West African Pidgin English

West African Pidgin English, also known as Guinea Coast Creole English,[1] is a West African pidgin language lexified by English and local African languages. It originated as a language of commerce between British and African slave traders during the period of the Atlantic slave trade. As of 2017, about 75 million people in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea used the language.[2]

West African Pidgin English
Native toNigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea
Native speakers
75,000,000 (2017)
English Creole
  • Guinea Coast
    • West African Pidgin English
Latin script
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Because it is primarily a spoken language, there is no standardized written form, and many local varieties exist.[3] These include Sierra Leone Krio, Nigerian Pidgin, Ghanaian Pidgin English, Cameroonian Pidgin English, Liberian Pidgin English,[4] the Aku dialect of Krio,[5] and Pichinglis.


Slave tradeEdit

West African Pidgin English was the lingua franca, or language of commerce, spoken along the West African coast during the period of the Atlantic slave trade. Portuguese traders were the first Europeans to trade in West Africa in the 15th century, and some words of Portuguese origin remain in the pidgin, for example, "sabi" (to know), a derivation of the Portuguese "saber".[3] Later, as British slave merchants came to dominate the slave trade, they 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 native African peoples 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.[6] 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."

Modern AfricaEdit

West African Pidgin English remained in use in West Africa after the slave trade and, later, European colonization ended. Many distinct regional variants of the language emerged. Looked down upon in colonial times as a bastardization of proper English – a stigma still attached to it by some – Pidgin nonetheless remains in widespread use. In Nigeria in 2016 there was an estimated five million individuals who use Pidgin as a primary language for everyday use. [7] As of 2017, about 75 million people in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea use the language.[2] During decolonization, it became a "language of resistance and anti-colonialism", and political activists still use it to criticize their post-colonial political leaders.[3]

Over the last hundred years the amount of English-lexifer based creoles in West African countries currently being used as primary and secondary language has increased greatly, with speakers currently exceeding one hundred million.[8]

Because West African Pidgin English is a primarily spoken language, there is no standardized written form, and many local varieties exist.[3] In August 2017, the BBC launched a Pidgin news service, aimed at audiences in West and Central Africa, as part of its World Service branch.[9] As part of that effort, the BBC developed a guide for a standardized written form of pidgin.[2]


Like other pidgin and creole languages, West African Pidgin English took the majority of its vocabulary from the dominant colonial language in the environment where it developed (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 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 [from "cutlass"] ("machete"), flog ("beat", "punish"), eys [from "hoist"] ("to lift"), and dek ("floor").

Historical impactEdit

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 Po Creole English, etc. – are all derived from the early West African Pidgin English. These contemporary English-based pidgin and creole languages are so similar that they are increasingly grouped together under the name "West African Pidgin English", although the term originally designated only the original 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 Gullah language in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, 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, all of which mean "They are going there to eat rice":

  • Sierra Leone Krio: "Dem dey go for go it res"
  • Ghanaian Pidgin English: "Dem dey go chop rais"
  • Nigerian Pidgin English: "Dem dey go chop rice"
  • Cameroonian Pidgin English: "Dey di go for go chop rice"
  • Gullah: "Dem duh gwine fuh eat rice"

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "The Origin of Pidgin". www.afrostylemag.com. Retrieved November 14, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c Kasaree, Najiba (August 22, 2017). "Working towards a standard Pidgin". BBC Academy. BBC. Retrieved December 31, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d Freytas-Tamura, Kimiko de (December 30, 2017). "The BBC in Pidgin? People Like It Well-Well". The New York Times. Retrieved December 31, 2017.
  4. ^ Gilbert, Glenn (June 1, 2005). "The Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages and the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics, In Retrospect". Creole Language in Creole Literatures. 20 (1): 167–174. doi:10.1075/jpcl.20.1.09gil. ISSN 0920-9034.
  5. ^ "Aku People of Gambia". www.accessgambia.com. Retrieved April 1, 2021.
  6. ^ Matthews, John (1788). A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone on the Coast of Africa. B. White and Son, and J. Sewell.
  7. ^ "Pidgin - West African lingua franca". BBC News. November 16, 2016. Retrieved October 18, 2018.
  8. ^ Yakpo, Kofi (January 1, 2016). ""The only language we speak really well": the English creoles of Equatorial Guinea and West Africa at the intersection of language ideologies and language policies". International Journal of the Sociology of Language. 2016 (239). doi:10.1515/ijsl-2016-0010. ISSN 0165-2516. S2CID 147057342.
  9. ^ "BBC starts Pidgin digital service for West Africa audiences". BBC News. August 21, 2017. Retrieved August 30, 2017.

External linksEdit