Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Pidgin English

There will be no revelations below. I owe all I have to say to my database and especially to the papers by Ian F. Hancock (1979) and Dingxu Shi (1992). But surprisingly, my folders contain an opinion that even those two most knowledgeable researchers have missed, and I’ll mention it below for what it is worth.

Several important dictionaries tell us that pidgin is a “corruption” of Engl. business, and I am not in a position to confirm or question their opinion. But those who enjoy essays on etymology usually want to know more than the final verdict, whether it is “origin unknown” or “from Latin via Old French.” The path of discovery often reads like a thriller and is more entertaining than the final piece of distilled truth, especially because dictionaries tend to shower users with cognates and pretend that this is what people expect. However, before going on, I would like to say why I put corruption, at the top of this paragraph, in quotes. (The quotes are present in the entry Pidgin in the original edition of the OED.)

True Pigeon (English?). In the past, the word Pidgin was occasionally spelled as Pigeon. Image credit: “Venice St Mark’s Square Italy Venezia Pigeons” by Charly_7777. CC0 via Pixabay.

For a long time, the word corruption graced the works of our best scholars, including Walter W. Skeat, James A. H. Murray, and Henry Bradley, the OED’s first editors (on Bradley see the post for 9 April 2014). Our modern dislike of this term may be a tribute to political correction, but in the traditionally non-judgmental context of historical linguistics, corruption and corrupted are indeed wrong words. Open any old book on the history of language, and you will read that speakers of the Romance languages corrupted Latin words. By the same token, even in the days of the empire, good Latin words experienced the corrupting influence of the unwashed rabble. Language change is “corruption” by definition. For centuries, law-abiding speakers of English said cometh, but uneducated northerners changed it to comes. Today, the deleterious effect of that process is obvious to all. Someone corrupted sneaked into snuck and dived into dove. Corruption is ineradicable: Shakespeare corrupted Chaucer’s English, and we corrupted Shakespeare’s idiom. If pidgin is indeed the way Chinese speakers pronounced business, they did what they could: we witness change, adaptation, or alteration, not corruption, which presupposes an evil intent.

Several names stand out in the attempts to explain the origin of the word pidgin. One such name is Charles G. Leland. Ian Hancock mentioned Leland’s “apparently little-noticed suggestion” about the derivation of pidgin. His remark shows how short our memory is. Leland (1824-1903), an American-born author, was not simply known, but famous at his time. Folklorists and ethnographers still use his books, though they find that he “corrupted” a good deal of the information at his disposal. His humorous “ballads” enjoyed tremendous popularity, and his interest in Pidgin English was not a passing whim. Leland’s book Pidgin-English Sing-Songs and Stories in the China English Dialect was written in the same vein as his ballads that used a mixture of broken English and German. In that book, he wrote: “As the term wallah in Hindu, and that of engro in Rommany (sic), are applicable to any kind of active agent, so pidgin is with great ingenuity made expressive of every variety of calling, occupation or affair.” A correspondent to Notes and Queries (10/V, 1906: 91) wrote: “‘Pidgin English’ has not much literature, but Leland is its poet-laureate.”

Charles Godfrey Leland, to whom the etymology of the word Pidgin owes a debt of gratitude. Image credit: United States author, poet and folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland via United States Library of Congress. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Leland noted that some people derived pidgin from Engl. business, while other traced it to Portuguese (ocu)paçāo “business transaction.” Unfortunately, he did not say who those “others” were. There is nothing improbable in his etymology: “…the Portuguese were among the first European traders in West Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and one might readily assume that some word for ‘trade’, ‘business’ or ‘job’ was used by them” (Hancock). Also, Portuguese pequeno “little” (known to English speakers from the ethnic slur pickaninny), a derisive name for the jargon (pequeno portuguēs), has been suggested as the source of pidgin.

Another important name in the study of the etymology of pidgin is David Kleinecke. In his article (1959), he pointed out that in 1605 Captain Charles Leigh had planted a colony at the mouth of the Oyapock River. A letter from Master John Wilson of that colony is extant. It is said there that “the Pidians could not at all times provide them that they wanted.” Kleinecke wove an ingenious theory around this single occurrence of Pidians. He believed that such tribal names in West Guiana as Mapidian contain the same element as Pidian, allegedly the local name for “people,” which, as Kleinecke suggested, was carried from the west to the East Indies by English sailors and finally reached China. On the face of it, contrary to what Hancock says, this reconstruction has little appeal. The equation has too many unknowns. But Hancock showed that, most probably, Pidians is a misspelling for Indians. In that letter, Indians appears many times, and the mysterious Pidians only once. Most probably, it is a ghost word.

We could have ignored Kleinecke’s idea if it had not been supported by two eminent linguists: Robert A. Hall, Jr and Eric Hamp. As early as 1955, Hamp brought out a book Hands off Pidgin. It was followed by Pidgin and Creole Languages (1966), but to the American public Hamp is (or was) known as the author of another book with the fiery title Leave Your Language Alone, which five years later (in the second edition) was renamed as Linguistics and Your Language, a paean to the descriptive, as opposed to the prescriptive, approach to language. Hall’s main areas of research were Romance and Creole linguistics, but he enjoyed the role of an enfant terrible and toward the end of his career went so far as to defend the authenticity of the Minnesotan Kensington Stone. In his books, he pointed to the phonetic difficulty of turning business into pidgin and suggested a rather unconvincing remedy for improving the situation, so that it is only natural that in a 1974 review he supported Kleinecke’s derivation of pidgin.

The Oyapock River today. The early British colony there failed early. Image credit: he Maripa Falls on the Oyapock River as seen from the French Guiana side of the border. Brazil is on the other side. Photo taken on 5 June 2005, by Arria Belli. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Another advocate of the Pidians is Eric Hamp, a specialist in Celtic and Balkan linguistics and an astoundingly prolific author. The number of his short publications (sometime a paragraph or two of printed text) probably exceeds a thousand. One of them (1977) is on “a vastly preferable explanation [of the origin of pidgin] supported… by at least one shred of documentation from an appropriate chronological depth.” I suppose that Hamp did not see the full text of Wilson’s letter; if he had read it, he might have questioned the value of that “shred.” Also, the Hebrew of London speakers has been suggested as the environment in which the word pidgin originated (a rather hopeless fantasy), and above I promised to cite a conjecture missed by the best speicialists. Its author is Major H. R. E. Rudkin, and, for some reason, it appeared twice in Notes and Queries (vol. 162, 1932: 109 and the same volume, 1933: 153), though in a slightly different form.

In “his humble opinion,” it was much more likely that pidgin should be traced to Peking, pronounced approximately as “pey jing,” meaning “Northern Capital.” He explained: “When Englishmen were first permitted to enter China, it is most probable that Peking was the first large city they visited, and it was only after protracted negotiations with the Emperor that they were allowed to enter any other parts of that forbidden land. It is therefore only natural to infer that the jargon they and the Chinese used as a medium of communication should have come to be known as ‘Pei Ching; or ‘Pay Jing’ or ‘Pidgin’ English.” Above, I noted that the most recent publication on the word pidgin I know goes back to 1992. Quite possibly, since that time someone has discovered Rudkin’s contributions, the more so as my 2010 bibliography of English etymology features both, but I decided to mention them for safety’ sake. I needn’t point out that the name of the capital of China is now pronounced as Beijing in English.

Both Portuguese paçāo and Engl. business are rather hard to transform into pidgin, and Dingxu Shi explained at length why business is a better candidate.  Kleinecke’s Pidian is perfect, but it is, most likely, a phantom. I wonder what specialists will say about Pay Jing English as the source of this intractable word. They will probably discard it, for, as Dingxu Shi explained, in a nineteenth-century phrase book, the entry for business is presented by two Chinese characters, pronounced as [pi] and [tsin]. However, couldn’t this word be a “derivative” of pidgin?  Hancock also knew a similar word. The evidence for [pi tsin] is late, as are all the attestations of pidgin, while the first contacts between the English and China go back to the 1620. With this word we are, I daresay, between the Devil and the deep blue sea.

Featured Image: This is the way British ships at Macau probably looked like four hundred years ago. Image credit: East Indiaman‚ Kent off Deal‘, England by William John Huggins. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Yves Rehbein

    While the notion of Beijing English might be a likely origin, I don’t think that’s reason enough to discard an influence of “business”, because pidgin languages should be a prime example against the usual preference for a single root. If word plays help to establish a new coinage, they are important to the history.

    Considering “business”, a look at “bid” might be helpful. a “bid” being an actual act of speech, and “bidding” an important part of trade. The word “bidness” has a negative connotation — maybe pidgin was ill received as improper language.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *