Nigerian Pidgin on the BBC

French24 posted an interesting (by which I mean riddled with mis-statements) article about the BBC starting up a service for Nigerian Pidgin, which has 75MM speakers, according to the France24 article, and according to other sources, approximately 30MM first AND second languages speakers.  The article is strangely dismissive of the language and of the speakers, as I read it.

Nigerian Pidgin is the name of the creole language spoken by a significant percentage of the population.  When I studied it, now 20 years ago, it was considered English-based with an influx of words from major trading populations, so it had Portuguese and Swahili origin words. It was not “Portuguese-based” or “Jamaican Patois inspired” as the article claims. The history of the slave populations and the trade routes are the history of the creation of the language.

Creoles, like most languages, have a continuum of formality, but in the case of creoles, rather than going from slang to formal language, because the creole emerged with a base language, in this case English, the ‘higher’ form (because old school linguists were just that way) is closer to English, and the ‘lower’ form, farther away. This can be grammar, it can be vocabulary, it can be cadence, it varies by language. Comparable to, say Verlan and French. Which doesn’t even begin to touch regional dialects.

Back to the article!

The first line of the article is flat out impossible, a language has a grammar. Languages change. Unwritten languages have no standard orthography, until they do.

 Imagine a language without an alphabet, held together without grammar or spelling, which changes every day but is nonetheless spoken and understood by more than 75 million Nigerians.

Many languages have no alphabet specific to their language, we use Roman or Greek or Cyrillic characters to write. Alphabets specific to a language are a newer incarnation, often tied to national interests or identity. Think Georgian, Cherokee, and Korean. These alphabets were created long after the languages.

Writing (Nigerian) Pidgin may be new, delivering the news over the airwaves and on a website, as well, however the language evolved just so that people could communicate and this is really no different.   If it had a prior association with the ‘lower classes’ it is because it began with the oppression of the locals by the British colonial empire, and the trade routes that grew around their outposts.

Says the French linguist quoted in the article, “It’s a language that belongs to bonody at the same time as belonging to everybody.”  And can’t we say the exact same thing about every language we speak?

The BBC anouncement is much better, but refers to the language as a pidgin and defines it as such, even though, at least when I was in grad school for Linguistics, it was considered a creole. There are so many sociocultural and historical complexities of pidgins and creoles, and I haven’t studied this one since grad school, so I will leave it at that. I am looking forward to the service though, reminder of times past. It will be interesting to see if I can still understand the language or if it has evolved too much.