The History and Significance of Nigerian Pidgin English

One of the outstanding identity labels of a typical Nigerian is our unique style of broken English, or Pidgin English. Nigerian Pidgin English is spoken freely in many Nigerian movies and songs, in social media skits and videos, in comedies and jokes, and in everyday talk. The smoothness with which many of the speakers render Nigerian Pidgin English interwoven with slangs, is phenomenal. 

Pidgin English

And wait up – you need to experience the Warri (or Niger Delta) version of Nigerian Pidgin English. It is simply ingenious – the way a Niger Delta person smoothly delivers Pidgin English with slangs and symbolisms is just out of this world. 

The History of Nigerian Pidgin English

In a multicultural environment like Nigeria where language and cultural differences were a bone of contention for quite a long time. Thus it was natural for citizens to eagerly adopt the colonial language, English, for better communication.  

Nigerian Pidgin English originated  in the 17th Century as a means of easy communication between native traders and the Portuguese merchants. The Portuguese merchants and the missionaries that followed, came to the native traders along the coastal areas of West Africa and the West Indies, seeking for trade opportunities and raw materials. Thus the coastal people of Cameroon, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, met continuously with these foreigners. 

But there were language barriers and lack of comprehension. It became necessary to develop a form of language based on the European languages of the missionaries and the foreign merchants. And perhaps  easier to comprehend also for the natives at that time. Thus the watered-down versions of European languages such as Creole, Pidgin English and Patois were born. They have remained ever since, and continue to be used long after the missionaries and European traders had left. 

In the modern day, Nigerians who traveled outside the country enthusiastically spoke Nigerian Pidgin English to the open hearing of their foreign neighbors. As of today both home and abroad, Pidgin English has far exceeded standard English in usage. 

How Did The Learned Community Perceive Pidgin English?

In former times, Nigerian Pidgin language was seen as ‘local’ parlance, a language style adapted for the use of illiterate people who could not speak Queen’s English well. However, Nigerian Pidgin English became increasingly used in  marketplaces and neighborhoods. 

Educated folks needed to relate with the supposed illiterate people all around them especially in the streets and marketplace. Modern Nigerian comedians unwittingly but successfully promoted Pidgin English in delivering jokes at events both online and offline. Not surprisingly, students quickly adopted Pidgin English to relate and flow with one another on an informal level. 

An important factor contributed to this widespread use of Pidgin English. That is, some of these learned people and students actually have relatives, spouses, neighbors and friends who were illiterate, and so chose to communicate more easily using Pidgin English. It became imperative that everyone should at least attempt to understand Pidgin English for the sake of loved ones who spoke the language easily.

It is also interesting to note that Nigerian Pidgin English has spread northwards to other parts of the country. As we speak, Pidgin English is no longer confined to the coastal and southern states of Nigeria anymore. It has spread to so many places around Nigeria that it has acquired a Nigerian identity. 

Significance of Nigerian Pidgin English

We can now say Pidgin English is the unofficial de facto Nigerian language following closely after Queen’s English. It has broken down the language barriers that existed before due to ethnic differences. It has become a medium to promote unity and understanding in the midst of a huge cultural diversity that Nigeria has become.

Again, there are no rules guiding the usage of Pidgin English. With innumerable catchy slangs and street sense ideas blended into it, it continues to gather momentum in usage. In fact the speed with which Pidgin English is evolving thanks to slang and coined words in popular use is awesome. This is in sharp contrast to the many semantic and syntax rules you need to obey when using standard Queen’s English. 

Concluding Thoughts on Nigerian Pidgin English

Nigerian Pidgin English could now be described as the gate pass to the lowly places occupied by the masses in Nigeria. Even government officers, politicians and members of the corporate world have recognized Pidgin English as a very useful tool. It has been employed to convince and bring the masses closer to them. Pidgin English is now being used for political campaigns, national orientation jingles, radio and TV adverts, in bank ATMs, by mobile network providers and so on. Once you switch from standard Queen’s English to Pidgin English, it is easy for people to relate with you and not feel uptight. Thus, powerful messages have been passed across to large audiences again and again through the vehicle of Pidgin English. 



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About the author

Robin Okwanma

Hi, I'm Robin Okwanma. Software Engineer || Django, Python || React, React Native || Blogger. Technical Writer.