Talk pidgin. No can do?
If you look up the word pidgin online, you’ll come to understand that it likely came into being in the late 19th century from the “Chinese transliteration of the English word business” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Which “Chinese” language it refers to here, however, remains vague and unaccounted for—not unlike the other hypotheses on the genesis of the word “pidgin”.
Other theories state that the word was derived from the Cantonese words for ‘pay money’, that is bei2 cin4 (畀錢). Given the nature of pidgins as trade languages that facilitated business-related interactions between distinct groups of speech communities, this sounds like a logical deduction. So let’s take a look at the very pidgin that gave rise to this train of thought.
[But before that, in case anyone was wondering, I’ve a hypothesis that ‘no can do’ originated from CPE, absorbed to colloquial English speak as a calque (literal translation) of m4 dak1 zou6 (唔得做) in Cantonese.]
Chinese Pidgin English
CPE (also known as China Coast Pidgin) is the typical example of a pidgin, made famous because it never expanded beyond its sphere of use as a trade language around the 18th–19th centuries to become anyone’s first language—unlike creoles—and didn’t last beyond that time. Some former pidgins that have developed long enough to have native speakers—and thus become creoles—are Hawaiian Creole, Singlish, Jamaican Creole, and Tok Pisin. Creoles can be understood to have native speakers who use the language for everyday purposes, beyond the purposes it originally served, and are more fully developed and stable in terms of grammar and habits of use.
How did this transient tongue come about? At a time when it was a crime for people in China to teach their language to foreigners—especially Westerners—the British were keen to do trade with East Asia. The British first started trading in Hong Kong in the 17th century and had to find ways to communicate with their Chinese, Cantonese-speaking counterparts in order to do good business. Later in the 19th century, when there were European settlements in South China, the need for a common tongue to communicate with local workers was important too.
Problem is, there wasn’t very much interest in learning the English language in China, and according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the “Chinese held the English in low esteem and therefore disdained to learn their language”. CPE was a primarily oral tradition and no one really saw the need to document and immortalise it in tomes and dictionaries. However, there have been texts produced through early transcription work that proved to enable speakers of Cantonese to speak Chinese Pidgin English to communicate with their English-speaking employers. These manuals were transliterative guides for Cantonese speakers that might not look out of place in any of Hong Kong’s TVB shows today, as shown in this written sample:
口 乜 治 打 鏬
hau2 mat1 zi6 daa2 laa3
‘How much-ee dollar?’ (How much is this?)
As transliterations, these strings of characters did not convey meaning in Cantonese; but rather, they pieced together familiar Cantonese sounds to form a reasonably coherent string that phonetically resembles English words. The system here is not unlike the popular Chinese transliteration system hanyupinyin invented in the 1950s to ease the acquisition of Mandarin Chinese.
Cantonese Pidgin English?
Perhaps CPE might have been better named and specified Cantonese Pidgin English given the use of Cantonese speech habits and pronunciations. For example, by adding the (s)ee vowel sound to break up consonant clusters, or a string of consonants:
This — thisee
Stop — seetop
Much — muchee
A typical CVC consonant-vowel sequence in English would often be realised as a CVCV cluster in Chinese Pidgin English, sometimes to comical effect. Ansaldo, & Smith (2009) provide a great example of how the classifier and ‘got’ construction carries over from Chinese languages into CPE:
You got how muchee piecee children?
‘How many children have you?’
A classifier is a typical grammatical aspect of Sinitic languages, paired with nouns and sometimes describing or replacing them in a sentence. The generic classifier in CPE has thus been taken as piece, given that the English ‘piece’ denotes a similar idea and is used across different categories of nouns even though they would have different classifiers in Sinitic languages. While it sounds strange to quantify the number of children in pieces, one piece (or classifier) is better than no piece to CPE speakers!
The Childhood Bilingualism Research Centre, Department of Linguistics & Modern Languages at the Chinese University of Hong Kong reimagines a CPE dialogue from Bauer (1974), as cited in Sebba (1997), online in a rather humorous way:
Listen closely and your English-knowing ears might light up at the sound of words such as chop-chop (‘to make haste’) amidst the flurry of cutesy clauses. Some of these terms have actually made it to more informal registers of English spoken globally!
At its peak, CPE became not just a lingua franca for business folk from Britain or China, but also within the linguistically diverse and often mutually unintelligible Chinese community. Unfortunately, this language did not find a community of speakers in the 20th century due to widespread “Standard English” education and since foreign settlements in mainland China were disbanded after the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Along the way, CPE lost its prestige and was often negatively associated with the speech of Chinese servants of foreigners, such as nannies lovingly remembered as amahs.
The Cantonese transcribed here is presented in the most commonly used Jyut Ping system.
Ansaldo, U. Matthews, S. Smith, G. (2009) Chinese Coast Pidgin: Texts and contexts. University of Hong Kong
Bauer, A. 1974. Das meanisische und chinesische Pidginenglisch. Regensburg: Verlag Hans Carl.
Chinese Pidgin English, Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Chinese-Pidgin-English.
Sebba, M. 1997. Contact Languages: pidgins and creoles. London, Macmillan.