West African Pidgin English

West African Pidgin English

West African Pidgin English, also called Guinea Coast Creole English, was the lingua franca of commerce along the West African coast during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. British slave merchants and local African traders developed this language in the coastal areas in order to facilitate their commercial exchanges, but it quickly spread up the river systems into the West African interior because of its value as a trade language among Africans of different tribes. Later in its history, this valuable trading language was adopted as a native language by new communities of Africans and mixed-race people living in coastal slave trading bases like Elmina and Bunce Island. At that point, it became a creole language.

Some scholars call this language "West African Pidgin English" to emphasize its role as a lingua franca pidgin used for trading. Others call it "Guinea Coast Creole English" to emphasize its role as a creole native language spoken in and around the coastal slave castles and slave trading bases by people permanently based there.


West African Pidgin English arose during the period when the British dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the late 1600s and 1700s, ultimately exporting more slaves to the Americas than all the other European nations combined. During this period, English-speaking sailors and slave traders were in constant contact with African villagers and long-distance traders along thousands of miles of West African coastline. Africans who picked up elements of pidgin English for purposes of trade with Europeans along the coast took it to the interior where other Africans who may never have seen a white man adopted it as a useful device for trade along the rivers.


Like other pidgin and creole languages, West African Pidgin English took the majority of its vocabulary from its target language (English), and much of its sound system, grammar, and syntax from the local substrate languages (West African Niger-Congo languages). The existence of this influential language during the slave trade era is attested by the many descriptions of it recorded by early European travelers and slave traders. They often called it the "Coast English" or the "Coast Jargon."

The English dialect that served as the target language (or lexifier) for West African Pidgin English was not the speech of Britain's educated classes, but the Nautical English spoken by the British sailors who manned the slave ships that sailed to Africa. Nautical speech contained words from British regional dialects as well as specialized ship vocabulary. Evidence of this early nautical speech can still be found in the modern pidgin and creole languages derived from West African Pidgin English. In Sierra Leone Krio, for instance, words derived from English regional dialects include "padi" ("friend"), "krabit" ("stingy"), and "berin" ("funeral"). Words from specialized ship vocabulary include "kohtlas" ("machete"), "flog" ("beat," "whip," punish"), and "eys" [from "hoist"] ("to lift").

Historical impact

The various pidgin and creole languages still spoken in West Africa today -- the Aku language in The Gambia, Sierra Leone Krio, Nigerian Pidgin English, Cameroonian Pidgin English, etc. -- are all derived from this early West African Pidgin English. Some scholars also argue that African slaves took this language to the New World where it helped give rise to the English-based creoles that developed there, including the Gullah language in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, Bahamian Dialect, Jamaican Creole, Belizean Kriol, Guyanese Creole, Sranan Tongo in Surinam, etc.

The similarities among these many scattered languages today are due, at least in part, to their common derivation from this early West African Pidgin English. Note the following examples:

*Sierra Leone Krio:"Dem dey go dey foh it res" -- They are going there to eat rice

*Nigerian Pidgin English:"Den dey go dey foh chop rais" -- They are going there to eat rice

*Gullah:"Dem duh gwine dey fuh eat rice" -- They are going there to eat rice


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