Nigerian Pidgin English and National Integration: an Insight from Nigerian Universities

This article is published by the Zamfara International Journal of Humanities.

 Shittu Fatai
Faculty of Arts, Social and Management Sciences
Department of European Languages,
Federal University, Birnin Kebbi, Kebbi State, Nigeria.shifatseg@gmail.com +2348065892511

Abstract: Although, pidgin is said to be a sub-standard language developed for special purpose, especially trade, where people from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds come together for business transaction without a specific common language but the English version of pidgin has gone beyond this traditional purpose. The aim of this paper is to investigate the resourcefulness of Nigerian Pidgin as a tool for national integration in Nigeria. It therefore examines the development of Pidgin English, its functional roles as well as the factors responsible for its preference in Nigeria. It also examined the use of Nigerian Pidgin in the Nigerian University environment. A quasi experiment was conducted using the staff and students of Federal University, Birnin Kebbi as case study. A questionnaire was designed and administered on selected students and staff of the University using a non-probability but convenient sampling technique. The responses were analyzed and findings made to examine the integrative role of Nigerian Pidgin English in Nigerian Universities vis-à-vis Nigeria. The HA hypothesis for this paper is that ‘Nigerian Pidgin English can serve as the tool for national integration in Nigeria’ While the HO is ‘Nigerian Pidgin English cannot serve as the tool for national integration in Nigeria’ ‘. The paper then concludes that the demographic, neutrality, unifying, simplicity, etc roles of the Nigerian Pidgin English could be responsible for its integrative role in Nigeria.


Keywords: Nigerian Pidgin English, National Integration, Nigerian Universities



The concept of language is a social and global phenomenon. Language is a conduit for transmitting people’s culture, norms,  ideas  and  beliefs.  The  repository  of  people’s identity and way of life is encapsulated in their language as well as transferred to other people and newer generations, via the means of language. There are of course different languages used in different societies. These languages are used for human communication,  identification  and  cultural  preservations. Although, there is no official statistics of the world languages, the encyclopaedia of language states that about five thousand languages co-exist in fewer than two hundred countries. We use language to communicate our thoughts and feelings, to connect with others and identify with our cultures and to view and understand the world around us. For many, this rich linguistics environment  involves  not  just  one  language  but  many.  In almost all the countries of the world, there is great inter play of languages in contact; a situation where two or more languages come into contact and co-exist in a speech community. In fact, majority of the world population as well as speech communities are multilingual in nature as a result of the languages in contact or linguistic interplay. The multilingual nature of the society as well as individual made languages be assigned different roles. These roles may include the in-group language usage, the out group language usage and the use of language for specialized information (see Gleason, 1969, Homes, 2008).



Languages do come into contact with one another and whenever this occurs, there are possibilities for the stronger to dominate the weaker but adopt the culture and traditions of the weaker language. These actually lead to a ‘substandard’ variety of the dominant language known as Pidgin and by extension Creole. Pidgins have been in existence since time immemorial, but in comparison with what we know about many ‘fully fledged’ languages, we know comparatively little about pidgin. There is paucity of historical records; the history of serious study of such languages goes back only a few decades; and because of the circumstances of their use, they have often been regarded as being of little intrinsic value or interest. Ronald (2006) asserts that, until recently, Pidgin and Creoles have been generally viewed as uninteresting linguistic phenomena. Hymes (1971) points that before the 1930s, Pidgin and Creoles were largely ignored by linguists, who regarded them as marginal languages’ at best. He points out that Pidgins and Creoles are marginal, in the circumstances of their origin, and in the attitude towards them on the part of those who speak one of the languages from which they were derived. They are also marginal ‘in terms of knowledge about them’, even though these languages are of central importance to our understanding of language and central too in the lives of some millions of people. Because of their origins, however, their association

with poorer and darker members of a society, and through perpetuation of, misleading stereotypes, most interests, even where positive, has considered them merely curiosities. These languages have been considered, not creative adaptation, but degenerations; not systems in their own rights, but deviations from other systems. Their origins have been explained, not by historical and social forces, but by inherent ignorance, indolence and inferiority. As language of those without political and social power, literatures and culture, they could be safely and properly ignored, for what could they possibly tell that English and French or even Greek, Latin could not? Fortunately, in recent years, such attitudes have changed and as serious attention has been given to Pidgins and Creoles, linguists have discovered many interesting characteristics about them, characteristics that appears to bear on fundamental issues to do with all languages, ‘fully fledged’ and ‘marginal’ alike. Moreover Pidgins and Creoles are invaluable to those who use them. Not only are they essential to everyday living but are also frequently important markers of identity.


The study of Pidgins and Creoles has become an important part of linguistic and, especially, sociolinguistic study, with its own literature and, of course, its own controversies. With Pidgins and creoles we can see processes of language origin and change going on around us. We can also witness how people are attracted to language, how they exploit what linguistic resources they have, and how they forge new identities. Today, the speakers of Pidgin and Creoles have come to recognise that what they speak is not a ‘ bad’ variety of any language, but a language or a variety of a language with its own legitimacy, i.e its own history, structure, array of functions, and the possibility of winning eventual recognition as a ‘ Proper’ language.


Statement of the Problem


Many languages are made to serve a social identification function within a society by providing linguistic indicators which may be used to reinforce social stratification, or to maintain differential power relationships between groups. The functions which language differences in a society are assigned may also include the maintenance and manipulation of individual social relationships and networks, and various means of effecting social control. Linguistic features are often employed by people, consciously or unconsciously, to identify themselves and others, and thus serve to mark and maintain various social categories and divisions. The potential use of language to create and maintain power is part of a central topic among ethnographers of communication and other sociolinguists concerned with language-related inequities and inequalities. Therefore, people who have some characteristics in common usually have a need to share views, information and opinions with others as such may initiate a language variety as their own way of communication, hence the forms and use of Nigerian Pidgin English. The statement of problem which this work tends to address is to describe the issue of integration among the diverse people using the instrument of Nigerian Pidgin English among students and staff of the federal University, Brini-Kebbi community


Objectives of the Study


i.        To determine the use of Nigerian Pidgin English as an instrument of promoting National Integration in Nigeria.


ii.      To investigate the kind of Pidgin English commonly found among students of the Federal University, Brini-Kebbi.


Research Questions


i.        How does the use of Nigerian Pidgin English serve as an instrument of promoting National Integration in Nigeria?


ii.      What are the kinds of Pidgin English commonly found among students of the Federal University, Brini-Kebbi?


Literature Review and Conceptual Clarifications


Pidgin: by means of definition, different scholars have defined the concepts differently but with almost the same ideologies. Pieter and Norval see Pidgin as speech- forms which do not have native speakers and are therefore primarily used as a means of communication among people who do not share a common language. To them, the degree of development and sophistication attained by such a Pidgin depends on the type and intensity of communicative interaction among its users. Ronald ( 2006) on the other hand defines Pidgin as a language with no native speaker; it is no one’s first language but is a contact language. To Hymes (1971), Pidgin is the product of a multilingual situation in which those who wish to communicate must find or improvise a simple language system that will enable them to do so. In most cases, such situation is one in which there is an imbalance of power among the speakers of the other languages economically and socially. A Pidgin is therefore sometimes regarded as a ‘reduced’ variety of a ‘normal’’ language, i.e one of the dominant language (English, French, German, Latin, Spaniard etc), with simplification of the grammar and vocabulary of that language, considerable phonological variation, and an admixture of local vocabulary to meet the special needs of the contact group.


Holm (1988) in Ronald (2006) asserts that Pidgin is a reduced language that results from extended contact between groups of people with no language in common; it evolves when they need some means of verbal communication, perhaps for trade, but no group learns the native language of any other group for social reasons that may include lack of trust or of close contact. To Yule (1996) however, pidgin is a variety of a language (e.g English) which developed for some practical purpose , such as trading among groups of people who had a lot of contact , but who did not know each other’s’ languages. As such, it would have no native speakers. Hudson (2001) on the other hand sees pidgin as varieties created for very practical and immediate purposes of communication between people who otherwise would have no common language whatsoever, and learned by one person from another within the communities concerned as the accepted way of communicating with members of the other community. To him, since the reason for wanting to communicate with members of the other communities is often trade, a pidgin may be what is called a ‘trade language’ but not all pidgins are restricted to being used as trade language, nor are all trade languages pidgin.


Todd, (2005) attempts to define pidgin from two different perspectives: popularly and scholarly perspectives. Popularly to her, pidgins are thought to be inferior, haphazard, broken, bastardized version of older, longer, established languages. And scholarly, especially in recent years, it is a marginal language which arises to fulfill certain restricted communication needs among people who have no communication language. She further explains that in the initial stages of contact the communication is often restricted to transactions where a detailed exchange of ideas is not required and where a small vocabulary, drawn almost exclusively from one language suffices. The syntactic structure of the pidgin is less complex and less flexible than the structures of the languages which were in contact and though many pidgin features clearly reflect usages in the contact language, others are unique to the pidgin.


There are large numbers of pidgin languages, spread all over the globe usually in places with direct or easy access to the oceans. Consequently, they are found mainly in the Caribbean and around the north and east coast of South America, around the coasts of Africa, particularly the west coast and across the Indian and Pacific oceans. When we examine the relationship between pidgins and the societies which create them, we discover that pidgins are developed from two different ways:


1.   They are developed as trade languages, which we may take in a fairly broad sense as varieties used only for trade and administration. This is how most pidgins, including African, developed. It was used for trade and also between the English-speaking administrators and the local population, who themselves speak a large number of mutually incomprehensive languages (Hudson, 2001).


2.   Another situation in which pidgins are needed is when people from different language background are thrown together and have to communicate with each other and with a dominant group, in order to survive. This is the situation in which most Africans taken as slaves to the new world found themselves, since the slavers would break up tribal groups to minimise the risk of rebellion. Thus, the only way in which the slaves could communicate either with each other or with their masters was through a pidgin which they generally learned from the slavers, based on the latter’s language. Since most slaves had little opportunity to learn the ordinary language of their masters, this pidgin remained the only means of communication for most slaves for the rest of their lives. This had two consequences. One was that pidgin became very closely associated with slaves, and acquired a poor reputation as a result and the slaves also got the reputation of being stupid since they could not speak ‘proper language’. The other consequence was that pidgins were used in an increasingly wide range of situation, and so gradually acquired the status of creole language.


The Nigerian Pidgin English: just like language itself, the origin of pidgin is unknown. There are different theoretical hypothesis concerning the origin of pidgin, but they remain mere speculative theories. Although, scholarstic classifications of these theories could differ but their opinions and ideologies are closely related. For instance, Muhlhausler (1986) in Suzanne (1988) identifies six theories grouped under broader headings of:


i.        Language-specific which include nautical language and foreigner talk/baby talk theory.


ii.     General theories which include relexification theory,


universalist theory, common core theory and substratum theory.


Suzanne (1988) herself explains six different theories of the origins of pidgins. These ranged from her baby talk, foreigner talk, simplification and imitation theory to the nautical jargon theory to the monogenesis and relexification theory to independent parallel development theory, to the substratum theory and to her native speakers, theory of the origin of pidgin. Todd (2005) examines the theories of pidgin from four different speculative hypothesis which include the baby-talk theory, the independent parallel development theory, the nautical jargon theory and the monogenetic/relexification theory. Other scholars actually have same opinion on these theories, (see also Ronald, 2006, Hudson, 2001, etc).


The fact however remains that these theories remain mere speculations, we do not know the origin of pidgins. What we do know is that the first intimate contact between the British and some of the ethnic groups in Nigeria dated as far back as mid18th century. Adetugbo in Uzoezie (Ibid) notes that the Portuguese, not the English was probably the earliest European language to be spoken in Nigeria. Igboanusi (2002) agrees with Adetugbo’s notation but observes that an interlanguage of Portuguese variety of English and various indigenous languages gave birth to pidgin. His words:


…and the mixture of Portuguese variety of English and the various indigenous languages gave rise to what is today known as pidgin. Some of the linguistic consequences of the early Portuguese contact include the introduction of such words as wrapper, palaver and even Lagos. (Igboanusi, 2005:15)


Nigeria’s first contact with English language to Obafemi and Babatunde (eds) 2001, must have been at some period before the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They believe that as from 1553, English men paid very brief visit to Nigerian coasts especially the parts of Benin and old Calabar and the type of ommunication which evolved between the English men and Nigerians, was English based pidgin.


The 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorate in Nigeria triggered the spread and use of Pidgin beyond the trade level – across cultural and linguistic borders and all sectors of life including the media, schools (outside the wall of of the classroom), offices, ceremonies, inter and intra ethnic communication, political campaigns and rallies, and other means of communication. In Nigeria today, pidgin is widely used among people of different classes (education, gender, age, religion, geographical location, etc), even in literature. And most of the descendants of the Nigerian Military, the Police and some ethnic groups like the Niger Deltas have been creolized. It is said to have more population of speakers and widely spread than any other language in Nigeria, even the English language.


The Northern Nigeria was not pidginized until years, if not decades, after the amalgamation when the Southerners started having much contact with the Northerners. However, we might not be sure whether they had initially developed an Arabic Pidgin, the language they had had early contact with. With the attainment of independent in 1960, the influx of Southerners, especially the educated ones increased, who served as teachers and administrators in the Northern region. This increased the rate of contacts between the Northerners and the Southerners as well as their different languages with English being the mediating and dominating language of communication. This witnessed a serious linguistic interplay that resulted to the amalgamation of the Nigerian Indigenous languages with English as dominant language, hence, the birth of Nigerian Pidgin English in Northern Nigeria. Today, an average educated Northerner (at least with primary education) is a user of Nigerian Pidgin English. Likewise, the business, the traders and the commercial Southerners and the Northerners are also users of Nigerian Pidgin English.


The Functional Roles of Nigerian Pidgin English


Language performs various functions in the society it operates. At least, language serves the communicative needs of the user and that of the society it operates in. Pidgin English, like any other language effectively and efficient function in Nigerian society. Some of its functional roles may include:


As language of wider communication: Pidgin English is the most widely spoken language in Nigeria. It is spoken by vast majority of Nigerians irrespective of the status, gender, geographical location, religion, etc.


As language of unity and integration: it has no ethnic bias and it is a binding force among the different ethnic groups in the country. Like the national anthem and national flag, the Nigerian Pidgin English is a symbol of national Unity. It integrates the different tribes that constitute Nigeria. it is a powerful Lingua franca which gives everyone a sense of belonging to one nation. It remains the major asset that makes communication among  most  groups  in  Nigeria  in  most  situations possible. In fact, it creates brotherly love among its speakers.


As language of the media: Nigerian Pidgin English also plays a vital role in the Nigerian Mass Media. To satisfy the needs of many Nigerians, almost all the television, radio and the print media send information and entertainment using Pidgin English.


As language of literature: several works of literary art are produced in Nigeria using the Pidgin English. Besides, many literary works produce in English Language are always mixed with Pidgin to show its effects in Nigerian society as indigenous to Nigeria.


As language of entertainment: Pidgin English is the dominant language in the entertainment industry. It is widely used in the music industry, movies and comedy. It is also used in the sporting industry.


As language of trade: Pidgin English developed for trade purpose in Nigeria and it effectively and efficiently performing the function. It is the major language of business transaction in Nigeria.


Theoretical Framework: Hymes’ SPEAKING Model Hymes (1974) has proposed an ethnographic framework which takes into account the various factors that are involved in speaking. Anethnography of a communicative event is a description of all the factors that are relevant in understanding how that particular communicative event achieves its objectives. For convenience, Hymes uses the word SPEAKING as an acronym for the various factors he deems to be relevant. Hymes’ mnemonic of SPEAKING, used here as a model in the analysis of the language behavior in the conversation was developed to provide the analysis of discourse as a series of speech events and speech acts within a cultural context, Hymes(56). Because of its flexibility application in the analysis of different kinds of discourse, it was adopted for the analysis of the utterances made during conversations of different speech events. The analysis enabled the identification of slangy expressions as speech act that occurs in a discourse that takes place in conversation. Depending on the nature of the discourse, the components of the SPEAKING model can be wholly or partly applied. Therefore only those speech components that are applicable in a particular discourse situation can be used.


The SPEAKING Model refers to the following features of the speech events:


S refers to Setting and Scene: setting is the time and place of a speech act or the physical environment of the speech act. In the present study, the setting is the Ebira speech community. The scene refers to the psychological setting of a scene in the form of the nature of the events such as meetings, education, entertainment, and so on.


P refers to the participants and the audience, that is, the taking part in the speech event as either speakers or listeners.


E refers to Ends: these are purposes, goals as well as the outcomes of the speech events (occasion). Here reference is made to the reasons why speech act is taking place. For instance, is it to exhibit emphasis, derogatory, proverbs or foregrounding and so on.


A refers to the act sequence, the form and the order of event, that is, how the speech act begins, develop, and ends. This also includes what take place and at which stage it takes place during the course of the speech act. In this case, the act sequence refers to the stage(s) at which code-switching is used during the conversation; that is, does it occurs at the initial stage of the conversation, during the developmental stage, or at the final stage of the conversational exchange.


K refers to key, the clues that establish the tone, manner, or spirit of the speech act. The tone of the speaker’s voice gives an indication on whether the speech event (occasion) is formal or informal. Indeed, key refers to the overall manner of the speech event. The way code-switching is used will give a clue as to whether it is used in a formal or informal way.


I refers to instrumentalities, for example, code-switching which are forms and styles of the speech taking place. The nature of the occasion usually dictates the formal or informal. This has to do with the use of registers. The registers may also include the use of technical terms depending on the nature of the subject.


N refers to norms: these are social rules that govern the event and the participants’ actions and reactions. They refer to Ebira speech community or discourse that is also culturally appropriate. The norms refer to behavior that is socially acceptable in a given context. The nature of the occasion dictates the type of norms that are expected.


G refers to Genre: the form of speech that is being used. The genre is determined by the nature of the speech act, that is, whether it is in oral or textual form. A genre could be in the form of one of the following: lecture, a sermon, a business letter, or a written speech of any form. Thus, in the present study, as the speech act is a topic taking place in a particular situation, it is regarded as largely formal. The speech acts could be greetings, prayers, or conversational exchanges at different topic or context.


Thus, this work intends to explore most of these features through the application of ethnographic study of the phenomenon of Nigerian Pidgin English expressions among students of the Federal university, Brini-Kebbi. Nigeria. The social unit proper to sociolinguistics is the ‘speech community’. By speech community, Hymes does not mean a community defined by common language, but rather by common linguistic norms: ‘a community sharing rules for the conduct and interpretation of speech, and rules for the interpretation of at least one linguistic variety’ Hymes, (54).



This study is hinge on two different hypotheses:


1.      Nigerian Pidgin English can serve as a tool for national integration in Nigeria.

2.      Nigerian Pidgin English cannot serve as a tool for


national integration in Nigeria.


To test the hypothesis, a self-developed questionnaire was designed and administered on the students and staff of Federal University, Birnin Kebbi. The subjects for the study were drawn from 5 departments of the University. 7 students, 2 academic and 1 non-academic staff were selected from each department using a Simple Random Sampling (SRS) technique. The questionnaire consists 10 hypothetical questions with two options of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. The respondents were expected to appropriately tick the correct option for each question.


The responses were collated and analysed using a simple frequency modulation table in which the total ‘Yes” are summed against the total ‘No” as well as the as the frequency and percentage. The table is then interpreted and discussed appropriately to reveal the findings necessary for the study.


Questionnaire on Nigerian Pidgin English and National Integration


Nigerians into one big and united family?


Interpretation and Discussions


Item 1 in the above table shows most of the most of the respondents speak Pidgin English as 95% of them agreed that they speak Pidgin English while only 5% of them do not speak Pidgin English. Home background, environment and type of secondary school attended are significant factors to this. But it could be said that Nigerian University community is a linguistic ground for Pidgin English.


Item 2 shows that Pidgin English is widely spoken in FUBK as 85% agreed to that fact while 15% disagreed to it. FUBK is a Nigerian University that shares common features with other Universities in the country vis-à-vis Nigeria as a whole. We can simply put that since Pidgin English is the language of wider communication in FUBK, it is likely to be the language of wider communication in other Universities in the country and Nigeria at large.


Item 3 shows that Pidgin English eliminates social class among its speakers as 90% of the respondents confirmed this while only 10% of the respondents disagreed. We can simply assert that Pidgin English eliminates the social classes that exist among the users of English Language. This is because Pidgin English cut across all class: educated, non-educated, elite, non-elite, upper and lower class, civil servant and market women, etc.


Item 4 shows that speakers of Pidgin English do not have the fear of incorrect usage as as only 12% of the claimed having fear of incorrect usage while remaining 88% do not fear incorrect usage. The fact remains that the language is always correct and this could have contributed to its convenient usage: it has no error, no mistake, no standard, no substandard, its simply Pidgin English.


Item 5 shows that Nigerians understand and comprehend better in Pidgin English as 75% of the respondents claim better understanding and better comprehension in the language while 25% of the respondents claim otherwise. This significantly shows that conversations, discourse, lectures, etc could be better understanding using Pidgin English.


Item 6 disclaim that Pidgin English is a language of those with little or no formal education. 80% of the respondents disagreed with this assertion while 20% agreed. This is contrary to Agbeyisi (1971) claim that the typical users of Nigerian Pidgin English are those that have little or no formal education. Just as noted by Akande (2008), the sociolinguistic reality in Nigeria today is such that Nigerian Pidgin English is spoken by University graduates, Professors, Lawyers and Journalists.


Item 7 shows that Pidgin English ease the communication process of its speakers as 80% of the respondents claim that it ease their communication process while 20% claim otherwise. This actually reveals the reality; Pidgin English provides an easy means of communication without stress, without fear, without shame.


Item 8 also shows that people feel relaxed and comfortable speaking Nigerian Pidgin English as 84% of the respondents agreed that they are more relaxed and comfortable speaking Pidgin English probably in comparison with English Language, while only 16% of them disagreed. The truth is that Pidgin English is ‘sweeter’, more relaxed and more natural to use than the English Language with its complicated rules.


Item 9 shows that Pidgin English shows element of intimacy among its users as 75% of the respondents concurred with this while 25% disagreed with it. This could be born on the fact that Pidgin English eliminates officiality and its users relate in a friendly manner. Even when discourse occurs between students and lecturer in Pidgin English, such discussion is always taken friendly, unofficial and it shows element of intimacy between the speakers.


Item 10 shows that Pidgin English possesses the linguistic ability to integrated Nigerians into one big and united family. 85% of the respondents agreed with this while 15% disagreed. This is based on the reality that speakers of Pidgin English see themselves speaking the same language equally, see themselves brothers and sisters, see the language as instrument of solidarity and equity.


However, the above interpretation and discussion were made based on responses from students and staff of Federal University, Birnin Kebbi which could be use as a yardstick for measuring the use of Pidgin English as a tool for National Integration in Nigeria.




The study reveals the following findings


That Pidgin English is not restricted to the uneducated Nigerians but its use cut across all classes, all ages, all gender, all religion.


That the language is widely used among University Students and staff.


That Pidgin English creates equality among its users as everybody seems to be speaking one indivisible language.


That the users of Pidgin English see themselves as members of one big and united family.


That Pidgin English is an effective tool for national integration in Nigeria.




English Language might be the official language in Nigeria but Pidgin English is the most recognized language in the country. It might not be used for educational purpose but it is used in the educational environment. It might not be used for official purposes but it is used in the offices. It is used by vast majority of Nigerians irrespective of their socio-economic, ethnic, political, religious and educational background. It is a language of solidarity among its users, it is a language that integrates Nigerians into one big and united family. The demographic, neutrality, unifying, simplicity, etc roles of the Nigerian Pidgin English could be responsible for its integrative role in Nigeria which no other language could serve in the country.




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