Contact language

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A contact language is any language which is created through contact between two or more existing languages.[1] This may occur when people who share no native language need to communicate, or simply when a language of one group becomes used for wider communication with other groups, often with significant changes to its grammar as a result. Such languages are one type of lingua franca, a general term meaning a language used for widespread communication. An example of a contact language is the widespread use of Greek koiné in the eastern Mediterranean around the fourth century AD.[2]

Pidgins and creoles

Pidgins and creoles are contact languages. A pidgin is a language that is created through a contact situation - typically, users employ words, or wordlike units, from one or more languages they have some knowledge of, underlain by some of the grammar of their own native languages as well as novel rules that arise through the processes of language acquisition. As the goal is basic communication rather than the acquisition of a new language, the result is a rudimentary language with fewer 'rules' than others - there are fewer sentence types, for instance, so expressing certain complex ideas may be difficult. The pidgin is fine-tuned to the immediate needs of the speakers, who may primarily use it for bartering, friendly introductions, or some other specific purpose. It therefore has no immediate need to be elaborated unless it proves useful for the speech community to develop an extended pidgin, used for more purposes and with increasingly rigid rules.

One example of an extended pidgin is Fanagalo, used in some South African mines, and which is actually taught in underground classrooms to miners of different linguistic backgrounds. Another is Tok Pisin, which is widely used throughout Papua New Guinea, in print as well as in conversation.[3]

In a minority of cases, extending a pidgin may lead to creolisation. This occurs when a pidgin becomes the first language of children, the resulting native language being a creole. This new language is inevitably more complex than the original pidgin; there is no evidence that creoles are in any way deficient. For example, not only are creoles used for a wide variety of purposes, but works written in conventional languages have been translated into creole versions.[4][5]


The term contact language is also sometimes applied to languages which originated in a contact situation, but which are now used only within one community. For example, many creoles may no longer be used as lingua francas - such as in Jamaica, where the local creole[6] is used in informal situations, and varieties closer to Standard English for speaking to outsiders.[7]

Lingua francas

While contact languages are necessarily lingua francas, not all lingua francas are contact languages. Other types include trade languages (e.g. Swahili in East Africa), international languages (e.g. English in much of the world) and auxiliary languages (languages artificially designed for a purpose, such as Esperanto or Basic English).[8]


  1. Sebba (1997: 2).
  2. Wardhaugh (2006: 59-60).
  3. Smith (2002).
  4. See an example of a Tok Pisin Bible and some Jamaican Creole texts..
  5. See Sebba (1997), for a comprehensive introduction to pidgins and creoles; and Wardhaugh (2006: 58-87) for discussion on these languages as lingua francas.
  6. Sebba (1997: 204-210).
  7. Sebba (1997) labels all pidgins and creoles as contact languages; see title.
  8. Samarin (1968: 661).

See also