its use in a sexual health awareness campaign. Such a campaign would have a significant benefit to society, and using Nigerian Pidgin English as a lingua franca would ensure that the message reaches a wide and diverse audience.
What do our attitudes about pidgins tell us about ourselves?
Attitudes about Nigerian Pidgin are incredibly revealing. Despite having so many millions of speakers, it is not recognized as an official language anywhere in West Africa. Not only that, but its use is often discouraged in formal settings. For example, many schools will discipline children that they catch speaking Pidgin rather than English.
It went against the grain, then, when the BBC World Service, the great bastion for support for the Queen’s English, launched BBC Pidgin in 2017. Demand for such a service was clearly there—a year later, it had racked up a weekly audience of 7.5 million listeners.
More than anything, the fact that Nigerian Pidgin is commonly referred to as “broken English” reveals society’s attitude towards the language, as well as to those who speak it. Fela Kuti spoke for many when he expressed his defiance against being “civilized” by singing “I no be gentleman at all o” in Pidgin.
Perhaps it is time, then, for those who actively seek to discourage the use of pidgins to focus instead on adjusting their own mindsets. Instead of a company looking to translate website content from English to Igbo or Hausa, for example, perhaps the focus should be on the language that has the potential to reach more speakers than both of these combined—Nigerian Pidgin.
Of course, with around 79 million Nigerians also speaking English, some argue that it would be just as useful to translate an Igbo or Hausa website into English. However, this misses the point. Nigerians already have plenty of English content available to them. Using translation services to translate into English would simply be delivering more of the same. Instead, the bolder move—that could also endear you to your customers and build a unique level of trust with them—might be to translate into the pidgin language that they speak in their homes and among friends.
About the author
Louise Taylor has been writing about languages for Tomedes, a translation and localization agency with clients around the globe, for the better part of a decade. A committed language learner, she holds qualifications in English, French, German, Spanish and Latin and speaks passable Portuguese.