Ghana’s Pidgin

by Zahra Baitie:

I am from Ghana, West Africa. I add the West Africa because I recently met a gentleman who was convinced that Ghana was in the Caribbean; he had unfortunately mistaken Ghana, as do many other people I meet, for Guyana.

As an international student from Ghana, one of the questions that I am often asked is: “Do you speak Ghanaian?” Now as there is no such language as “Ghanaian” as there is ’French‘ or ’English‘, this question is really incredulous and leaves me somewhat perplexed at the ignorance of the person asking me the question.Nevertheless, I answer in due fashion that there is no such thing as Ghananian, but I do speak English and – almost always to their surprise – that it is Ghana’s official language. But more and more I have come to add [Ghanaian] Pidgin [English] to the list of languages that I speak, and regard it as the closest thing to “Ghanaian”.

A signboard on a local university campus in Ghana. (Scribbles from the Den,

While I lived in Ghana I never considered Pidgin as a language of its own. It was just a part of speech, slang, but not a language of its own. But I realize now that is a language, a living and thriving language, one that captures the diversity of Ghana’s people and cultures. For those who don’t know what Pidgin is, I can best describe it as “broken English” – an amalgamation of the Queen’s language and words from different Ghanaian languages. It has a rhythm and a flow to it. The “ehen ehen”(huh/really?),“heh” or “that one dierrr“ (that one in particular) that punctuate our Pidgin patter give it an almost musical feel; the sounds, the intonations and the stresses capture the essence of the phrases. Back at home, we speak with our gestures and facial expressions as much as we do with words. The claps that sometimes accompany particular reactions, and the other elaborate hand gestures Ghanaian are wont to make make more sense to me when accompanying Pidgin than English.

Pidgin functions in two ways. It is not only a bridge for people who would otherwise find it hard to communicate due to language barriers, but also a way in which the culture and spirit of the people is seamlessly united. One of the effects of the Scramble for Africa was that countries became amalgamations of several ethnic groups, many of which spoke unintelligible languages. With the advent of colonialism the languages of our colonial powers were adopted as official: in the case of Ghana, English. But in reality not everyone speaks [good] English, so Pidgin is the intermediating language – an untaught and undocumented language, but a living one nonetheless. Pidgin is used when the educated “boss” asks the street vendor “it be how much” (How much is it?), and the street vendor replies “masa it be….” (Master/Sir it is…). But more than functioning as a bridge it also helps translate the feeling and meaning behind phrases in our local dialects, which are hard to capture in English. When the street vendor says “Massa” (Master), it is not because he is being submissive to him, but it captures a cultural sense of respect for people.

Among friends you might hear the phrase “Komot for der”, translated into English it means “Go away/Vamoose!” but it is not as harsh as it sounds, it’s merely said in jest. Pidgin softens tones and commands; “Ohh make u horry ” does not quite carry the same imperativeness and commandeering tone as “Hurry up!” Even among educated people who speak English perfectly well, Pidgin is often spoken and preferred to English. It has a way of incorporating camaraderie that is hard to translate into words. But this is especially true of males, for it is much more common to find males speaking in Pidgin than females as it is not considered lady-like to speak Pidgin. I won’t go as far as calling it a case of gender inequality, but boys do use it to exclude girls from conversation as there is an assumption that we girls “jus no dey barb” (don’t understand) some phrases. But since Pidgin currently features prominently in our local music and in Ghanaian and Nigerian movies, we girls are catching on! So when we hear “Dis shoddy be fine paa/ She be betta girlie” (translates to – “The chick is really hot”) we know what they are saying.

Pidgin is an unintended vestige of colonialism, yet it is also a creation of modern times, a way to bridge two cultures: Western and Ghanaian. Pidgin varies from country to country incorporating different words local to the country, but it is still an effective tool and means to communicate with other people from across West Africa in particular when “Proper English” will not suffice in capturing the meaning behind the phrases. So now I think less of Pidgin as a language mainly spoken by illiterates and males but more as a tool through which language barriers can come crashing down. So I guess if there HAD to be a language, which could be called “Ghanaian”, it would be the Ghanaian flavor of Pidgin.