Nigerian Pidgin English

© Francesco Goglia

Nigerian Pidgin English and English are widespread linguae francae in Nigeria where more than 300 languages are spoken.

The origins of Nigerian Pidgin English lie historically in trade contact between the British and local people in the seventeenth century. It is part of a continuum of English Pidgins and Creoles spoken other West-African countries such as Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Ghana. In recent years, Nigerian Pidgin English development has been particularly evident in the big cities and ports in the south of Nigeria, where it is used among people belonging to different ethnic groups; the use of Nigerian Pidgin English is strictly linked to the urbanization process.

In the past the use of Nigerian Pidgin English was linked to non-educated people and perceived by the educated ones with negative attitude. Nowadays the use of Nigerian Pidgin English is more widespread even among educated people and perceived as more Nigerian than English. Indeed, using Nigerian Pidgin English is increasingly popular among young people, many writers, politicians and musicians. The fact that it is not attached to any ethnic group makes it a very good candidate as an official lingua franca in the Federation. The use of Nigerian Pidgin English can also function, in some contexts, as an act of identity when speakers need to stress their 'Nigerianness', as opposed to their ethnic group identity. In other words, Nigerian Pidgin English can express a belonging to Nigeria, which English, the language of the ex-colonial power, cannot. This is very similar to other multiethnic postcolonial situations. Compare the linguistic situation of Mauritius Islands where English and French are the official languages, but they coexist with other very powerful community languages (Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, etc.) and Mauritian French Creole. The latter, although lacking official status, is the only language which can express a neutral Mauritian identity.

No official status has been granted to Nigerian Pidgin English in Nigeria, although some Nigerians have suggested that it would be a good candidate for national language status, since it retains the above-mentioned characteristics of solidarity and neutrality. However, Nigerian Pidgin English is not yet sufficiently well-developed to fulfill all the duties of a national language. There is no standard orthography, little or no written use, and above all no active movement favouring its development and propagation. One of the obstacles to standardization is the perception of Nigerian Pidgin English as a variety of English, rather than a separate language; Nigerians often refer to Nigerian Pidgin English as 'broken English'. See the examples below:


Below is a conversation in Pidgin English mixed with English between two Nigerians. The topic of the conversation is the singer and human rights activist Fela Kuti who used to use himself Nigerian Pidgin English in his songs to reach all Nigerians. The excerpt shows some linguistic features of Nigerian Pidgin English. The particle dey (< English there) is used to mark verbs for present tense and progressive aspect. In line 2 dey appears before the verb ple 'play' and marks it for present tense. In line 9, dey appears as a copula. Another copula is na in line 12. The same stands for dey use 'use' in line 3 and 5. In line 8, note the use of the particle go to express future. In line 2 and 7 note the use of we (< English where) as a relativizer. In line 11 and 13, the verb sabi 'know' (< Portuguese saber) is a typical feature of most Pidgins and Creoles. In lines 12 and 13 note the use of the multifunctional preposition fo (< English for).

Example 1 [Listen to example]

1A:Fela is a very nice musician
2B:Ditinwenolaikis whendeman
3demantoodeyuse Yoruba dialect whenim
4imownPidgin English.
5A:But dialectweimdeyusenomatter. But it is
a dialect...
6No matter,detinyusi...
7B:Don't make me laugh, o boy, because Fela...
imsuppose to use dialectwe
8every Nigeriangounderstand, even ifimdey
speak Pidgin English.
9Younosiìdeydifficult to see a young person
10Pidgin English.
11A:The personwedeyspeak Pidginnomean
sepersonnosabiat all,
12a person to speak Pidgin... Pidginnafor everybody...
even fo my mama
Pidgin English.


In the following excerpt the speaker is talking about pepper sup, a traditional Nigerian dish. In lines 1 and 2, note the Pidgin verb chop 'eat'. In line 3, the use of the particle go to express future tense. In lines 3 and 4 the object pronoun im 'it/her/him'. In line 6, the verb sabi 'know, and the copula na.

Example 2 [Listen to example]

1B:Napepper supAdeychop.
It isIPROGeat
2Di oneifyuwant drink whenyuchopem
this oneyouyoueatit
3whenyuchopemyugodrink more.
because, be-, because dey put pepper, because dey put pepper inside.
4De-Adeyenjoyem.You nosi,watchmi.
it isthisthatCOPeatit
5Whenwedeychopem,wedeydrink, like
dis, we, likedis oneli-, likedis onewedey
this onethis onePROG
drink my Guinnes,
6YusabiGuinnes, no? Guinnesnapopular beer
Youknowit is


Example 3 [Idiom] [Listen to example]

'The wise works while the stupid eats'