Today we look at the use of the word ‘pidgin’ in First World War memoirs written during the conflict.


‘Pidgin’ has long been used in two ways, to describe an untutored form of a given language, and more usefully to describe a language used between distinct language-speakers, often based on one of their languages, with adaptations and major losses or simplifications of inflexions (word-endings) or verb case forms. It derives from a Chinese pronunciation of the English word ‘business’, a strong indicator of its social origin and value. Thus you can have ‘Pidgin’ (for the Chinese-English based pidgin), ‘a pidgin’ (derived from any given two or more languages), or specific varieties such as ‘Pidgin-English’, describing a pidgin in which the main derivative language is English, ‘Pidgin-French’, and so on. The OED defines ‘pidgin’ as ‘a language containing lexical and other features from two or more languages, characteristically with simplified grammar and a smaller vocabulary than the languages from which it is derived, used for communication between people not having a common language’. The key point of this definition is that it is not a parody of a language, though that may often be a usage for the terms ‘pidgin-English’ or ‘pidgin-French’ – and often these terms debase the language and usually one of the speakers. A ‘creole’, by the way, is a language that develops from a pidgin, with its own grammar and syntax developing independently.


The first view given above of what a pidgin is can be seen in throw-away usages, such as that of J H Morgan in Gentleman at Arms (1918); here he is speaking of a sailor with a strong East Anglian accent: ‘I noticed that he used none of that truculent pidgin English which by a curious literary convention so many longshoremen of letters put into the mouth of those who go down to the sea in ships.’ Here ‘pidgin’ appears to mean ‘non-standard’. The origin of the term in ‘business’ is seen in the now less frequently used application of the word  to describe a concern or area of interest, the spelling deriving from the original use of ‘pidgin’ as ‘business’; the OED defines this usage as ‘a person’s concern, responsibility, or area of interest or expertise’. Thus in At the War (1916) by Lord Northcliffe ‘Spain is, from the German point of view, distinctly Germany’s “pidgin.”’


Neville Hilditch was aware of how pidgin operated as a specific language in colonial circumstances: ‘None of the natives, it is note-worthy, spoke German, even in Cameroon, but pidgin-English instead.’ (from Battle Sketches 1914-15, 1915). Previous colonial experience might be indicated in a writer’s awareness of the origin of Pidgin: in Sixteen Months in Four German Prisons (1917), Henry Mahoney wrote ‘The absence of the officers was explained a little later. They had been searching for an interpreter, so that I might be put through another inquisition. This interpreter was about the most incompetent of his class that one could wish to meet. His English was execrable – far worse than Chinese pidgin – and he had an unhappy and disconcerting manner of intermingling German and English words …’


However, this kind of awareness of pidgin’s use as a language in the colonial situation is often tinged with indications of the essentially patronising view of colonised peoples: when the AIF took over Neu Pommern (New Pomerania, now New Britain, part of Papua New Guinea) on 11 September 1914 the change of government was signified by a proclamation, reported in The Illustrated War News 30 December 1914 – ‘The proclamation was read by Major Francis Heritage … For the benefit of the natives an address was given in amusing “pidgin” English.’


Ivan Rossiter of the 1st& 3rd Canadian Mounted Rifles saw how pidgin works, developing into a language with its own exclusivities: ‘It will be surprising after the war the number of prison soldiers who will be able to converse at least in French, and who will know something of German or Russian or both. A new “language” has been born of this war, in the German prison camps, and is a medium of conversation between the different nationalities, being made up of German, Russian, French and English, resembling somewhat pidgin-English. It serves the purpose admirably, although it would be impossible for any one but a prisoner in a German camp to understand it.’  In Kultured Kaptivity – Life and Death in Germany’s Prison Camps and Hospitals, Ivan Rossiter (1918).


Often the term is used to describe an attempt to create an intelligible statement, often in stressed circumstances, by reaching for words from any suitable language. When Wallace Ellison escaped from a German prison camp and knocked on the door of some Dutch-speakers he was immediately taken inside. ‘I told him in a sort of pidgin-German-English that I was an Englishman who had just escaped from Germany’. Escaped! Adventures in German Captivity (1918). Similarly, L W Crouch describes one of his colleagues:  ‘Our servants are very amusing here. There is a chubby and cheery daughter at this farm, about eighteen years old. Coy is awfully funny with her, talking pidgin French.’ (Duty and Service, Letters from the Front (1917). And Alan Bott, in Eastern Nights – and Flights, a Record of Oriental Adventure (1919): ‘I produced ten more banknotes, each of one Turkish pound. Again using pidgin-Turkish, with many an expressive gesture, I offered them to the guards.’ And John Reed, in The War in Eastern Europe (1916): ‘One spoke English, another harsh maritime French, a third Neapolitan, a fourth Levantine Spanish, and still another pidgin-German; all knew Greek, and the strange patois of the Mediterranean sailor.’


How do we assess these uses of the term? Given that in these circumstances they indicate that the usually monolingual speaker spoke poor French or poor German, are they describing the ‘business’ of escape or stressed negotiation? Is there an underlying sense of racial hierarchy in the implication of ‘non-standard’, ‘good enough to get by’ and ‘no need to try harder to learn the language of other people’? Or is ‘pidgin’ a real-life semantic shift to describe in extreme circumstances what in more leisured environments would be lingua franca?








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