Nigerian Pidgin is an English-based pidgin and creole language spoken as a lingua franca across Nigeria. The language is commonly referred to as “Pidgin” or Broken (pronounced “Brokin”). It is distinguished from other creole languages since most speakers are not true native speakers although many children learn it at an early age. It can be spoken as a pidgin, a creole, or a decreolised acrolect by different speakers, who may switch between these forms depending on the social setting.
Variations of Pidgin are also spoken across West and Central Africa, in countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Ghana and Cameroon. Pidgin English, despite its common use throughout the country, has no official status.
The origins of Nigerian Pidgin English lie historically in trade contact between the British and local people in the seventeenth century. It is part of a continuum of English Pidgins and Creoles spoken other West-African countries such as Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Ghana. In recent years, Nigerian Pidgin English development has been particularly evident in the big cities and ports in the south of Nigeria, where it is used among people belonging to different ethnic groups; the use of Nigerian Pidgin English is strictly linked to the urbanization process.
Nigerian Pidgin, along with the various pidgin and creole languages of West Africa share similarities to the various English-based Creoles found in the Caribbean. It is especially obvious in Jamaican Creole (also known as Jamaican Patois or simply Patois) and the other creole languages of the West Indies. Linguists posit that this is because most slaves taken to the New World were of West African descent. The pronunciation and accents often differ a great deal, mainly due to the extremely heterogeneous mix of African languages present in the West Indies, but if written on paper or spoken slowly, the creole languages of Caribbean are for the most part mutually intelligible with the creole languages of the West Africa. The presence of repetitious phrases in Caribbean Creole such as “su-su” (gossip) and “pyaa-pyaa” (sickly) mirror the presence of such phrases in West African languages such as “bam-bam”, which means “complete” in the Yoruba language. Repetitious phrases are also present in Nigerian Pidgin, such as, “koro-koro”, meaning “clear vision”, “yama-yama”, meaning “disgusting”, and “doti-doti”, meaning “garbage”. Furthermore, the use of the words of West African origin in Jamaican Patois “Unu” and Bajan dialect “wunna” or “una” – West African Pidgin (meaning “you people”, a word that comes from the Igbo word “unu” or “wunna” also meaning “you people”) display some of the interesting similarities between the English pidgins and creoles of West Africa and the English pidgins and creoles of the West Indies, as does the presence of words and phrases that are identical in the languages on both sides of the Atlantic, such as “Me a go tell dem” (I’m going to tell them) and “make we” (let us). Use of the word “deh” or “dey” is found in both Caribbean Creole and Nigerian Pidgin English, and is used in place of the English word “is” or “are”. The phrase “We dey foh London” would be understood by both a speaker of Creole and a speaker of Nigerian Pidgin to mean “We are in London” (although the Jamaican is more likely to say “Wi de a London”). Other similarities, such as “pikin” (Nigerian Pidgin for “child”) and “pikney” (used in islands like St.Vincent, Antigua and St. Kitts, akin to the standard-English pejorative/epithet pickaninny) and “chook” (Nigerian Pidgin for “poke” or “stab”) which corresponds with the Bajan Creole word “juk”, and also corresponds to “chook” used in other West Indian islands.
Connection to Portuguese language
Being derived partly from the present day Edo/Delta area of Nigeria, there are still some leftover words from the Portuguese language in pidgin English (Portuguese ships traded slaves from the Bight of Benin). For example, “you sabi do am?” means “do you know how to do it?”. “Sabi” means “to know” or “to know how to”, just as “to know” is “saber” in Portuguese. (According to the monogenetic theory of pidgins, sabir was a basic word in Mediterranean Lingua Franca, brought to West Africa through Portuguese pidgin. An English cognate is savvy.) Also, “pikin” or “pickaninny” comes from the Portuguese words “pequeno” and “pequenino”, which mean “small”.
Similar to the Caribbean Creole situation, Nigerian Pidgin is mostly used in informal conversations. However, Nigerian Pidgin has no status as an official language. Nigerian Standard English is used in politics, the Internet and some television programs.
The most important difference to other types of English is the limited repertoire of consonants, vowels (6) and diphthongs (3) used. This produces a lot of homophones, like thin, thing and tin which are all three pronounced like /tin/. This circumstance gives a high importance to the context, the tone, the body language and any other ways of communication for the distinction of the homophones.
In the past the use of Nigerian Pidgin English was linked to non-educated people and perceived by the educated ones with negative attitude. Nowadays the use of Nigerian Pidgin English is more widespread even among educated people and perceived as more Nigerian than English. Indeed, using Nigerian Pidgin English is increasingly popular among young people, many writers, politicians and musicians.
The fact that it is not attached to any ethnic group makes it a very good candidate as an official lingua franca in the Federation. The use of Nigerian Pidgin English can also function, in some contexts, as an act of identity when speakers need to stress their ‘Nigerianness’, as opposed to their ethnic group identity. In other words, Nigerian Pidgin English can express a belonging to Nigeria, which English, the language of the ex-colonial power, cannot. This is very similar to other multiethnic postcolonial situations. Compare the linguistic situation of Mauritius Islands where English and French are the official languages, but they coexist with other very powerful community languages (Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, etc.) and Mauritian French Creole. The latter, although lacking official status, is the only language which can express a neutral Mauritian identity.
No official status has been granted to Nigerian Pidgin English in Nigeria, although some Nigerians have suggested that it would be a good candidate for national language status, since it retains the above-mentioned characteristics of solidarity and neutrality. However, Nigerian Pidgin English is not yet sufficiently well-developed to fulfill all the duties of a national language. There is no standard orthography, little or no written use, and above all no active movement favouring its development and propagation. One of the obstacles to standardization is the perception of Nigerian Pidgin English as a variety of English, rather than a separate language; Nigerians often refer to Nigerian Pidgin English as ‘brokin English’.