Spilling the Beans On Gɔbɛ

The Curiosity of Scattered Spelling in Pijin English and Why it Matters Little

a plate of fried beans and gari

In your exploration and engagement with Pidgin languages you may find that there is no standard orthography for the languages.

In the case of Pidgin English, it is a mostly spoken language which has as at yet no sanctioned orthography albeit countless half attempts to achieve standardization. There are informal instances of Pidgin English being written but it is seldom written in formal contexts. We can cite or recall multiple instances where Pidgin English has been used in plays, films, and songs, however the language does not have a long literary tradition and so there is no real canon of Pidgin English literature.

There are some literary examples of Pidgin English being used in writing though – novels, short stories, and poetry.

Drawing from the dearth of literary examples and from the use in casual contexts, a unique convergence of orthographic rules based in both the acrolect and basilect languages arises.

The following are some generalizations that can be made about writing Pidgin English:

There is no one way to write Pidgin English, as there is no standard orthography.

Pidgin English can be written using a variety of different orthographic conventions, using a mixture of conventions from different languages, and a mixture of conventions from different dialects of English, depending on the writer’s preference.

This leads to instances of phonetic or non-phonetic, standard or non-standard, formal or informal orthography or even mixed orthography.

For example in some spellings in the Ghanaian variant of Pidgin English (GPE) we find words borrowed from basilects like Akan and Ga where the open-mid front unrounded vowel ‘ɛ’ (as in the e in bed) is written with the number the 3.

To illustrate this let’s examine the  pidgin word, “gobe” referring to a Ghanaian staple of fried beans and cassava flour (gari). It is sometime written as g)b3, or gob3 where a more phonetic orthographic spelling would prescribe gɔbɛ. (We don’t really like the numbers but we’ll accept it out of convenience)

Still with Gɔbɛ, lets look at a few common classifications for Pidgin English orthography, outlined below.

Phonetic spelling

One common way to write Pidgin English is to use a phonetic spelling, which represents the sounds of the language as accurately as possible.

This can be done using the international phonetic alphabet (IPA), or using a more simplified version of the IPA.

One example for a simplified phonetic spelling in Pidgin English is illustrated in the “gɔbɛ” example above.

Non-phonetic spelling

Another common way to write Pidgin English is to use a non-phonetic spelling, which is based on the spelling of words in their languages of origin.

In this case, the one of the root languages being English this can be achieved by using a standard English orthography in the contemporary Latin script or by using a simplified everyday version of standard English orthography.

An example of a non-phonetic spelling in Pidgin English would be to spell gɔbɛ as gorbe. Another example would be to force a word like Tsale, also Charley, Chale into an anglicized Charlie

Mixed Spelling

A third way to write Pidgin English is to use a mixed spelling, which uses a mixture of phonetic and non-phonetic spellings borrowing from wherever is convenient.

This can be done by using a mixture of the IPA and standard English orthography, or by using a mixture of a simplified version of the IPA and a simplified version of standard English orthography or even French orthography where gɔbɛ could even become gɔbè.

So, now you know.

You now know how words can be spelt in Pidgin English where currently, there is no one way to spell words, so it all depends on the writer’s preference.

It is what is. Enjoy your Gɔbɛ!

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