Stages of Pidgin Development

Once a pidgin has come into existence it may develop further with respect to its grammatical structure and range of communicative functions. These developments depend on the communicative needs of the pidgin's speakers. Here, pidgins may reveal a developmental continuum. There are particular stages of pidgin development which are universal for all pidgins. The stages are characterized by differing degrees of stability and complexity in the pidgin's grammar and in the communicative functions the pidgin serves.

The developmental stages of a pidgin:


  • is the most basic and least structured phase in the development of a pidgin. The jargon characteristically lacks stable linguistic norms of usage. It is not clearly determined what is grammatically and lexically part of the jargon. Thus, the jargon stage is characterized by high grammatical and lexical instability, or a high degree of grammatical and lexical variation among the speakers of the jargon. This variation is based on the influence of the speakers' native languages on the structure of the jargon.

  • Has the most limited range of social functions (e.g. restriction to trade).

  • Example: Russenorsk was used between Russian sailors and Norwegian fishermen for the purpose of trade from the eighteenth until the early twentieth century.

Tertiary Hybridization:

  • is a developmental process which is seen as a significant stage in the formation of a pidgin with stable linguistic norms of usage. Tertiary Hybridization is based on the assumption that a 'proper' or stable pidgin cannot develop unless the influence of the lexifier has disappeared from the contact situation. This happens as soon as the jargon begins to be used exclusively between groups of speakers who are not speakers of the lexifier. The jargon can now develop independent of the lexifier's influence and will in due course be turned into a stable pidgin. However, as long as the lexifier is present in the contact situation and spoken by native speakers, it is assumed that it will serve as the target language. The resulting contact language will rather be a simplified version of the lexifier. The lexifier will serve as the target language because it is the superstrate language.

  • Tertiary hybridization refers to the use of the jargon as the primary means of communication between groups of speakers who do not speak the original target language. In such a situation the jargon (or secondary hybrid) will stabilize and thus develop into a stable pidgin, the tertiary hybrid.

  • The jargon, in this connection, is the result of secondary hybridization, a term which also describes the interbreeding of species. Thus, the jargon or secondary hybrid emerges during the interbreeding of, for example, a European language the superstrate with an indigenous language the substrate. When this contact language is adopted by a third group of speakers this process is referred to as tertiary hybridization. The tertiary hybrid, or the (stable) pidgin, has developed.

Stable pidgin (tertiary hybrid):

  • A stable pidgin is characterized by a reduction of linguistic variability. It has stable or established linguistic norms of usage in the fields of grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. These norms are often independent and distinct from the hybrid's source languages.

  • A tertiary hybrid is characterized by an overall structural simplicity compared to its source languages.

  • Its use is restricted to specific communicative functions.

It is questionable whether tertiary hybridization or simply the establishment of independent linguistic norms of usage which is of major importance for the emergence of a stable pidgin.

Extended / expanded pidgin:

  • In the expansion phase the range of communicative functions increases for which the pidgin is used.

  • The expansion of communicative functions is accompanied by an overall structural elaboration of the pidgin in both vocabulary and grammar. Its initial structural simplicity becomes much more complex in the process.

At any of these developmental stages creolization of the pidgin may occur as soon as it acquires native speakers.

(Information taken and adapted from Sebba, 1997)