Design Features of Pidgin Grammars

Compared to their source languages, pidgins show a characteristic simplification of linguistic structure that concerns all aspects of grammar: lexicon, phonology, syntax, semantics, morphology. Accordingly, the grammars of pidgins are characteristically less complex than the grammars of their source languages.

Mark Sebba (1997) describes this reduced structural system by means of four principles or design features ascribed to pidgin grammars. Some are also valid for creoles:

(1) The syntactic features of a pidgin reveal a [lack of surface grammatical complexity]
(2) Pidgins are characterized by a [lack of morphological complexity]
(3) Pidgins show a general [preference for semantic transparency]
(4) Pidgins show a characteristic [reduction in vocabulary]

(5) Pidgins are characterized by a comparatively high degree of [phonological simplicity] (This is not a design feature mentioned by Sebba (1997) but it is another characteristic feature of pidgin languages.)

The design features are shared by pidgins (and creoles) worldwide. Usually, contact languages show structural similarities, even though they are geographically widely separated and are based on different lexifier languages which themselves do not share the structural features that are common to pidgins and creoles.

An example:
(Tok Pisin, Chinese Pidgin English, Sranan Tongo = English-based; Haitian Creole = French-based; Papiamentu = Spanish-based)

The example shows grammatical similarities between contact languages based on different lexifiers in terms of the ordering of sentence elements. All the sentences give a translation of the English 'I did not see him' or 'I have not seen him'.

Researchers have been concerned with the question as to how the structural similarities between pidgins and creoles can be properly explained and have stated different [theories of genesis] which aim at an explanation of shared features in terms of the origins of pidgin and creole languages.

Theories of Genesis