The Amazing Grammar of Pidgin English
“Chale, I dey go search chow give us,” my good friend Kwame said. Despite his being visibly hungry and irritable that hot afternoon three years ago, I could not suppress the scrupulous grammarian in my head that was reaching out to grab him by the throat. “We,” I said. “I dey go search chow give we.” Kwame looked at me in astonishment. “Ah, Agana, pidgin no get grammar oo,” he protested, with an air of finality that lingered after he left the room. I turned back to my coding, adjusted my seat and said to myself, “Actually it does.”
I love language, and Pidgin English is, for me, an enigma. It is often seen as a corruption of pristine diction that is not worth the epithet of an actual language. It has the reputation of being low-class, the dialect of the undereducated; it is banned in every public school and frowned upon by educators in general as a rampant saboteur of the English paradigm within which pretty much all of Ghana’s education occurs.
At the same time, it is by no means a hiding language. Pidgin English is boldly spoken everywhere including such prohibited places, and by everyone including the prohibitors. It liberates less educated people to engage with their more elite peers, and in that it is a great equalizer of the social classes, at least for the purposes of communication. It also simplifies language acquisition for non-native English speakers from Ghana and beyond. Various ethnicities and nationalities converse easily in this customized vernacular. There is a kinship in it, and it is beautiful.
But is it a language? This question is not so much an anthropological one as it is a philosophical one. In terms of the former, there is no question that it is. But in terms of the latter, subjective perspectives set in, and most people expect at least some structure and predictability in a true language; grammar and syntactical logic that can be analyzed, categorized and learned. To be fair, Pidgin English sounds like an all-out rebellion against the Queen herself. It is a rank mutiny aboard the vessel that is the English language in Ghana, and it is taking no prisoners.
And yet I have always answered friends like Kwame the same way: Pidgin English is structured. It does have a predictable grammar. It can be analyzed, categorized and learned. It is in all respects a language, even if not a very respected one. “Pidgin get grammar!”
Here are just five examples to prove the point.
1. Pidgin Has Subject-Verb-Agreement
Many non-native speakers of English will recall early struggles with subject-verb agreement, especially in primary school and junior high school. Even many adults still struggle. In regular English subjects must agree with verbs in number. For example, you should say:
I write books
I writes books
Pidgin English strictly enforces its own rule. What it also does, is the common theme that runs through much of its grammar: it simplifies and beautifies. So in Pidgin, the subject will always go with a plural verb in the present tense, along with the present tense marker “dey”. So you say:
I dey write books
You dey write books
He/She dey write books
We dey write books
You dey write books
Them dey write books
So Pidgin English makes a decision on the form the verb should take, and sticks with it. That is the simplification.
By the way, most Pidgin English speakers would use a different word for write: rep. That is the beautification.
2. Pidgin English enforces pronominal concord
Just as pronouns in the subject and object positions in regular English must be at the right place in a sentence, they must be used rightly in Pidgin as well.
For example, to say “Give it to me” in Pidgin, you would have to say:
Take give me
Take give I
Something to take note of though: the 1st person plural is “we” both in subject and object positions. There is no “us” in Pidgin English. So “we want you to give it to us” would be:
We want make you take give we
Also, the 3rd person singulars, “he”, “she” and “it” all become “am”. Yes, I know. So “give it to her” becomes “take give am”, and “kill it” becomes “kill am”.
Finally, the 3rd person plural is the same in subject and object positions as “them” or more precisely “dem”. “They are coming” becomes “Dem dey come”, and “We will see them” becomes “We go see dem”.
3. Pidgin has a predictable way of indicating possession
Regular English provides various ways to indicate possession, though it primarily relies on possessive pronouns. Pidgin has its own set of possessive pronouns, but the really interesting bit is in how it handles the genitive possessive case, such as “This is Jason’s blog.”
Pidgin English dispenses altogether with the “’s” construction. Instead, it uses the pronoun “him”, which in Pidgin is both personal and possessive. We would therefore say, “This be Jason een blog.” “Een” is the Pidgin way of pronouncing “him”. A crude way of understanding it in regular English would be to think of it as “This is Jason his blog.”
Further, this construction is the same regardless of gender. So it’s also right to say “This be Juliana een house” for “This is Juliana’s house”. For plural, just go with the plural possessive in 3rd person, “thema” or “dema”, which translates to “their”.
4. Pidgin English handles infinitives in its own way, consistently
More of the simplification principle is seen in how infinitives are handled. Simply remove the preposition “to” and you’re through. So:
I want to code becomes I want code
They are waiting to sing becomes Them dey wedge sing
Every time :-).
Another pro tip: “want” is more properly pronounced withouth the final “t”, and more like “won”.
5. Pidgin English handles tenses predictably
Going back to our first example with subject-verb-agreement, we can easily see how Pidgin English treats the various tenses.
The simple present and continuous present tenses use a marker, “dey”. Future tense uses a future tense marker “go”. Past tense uses no marker. But the verb form is always the plural form.
Present: I dey rep books (I write books or I am writing books)
Future: We go rep books (We will write books)
Past: Dem rep books (They wrote books)
To express the distant past, simply place “Then” or “den” in the beginning of the sentence, and maintain the past form, whether perfect or continuous. So:
Kwame had been trying to help us
Then Kwame dey try help we.
(Remember, “we” is both subject and object)
(Also, “help” will often be replaced by “boa”, which is Twi for help :-))
Sarah had finished the book
Den Sarah finish the book
A Beautiful Language
As you can see, Pidgin English is not wholly without some structure and predictability. Sure, it is not as rigid as English, but it does have its own internal structure, and what we might even call rules, though that will not be a very welcome word among hard-core Pidgin speakers. I fully understand.
I just wanted to make the point that there is a logic and intelligence within this language that we have created together as a society. Way to go! I have made it my mission to explore this logic, to analyze, categorize, and impart it in a book, Master Pidgin English: An Elementary Grammar for Learners and Enthusiasts. Doing so has been a tremendous journey of discovery for me. I confirmed much of what I expected about the consistency of many grammatical forms, but I have also discovered some interesting, dynamic and even rogue manipulations that Pidgin English makes to regular English, which I am excited to share in this new book.
This book focuses on Ghanaian flavour of Pidgin and is for three groups of people. The first group is foreigners who are visiting Ghana and want an easy and fun but structured introduction to this fantastic language. Learning Ghanaian Pidgin English will open you up to West African Pidgin in general, despite the differences in dialects.
The second group is Ghanaians who speak Pidgin English with the erroneous notion that they are doing something haphazard or thoughtless. Hopefully it will offer a welcome correction to this view.
Lastly this book is for people like myself who are interested in the evolution of language, whether academically or casually. It provides valuable material for language research, linguistic anthropology of Ghanaian society and blazes the trail of formal teaching approaches for Pidgin English.
Master Pidgin English: An Elementary Grammar for Learners and Enthusiasts will soon be available for pre-order on Amazon Kindle. In the meantime, you can tell me if you want to be the first to know when it’s out.
I believe that grammar gives a language its personality, and Pidgin English has a beautiful one. We should respect and cherish it. Sure, language is dynamic, and I couldn’t really arrest Kwame for breaking Pidgin’s syntactical concord, but the next time anyone ignorantly suggests that they can say anything anyhow, or rejects your kind correction of some mistake they make in speaking Pidgin, feel free to insist that Pidgin get grammar, and soon you will have proof!