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Substrate influence on a language: Case study on Chinese Pidgin English

By Wong Lai Hung Clio


- What is a pidgin?

According to Frawley, a pidgin is a lingua franca, i.e. common language that arises to facilitate communication between speakers of different languages who are in repeated or sustained contact with each other, as in trade or plantation situations. (Frawley, 2003) Due to the contact of different languages, a pidgin would be influenced by them, namely the superstrate and substrate (and abstrate).


- Creole V.S. Pidgin?





Prolong contact between languages

Native speaker

Pidgin usually has no native speakers

People speak creole as their native language


Only when necessary, restricted in social role

In daily communication as speakers’ first language


Limited, e.g. only words related to the social role

Full vocabulary to use in communication

(Li, 2011)

- Chinese Pidgin English

Chinese Pidgin English is a new language created in early 17th century. At that time, Guangzhou, i.e. Canton, is a treaty port for foreign trade. After the first opium war in 1839-42, China opened more ports for foreign trade due to its defeat. (Li, 2011) Foreigners were then allowed to stay in the ports in designated places. There are more and more trade opportunities, yet no personal and private trade is allowed. As local Chinese do not speak English /Portuguese, while the foreign traders do not know how to speak Chinese, they needed a common language to communicate and understand each other.


Chinese Pidgin English is recorded in Tung Shing, i.e. the Chinese almanac. As most Chinese family would own one Tung Shing, it was very accessible for Chinese to learn Chinese Pidgin English. Even though no one speaks CPE nowadays, some Tung Shing still keeps the section of CPE.


Cover of a Tung Shing                                                                                          

Cover of a Tung Shing                                                                                                            The Page of CPE in a Tung Shing published in 2005


The following video shows how people used Chinese Pidgin English to communicate:


Why not English? Why not Chinese?

Back in 1800s, China was a defeated nation in wars with foreigners. Foreigners were much more superior in status back then. As a defeated nation, China was forced to sign unequal treaties that were only beneficial to the victorious countries like Britain. Chinese people were having tough life with high taxes so that the government can pay the indemnity. Anti-foreign feeling arose in the heart of Chinese. They were not willing to teach the foreign traders, who they saw as barbarians, Chinese as they do not want to be a traitor of the nation. (Anonymous, 1836)

For the foreign traders, they were of superior status as masters and Chinese as servants. Hence, they were not eager to teach Chinese English, or to learn the inferior servant language. 


Substrate and superstrate

In analysing contact languages, the term superstrate and substrate are often use. The superstrate is the language input that has, or has had, more prestige in the society. (Hickey, 2010)This means that a superstrate has more power in social terms. In contrast, a substrate is the language that has a relatively inferior status and less power in the society.


In the case of CPE, the superstrate would be English, as English speakers are socially more powerful and prestigious. The substrate would be Chinese dialects of regions that CPE was spoken, in particular, Cantonese, as Guangzhou was one of the treaty ports that was of long history.


Influence of Cantonese on CPE

Though CPE is based on English, it is influenced a lot by Cantonese. The following will examine briefly the influence of the substrate, i.e. Cantonese, to CPE, mainly in terms of syntax and phonology.


(i)                 Syntax

Although the vocabulary of CPE adopts those from Standard English, the way speakers construct sentences mainly follows the syntax of Cantonese.





Cantonese word order


what price do you give (P.122)

you give what price


you-(can)- give what price


I can’t do it myself (P.156)

my one piecee man no can do



I-CL(one person)- do-not-PRT

(Li, Matthews & Smith, 2005)

From the above examples, it is easy to see that word order in CPE is actually closer to that of Cantonese, rather than English. In example (b), the use of “one piecee” (i.e. one piece) as a classifier in CPE is very common. In Cantonese there is no equivalent to “a” (the indefinite article), rather, one would have to say “一個” (literal translation: one piece). Hence, whenever the indefinite article “a” is used, “one piecee” is inserted in CPE. Also, in Cantonese, a noun usually goes with a classifier, i.e. to express the idea of “this chair”, we would say “這張椅子/ ” (word order: this-CL-chair/ stool). So it would be possible for CPE to insert the classifier before nouns.



CPE word order


Cantonese word order


Bring a chair here (P.138)

Bring-one-piece chair-come




Pass the milk to that gentleman (P.139)


拎牛奶俾嗰個紳士 / 男人


(Li, Matthews & Smith, 2005)

From (d), one can see that even if the classifier is absent in Cantonese, “piece” is still inserted in CPE.


(ii)               Phonology / pronunciation

In terms of how words are pronounced, CPE main adopts the phonology of Standard English. Yet it is obvious that Cantonese plays an important role in modifying the pronunciation of the words. There are replacement of certain English phonemes as they are absent from the Cantonese phonology.


For instance, /r/ is often replaced by /l/ in CPE. /r/ does not exist in Cantonese, hence this sound has a /l/ correspondence in CPE. (Shi, 1993)

 Words recorded as in the Tung Shing

English word

Expressed in Chinese character / pronounced in CPE




so1 lei4



jing1 gei6 lei6


Another example is /v/. As there is no /v/ sound in Cantonese, it is often replaced by /w/ or /b/.

English word

Expressed in Chinese character / pronounced in CPE




hat1 wai6


Indeed, CPE used Chinese characters to represent the pronunciation of the English words. Chinese people tried to imitate the English pronunciation in their own ways.


 Chinese Pidgin English is now a dead language that there is no speaker of it. Yet it is still recorded in Tung Shing published in recent years due to its wide usage in the years of Canton as a treaty port. These records provide evidence for us to know more about CPE, in terms of how it is pronounced and what type of vocabulary did it include. One can see that in terms of syntax and phonology, Chinese Pidgin English is highly influenced by Cantonese, a substrate. In comparison, the superstrate, English provides the lexicon and the basic form of the pronunciation.


(By Wong Lai Hung Clio)


Work Cited

Anonymous (1836). Jargon spoken at Canton; how it originated and has grown into use; mode in which the Chinese learn English; examples of the language in

commercial use between foreigners and Chinese. Chinese Repository (Vol. 4 pp. 428-35.)


Frawley, W. J. (2003). International encyclopedia of linguistics: Vol. 1. Oxford [u.a.: Oxford Univ. Press.


Hickey, R. (2010). The handbook of language contact. Malden Mass: Wiley-Blackwell.


Li, M., Matthews, S., & Smith, G. P. (2005). Pidgin english texts from the chinese english instructor. In G. P. Smith & S. Matthews (Eds.), Chinese Pidgin English: Texts and Contexts (pp. 79-168). Hong Kong: The English Centre, The University of Hong Kong.


Li, M., & University of Hong Kong. (2011). Chinese pidgin English and the origins of pidgin grammar. (Hong Kong University Theses Online.)


Shi, Dingxu. 1993. Learning pidgin English through Chinese characters. In Francis Byrne and John Holm (eds.), Atlantic meets Pacific: A global view of pidginization and creolization, pp.459-465. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.