The Difference Between Lingua Franca, Pidgin, and Creole Languages

Because languages are freely evolving phenomena with the sole purpose of facilitating communication between people, it’s hard to separate them into static boxes. As we have previously covered on our blog, even coming to a strict conclusion as to what constitutes a language can be difficult. While separating dialects from fully fledged languages can, to a large extent, come down to a political decision, it also demonstrates the category-defying nature of these means of communication. Another wondrous aspect that shows how malleable and fluid the idea of languages is, is the emergence and existence of lingua franca, pidgin, and creole languages.

Lingua Franca

Lingua Franca might be the most commonly recognised of these three terms. In essence, a lingua franca is one that is used for communication between people who have no native language in common. This helps to facilitate trade and cultural exchange which helps to explain why lingua francas were also called “trade” or “bridge” languages.

While these days, the lingua franca of the world is undoubtedly English, it wasn’t always like that. Throughout history and in various places around the globe, various other languages have been used to the same effect: Greek was used in the heyday of the Hellenistic influence, Latin during the Roman Empire, Aramaic in Western Asia, and today, French, Urdu, and Swahili are used as the lingua franca in certain parts of the world. Actually, the term lingua franca originates from a particular language that was used for communication around the Mediterranean area for around eight centuries. It was based on a simplified version of Italian, with many additions from Spanish, Portuguese, Berber, Turkish, French, Greek, and Arabic. The words “lingua franca” themselves mean “language of the Franks” in Latin, although the term “Franks” covered the whole population of Western Europe.

Although quite often many pidgin and creole languages can function as lingua francas, lingua francas themselves most often are neither pidgin nor creole.

Pidgin Languages

Pidgin languages share the main characteristic of a lingua franca in that they are used as a means of communication between different communities. Where they differ from the previous is that pidgin languages have no native speakers. Often, pidgin languages are based on a simplified version of one main language, while borrowing vocabulary and grammar from several additional languages. So, the original lingua franca used around the Mediterranean was a pidgin language, for example – based on simplified Italian, with additions from Greek, French, Arabic, and others. Alternatively, they can originate from mixing together several simplified languages.

At their core, pidgin languages are a very simplified means of communication. Much of the “language” can come down to mixing voice and hand signals, in an effort to make oneself understood to someone from a different community. There are very few grammatical rules and the language can develop impromptu – during the course of a single encounter. Over the course of several encounters, a more conventional form of pidgin can develop; and creole languages take that step even further.

Creole languages

All creole languages are derived from forms of pidgins – they are simply pidgin languages that have been spoken across generations and which have developed a community of native speakers. While pidgins are characterised by an extremely simplified structure and are simply used to “get by” when communicating with someone whose native language you don’t speak, creoles start to re-introduce more complex grammar. They have their own vocabulary which is distinct from their origin languages’ and a fully developed system of grammar.

There is even a theory that English itself might be a creole language. When the language developed from Old English into Middle English, it underwent such drastic changes that some scholars believe it took on characteristics of a pidgin during the Norman Conquest. Since there are now native English speakers across the planet, it would mean that English is the most common creole tongue. Otherwise, the title is held by Haitian Creole – a language based on French with influences from Portuguese, Spanish, English, and West African languages – the native language of around 10-12 million people.

The Status of Pidgin and Creole languages

Most pidgin and creole languages have developed due to the past colonising tendencies of many European countries. Haitian Creole has obvious roots in that, as does Nigerian pidgin English – possibly the most widely spread form of pidgin. Because of this, however, many of these forms of language also suffer from a perceived lack of prestige.

When, because of the Atlantic slave trade, many of different languages started arriving in Haiti and the local French (brought by the colonisers) started to become a pidgin, this new language was looked down upon by the authorities. Dubbed “the poor man’s French”, it was considered lower than the original form. While it can seem bizarre that what is essentially a means of communication should require any level of “prestige”, this view had long-lasting consequences. Up until the beginning of the 21st century, all children in Haitian schools received their education in French. Since Haitian Creole is mutually unintelligible with French, this effectively meant learning in a second language.

Conclusion – Lingua Franca, Pidgin, and Creole Language All Facilitate Communication Between Groups

In their own ways, all of these three forms of communication are designed to bring people from different groups together. Whether it is by using a third language or by mixing several together – lingua franca and pidgin languages are all used to facilitate communication between groups whom otherwise would find it impossible. And since languages seem to almost take on a mind of their own, evolving and developing over time, creoles are simply the natural progression of the very human need to connect to others.