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West African Pidgin English

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Title: West African Pidgin English  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Equatorial Guinea, List of English-based pidgins, Gullah language, Languages of Africa
Collection: English-Based Pidgins and Creoles
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West African Pidgin English

West African Pidgin English, also called Guinea Coast Creole English, was the lingua franca, or language of commerce, spoken along the West African coast during the period of the Atlantic slave trade. British slave merchants and local African traders developed this language in the coastal areas in order to facilitate their commercial exchanges, but it quickly spread up the river systems into the West African interior because of its value as a trade language among Africans of different tribes. Later in its history, this useful trading language was adopted as a native language by new communities of Africans and mixed-race people living in coastal slave trading bases such as James Island, Bunce Island, Elmina Castle, Cape Coast Castle and Anomabu. At that point, it became a creole language.

Some scholars call this language "West African Pidgin English" to emphasize its role as a lingua franca pidgin used for trading. Others call it "Guinea Coast Creole English" to emphasize its role as a creole native language spoken in and around the coastal slave castles and slave trading centers by people permanently based there.

West African Pidgin English arose during the period when the British dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the late 17th and 18th centuries, ultimately exporting more slaves to the Americas than all the other European nations combined. During this period, English-speaking sailors and slave traders were in constant contact with African villagers and long-distance traders along thousands of miles of West African coastline. Africans who picked up elements of pidgin English for purposes of trade with Europeans along the coast probably took the language up the river systems along the trade routes into the interior where other Africans who may never have seen a white man adopted it as a useful device for trade along the rivers.

The existence of this influential language during the slave trade era is attested by the many descriptions of it recorded by early European travelers and slave traders. They called it the "Coast English" or the "Coast Jargon."

A British slave trader in Sierra Leone, named John Matthews, mentioned pidgin English in a letter he later published in a book titled A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone on the Coast of Africa.[1] Matthews refers to West African Pidgin English as a "jargon," and he warns Europeans coming to Africa that they will fail to understand the Africans unless they recognize that there are significant differences between English and the coastal pidgin:

“Those who visit Africa in a cursory manner...are very liable to be mistaken in the meaning of the natives from want of knowledge in their language, or in the jargon of such of them as reside upon the sea-coast and speak a little English; the European affixing the same ideas to the words spoken by the African, as if they were pronounced by one of his own nation. [This] is a specimen of the conversation which generally passes...:
Well, my friend, you got trade today; you got plenty of slaves?
No, we no got trade yet; by and by trade come. You can’t go.
What you go for catch people, you go for make war?
Yes, my brother… gone for catch people; or they gone for make war."


  • Structure 1
  • Historical impact 2
  • Maroon Spirit Language 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


Like other pidgin and creole languages, West African Pidgin English took the majority of its vocabulary from its target language (English), and much of its sound system, grammar, and syntax from the local substrate languages (West African Niger–Congo languages).

The English dialect that served as the target language (or lexifier) for West African Pidgin English was not the speech of Britain's educated classes, though, but the Nautical English spoken by the British sailors who manned the slave ships that sailed to Africa. Nautical speech contained words from British regional dialects as well as specialized ship vocabulary. Evidence of this early nautical speech can still be found in the modern pidgin and creole languages derived from West African Pidgin English. In Sierra Leone Krio, for instance, words derived from English regional dialects include padi ("friend"), krabit ("stingy"), and berin ("funeral"). Words from specialized ship vocabulary include kohtlas ("machete"), flog ("beat," "punish"), eys [from "hoist"] ("to lift"), and dek ("floor").

Historical impact

The various pidgin and creole languages still spoken in West Africa today—the Aku language in The Gambia, Sierra Leone Krio, Nigerian Pidgin English, Ghanaian Pidgin English, Cameroonian Pidgin English, Fernando Poo Creole English, etc. -- are all derived from this early West African Pidgin English. Indeed, these contemporary English-based pidgin and creole languages are so similar that they are sometimes grouped together under the name "West African Pidgin English," though the term applies more properly to the trade language spoken on the West African coast two hundred years ago.

Some scholars also argue that African slaves took West African Pidgin English to the New World where it helped give rise to the English-based creoles that developed there, including the Bahamian Dialect, Jamaican Creole, Belizean Kriol, Guyanese Creole, Sranan Tongo in Suriname, etc. Since the slaves taken to the Americas spoke many different African languages, they would have found West African Pidgin English as useful as a lingua franca on the plantations as they had found it back home in West Africa as a trading language. Their enslaved children born in the Americas would have adopted different versions of West African Pidgin English as their "native" languages, thus creating a series of New World English-based creoles.

The similarities among the many English-based pidgin and creole languages spoken today on both sides of the Atlantic are due, at least in part, to their common derivation from the early West African Pidgin English. Note the following examples:

  • Sierra Leone Krio:

Dem dey go for go it res -- They are going there to eat rice

  • Ghanaian/Nigerian Pidgin English:

Dem dey go chop rais -- They are going there to eat rice

  • Cameroonian Pidgin English:

Dey di go for go chop rice -- They are going there to eat rice

  • Gullah:

Dem duh gwine fuh eat rice -- They are going there to eat rice

When Germany took possession of Togo and Cameroon, they used Pidgin English to communicate. There were thus publications on varieties like Togolese Pidgin English.[2]

Maroon Spirit Language

The Jamaican Maroons who live in the mountainous interior of Jamaica have preserved a ritual language which, according to some linguists, resembles the West African Pidgin English that was spoken along the coast of West Africa centuries ago during the era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Maroons' ancestors were runaway slaves who created free settlements in the interior of Jamaica and managed to hold on to their freedom for generations. Today, the Maroons speak Jamaican Creole in their daily lives, but they have also retained a ritual language that they call "Deep Patois" which is used during their "Kromanti Play," a ceremony in which the participants are said to be possessed by their ancestors and to speak as their ancestors did centuries ago. Linguists call the Deep Patois "Maroon Spirit Language" (MSL), and they point to many conservative phonological and grammatical features in MSL that are not found in modern Jamaican Creole. Some of these features are still present, though, in related creole languages, such as Sierra Leone Krio spoken in West Africa and Sranan Tongo spoken in Suriname in South America. MSL has a number of English-derived words, such as waka ("walk"), dede ("dead"), and aksi ("ask"), in which an extra vowel is added at the end. During the 18th century, Africans often added an extra vowel to the end of English words when they took them into West African Pidgin English. Since words in African languages usually end in vowels, this gave the English words a familiar form and made them easier to pronounce.


  1. ^ Matthews, John (1788). A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone on the Coast of Africa. Printed for B. White and Son. 
  2. ^ Holm 1989, Pidgins and Creoles, vol. 2, p. 428

External links

  • Richard Nordquist, "West African Pidgin English (WAPE)".
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