Nobody Here But Us Pidgins

coo coo ca choo
coo coo ca choo

In the mid-19th century, Western merchants in China — Americans included — conducted business through ad hoc languages. Under Chinese law, all foreign merchants at Canton were required to to hire “linguists,” but these were usually not language experts, but rather middlemen who, in theory, facilitated business between foreign merchants, native merchants, and the port’s administrative governor.(This rarely worked in practice, at least according to foreign merchants.) Adding to the difficulties, foreign merchants, even if they had the inclination to do so, were forbidden to learn Chinese (or rather, it was illegal for anyone to teach them Chinese, which amounted to the same thing). Certainly, translators existed, but generally trade was conducted through the mediation of a pidgin — a simplified language that usually combines elements of two other languages, usually for commercial purposes.

(The word pidgin, in fact, probably derives from encounters between English speakers and Chinese speakers at Canton. The word is thought to come from a Chinese mispronunciation of the English word “business.” Though hardly the first pidgin, the term for the language used in trade at Canton was the specific case generalized to encompass all languages with similar structures, beginning in the 1850s.)

This pidgin was central to the operations of the trade. What’s odd, though, is how rarely I’ve encountered it in the archives. You’d think it would be all over American merchants’ records, as they often communicated with their Chinese counterparts through letters. But no; instead, they appear to have written all communiques in English, and then had them translated on the spot, perhaps only verbally.

So far, I’ve run across three examples. Collectively, they question the general understanding of this pidgin as a primarily a commercial language, at least in some particular circumstances.

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