Ghanaian Pidgin English
Ghana, consisting of Britain's former
Gold Coast colony, Ashantiland, the
Ghanaian Pidgin English
Northern Territories, and British autoglossonym
Broken, Pidgin (English),
Togoland, is a coastal West African
(Kru English and the
country with over 23 million inhabitants
Akan equivalent kroo
(2008). The official language is English,
brofo are both obsolete)
which is predominantly used in formal English
contexts, e.g. the educational system and location
the media. Ghanaian Pidgin English number of
ca. 5 million
(GhaPE), used by roughly a quarter of speakers
the population in some situations, is part major lexifier
of the West African Pidgin English other contributing Western Kwa and Gur
(WAPE) continuum, which includes the languages
varieties spoken in Sierra Leone (the official languages
English (de facto); Akan,
creole Krio), Ghana, Nigeria, and of Ghana
Ewe, Dangme, Ga,
Cameroon. The many similarities
Nzema, Dagaare, Gonja,
between the restructured Englishes
spoken in these countries can to a large
part be explained by the fact that the Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Cameroonian varieties
are descendants of Krio (see below and Huber 1999a: 75-134 for details). Estimates of
the number of Ghanaian languages range from 50 (Kropp Dakubu 1988a: 10) to 80
(Lewis 2009). The major languages in terms of speaker numbers belong to two
branches of Niger-Congo languages 1. Kwa (southern Ghana): Akan (43%), Ewe
(10%), Ga-Dangme (7%), 2. Gur (northern Ghana): Dagaari (6%), Dagbani (3%). There
are also two very small pockets of Mande languages. Kwa languages thus account for
at least 60% of the L1s of Ghanaians. The major languages Akan, Ewe, Dangme, Ga,
Nzema, Dagaare, Gonja, Kasem, Dagbani enjoy national language status.
2. Socio-historical background
The main objective of early Afro-European contacts in
West Africa was trade. In 1471, the Portuguese
reached what soon came to be called the Gold Coast.
Their trading monopoly lasted until the early part of
the 17th century, when the Dutch and later the
English, established themselves on the coast. Other
European nations followed suit, and different Pidgins
developed alongside pidginized Portuguese. The
latter fell out of use only in the second half of the 18th
century, long after the Portuguese lost their
supremacy on the Gold Coast. Pidgin English, which
came into being in the second half of the 17th century, was the only contact variety
that survived into the 20th century. Structurally, this early trade Pidgin English was
considerably simpler and more variable than today's GhaPE. The first textual
attestation comes from a Royal African Company trader's diary entry in 1686,
reporting some 50 words of an Anomabu trader (Bodleian Library, Oxford: MS
The formation of GhaPE as current today took place during British colonial rule in
West Africa. From the 1840s onwards, Africans liberated from slave ships by the
British navy and settled on the Sierra Leone peninsula, some 1,500 km west of Ghana,
went back to their respective places of origin, thus spreading an early form of Sierra
Leonean Krio along the West African coast, Nigeria in particular. Historical and
linguistic evidence indicates that in the 1920s migrant workers introduced the
Nigerian offshoot of Krio to the Gold Coast, where it replaced the earlier trading
pidgin (for more detailed information on the history of GhaPE see Huber 1999a,
3. Sociolinguistic situation
Twi, comprising the non-Fante dialects of Akan, is the main areal lingua franca in
Ghana's south. GhaPE, locally known as Pidgin (English), Broken (English), and
formerly as Kru English or kroo brofo (the Akan term), is a predominantly oral and
urban phenomenon. It is spoken in the southern towns, especially in the capital
Accra. GhaPE is confined to a smaller (though growing) section of society than
Pidgin in other anglophone West African countries, probably because of the strong
position of Twi as a lingua franca. Also, its functional domain is more restricted and
the language is more stigmatized, although this situation is currently changing
rapidly. Pidgin is not officially recognized as a language of Ghana and there is no
standardized orthography. The few grammatical descriptions are purely scholarly
There are two main GhaPE varieties. Basilectal GhaPE is associated with the less
educated sections of society, while more mesolectal/acrolectal GhaPE (also called
"Student Pidgin") is usually spoken by Ghanaians who have at least progressed to
the upper forms of secondary school, if not to the universities. The basilectal GhaPE
spoken in Nima, an immigrant quarter of the capital Accra, is the default lect
documented in the APiCS database and described in this article.
The difference between the two GhaPE varieties lies not so much in their linguistic
structure (the main differences are lexical, but the two are largely mutually
intelligible) as in the functions they serve. Basilectal GhaPE is used a lingua franca in
highly multilingual contexts, e.g. in Accra's immigrant quarters Nima, Kanda, or
Mamobi, which are characterized by a high degree of linguistic heterogeneity and a
generally low educational attainment. The more acrolectal varieties, however, are
better characterized as in-group languages whose main function is to express group
solidarity rather than to fulfil basic communication needs, since Standard (Ghanaian)
English is available to all parties in these settings and could be resorted to if no
common indigenous language were at hand. Pidgin entered Ghanaian secondary
schools around the mid-1960s and was soon carried into the universities, where it is
today heard on campus, in students' bars, and the halls of residence. Pidgin has also
made its way into the home, where it is now used mainly among brothers with
secondary education, often to the exclusion of the Ghanaian languages. Pre-school
children of middle class families appear to pick up GhaPE from their fathers. Today,
educated urban males under 50 years of age can be expected to switch to Pidgin in
informal settings. The educated variety is currently spreading fast and is being used
in more and more contexts.
GhaPE has seven (or nine) monophthongal oral
Table 1. Vowels
vowels (some speakers making length distinctions
front central back
between /i/-/iː/ and /u/-/uː/). Since all
i(ː) u(ː) monophthongs can be nasalized, the loss of a nasal
consonant after a nasalized vowel can lead to a
phonemic opposition between oral and nasal vowels,
hapi 'happy' vs. hapĩ 'happen'. There are six
diphthongs, /ai, au, ɔi, iɛ, ɛa, uɔ/. The last three
occur only in <Vr> sequences in words derived from the lexifier, e.g. beer, chair, and
sure. /ɛa/ and /uɔ/ are often reduced to the monophthongs /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ as illustrated
in ripɛ 'repair' or pɔ 'poor'.
Table 2. Consonants
bilabial labio‐ labio‐ alveolar
post‐ palatal velar glottal
Bracketed consonants only occur in ideophones or African loans. Like Ghanaian
English, GhaPE is a non‐rhotic variety. The realization of non‐post‐vocalic /r/ as an
approximant or a trill depends on the quality of the r‐sound in the speaker’s L1
(Akan has an r‐sound similar to that of English; Dolphyne 1988: 27‐29) and on the
speaker’s phonetic competence. /v/ is not part of the Hausa or the Akan phoneme
inventory (Dolphyne 1988: 29), so some of these speakers more or less consistently
substitute it by /b/ or /f/ in GhaPE. [l] and [r] are in complementary distribution or
free variation in the major Ghanaian substrate languages (e.g. Akan, Dolphyne 1988:
42‐43; Dangme, Apronti 1977: 132; Ewe, Schadeberg 1985: 9; Ga, Kropp Dakubu 1977:
250; Dagbani, Wilson 1977: 123; Dagarti, Hall 1977: 114), and they may be used
interchangeably on the lower end of the GhaPE continuum, especially by older
speakers who had little formal education. The realization of /ʧ, ʤ/ also varies
according to the Ghanaian language backgrounds of GhaPE speakers, the major
Akan dialects Twi and Fante having [ʨ, ʥ] (Dolphyne 1988: 29).
Tone plays a subordinate role in GhaPE. It only distinguishes some grammatical
morphemes from otherwise homophonous lexical, or less grammaticalized, items: dè
PROG/HAB vs. dé COP, gò FUT/COND vs. gó ʹgoʹ, bì COP vs. bí ʹbeeʹ. Tone also
distinguishes free pronouns (H, e.g. wí) from bound ones (L, wì).
GhaPE allows quite complex syllable structures, with up to three consonants in the
onset and two in the coda, e.g. CCCVCC strenʤ ʹbe.strangeʹ, but clusters are
frequently reduced by elision or epenthesis, e.g. blankɛs ʹblanketsʹ or kɔlɔf ʹclothʹ.
There is no official orthography for GhaPE, which is almost never used in print (but
enjoys growing popularity in emails, chat groups, etc.).
5. Noun phrase
GhaPE has no productive way of marking natural gender in nouns. Neither does it
have the postposed plural marker dɛ̀m, found in other WAPEs and Sierra Leone Krio.
Nominal plural can either be indicated by the English ‐s (1. most frequent), remain
unmarked (2. frequent), or be indicated by reduplication of the noun (3. infrequent):
(1) dat ples, no mɔskito-s.1
DEM place, NEG moskito‐PL
ʹThere are no moskitos in that place.ʹ
(2) wì gɛt sɔm wumã we dè dè kuk.
1PL get ART.INDF woman REL 3PL PROG cook
ʹThere were women who cooked (for us).ʹ
(3) dɛ̀m dè kam opĩ faktri~faktri fɔr ɔs.
3PL HAB come open factory~factory for 1PL.OBJ
ʹThey come and open factories for us.ʹ
Non‐specific, generic NPs are marked by a Ø article:
(4) polismã ì bì laik
Ø policeman 3SG COP like Ø woman
ʹPolicemen are like women.ʹ
Specific NPs are variably marked by overt articles: the definite article dɛ can precede
SG and PL nouns, including abstract nouns (dɛ demɔkrasi ʹdemocracyʹ) and inanimate
proper names (dɛ nima ʹNima [a quarter of Accra]ʹ). The most common indefinite
article is sɔm (SG + PL); SG countables are sometimes marked by wan. ɛ also occurs at
times, but this is due to Standard English influence (< a).
1 All examples are from my field recordings and represent spontaneous speech.
Table 3. Pronouns
independent dependent independent dependent possessives pronouns
1SG mi à mi mì
3SG in ì am àm
1PL wi wì wi>
wì > ɔ̀s àua > wì àuasɛf
dè > dɛ̀m dɛm dɛ̀m
dɛ̀a > dɛ̀m dɛ̀msɛf
INDF sɔmbɔdi, sɔmtin, ɛnibɔdi, ɛnitin, natin
GhaPE has low‐toned dependent pronouns that can only occur before a verb, and
high‐toned independent pronouns, which occur in all other positions. Student
Pidgin has special pronouns in 1pl (wana) and 3pl (dɛma).
There is no special construction for pronoun conjunction in GhaPE. Instead, ɛn ʹandʹ
(or sometimes plus or kum in the student variety) is used to conjoin NPs of which at
least one is a pronoun: mɛri ɛn mí go taun ʹMary and I went to townʹ.
The proximal demonstrative dis and the distal demonstrative dat both precede SG
and PL nouns: dis mã ʹthis manʹ, dat masalaʤi ʹthat mosqueʹ, dis tins ʹthese thingsʹ,
dat fauls ʹthose fowlsʹ.
Adnominal possessives precede the noun (mà granfada ʹmy grandfatherʹ), while
pronominal possessives are formed by the possessive pronouns + on (ʹownʹ): dis ka
bì mà on ʹthis car is mineʹ.
For human reference, the indefinite pronoun sɔmbɔdi occurs in positive, and ɛnibɔdi
in negative sentences, questions, and with unspecified reference in positive
sentences, just like in Standard English:
(5) jù gò si sɔmbɔdi wit ĩ̀ waif.
2SG FUT see INDF with 3SG.POSS wife
ʹYou will see somebody with his wife.ʹ
(6) dè no dè pe ɛnibɔdi.
3PL NEG HAB pay INDF
ʹThey did not pay anybody.ʹ
The non‐human indefinite pronouns sɔmtin ʹsomethingʹ and ɛnitin ʹanythingʹ are used
similarly. The negative pronoun natin ʹnothingʹ can co‐occur with the negator no
without the sentence losing its negative polarity:
(7) jù no gò tek natin nak àm.
2SG NEG COND take INDF knock 3SG.OBJ
ʹYou would not hit it with anything.ʹ
Cardinal (wan, tu, trɛ, fɔ, faif …) and ordinal numerals (fɛs, sɛkɛn, tɛd, fɔt, fift …)
are all borrowed from English and precede the noun.
GhaPE has two possessive noun constructions, both showing possessor‐possessum
order. One strategy is simple juxtaposition, NP1 NP2:
(8) dè gò fɔ dagɔmba ʧif haus.
3PL go for Dagomaba chief house
ʹThey went to the Dagomba chiefʹs house.ʹ
The other construction has an intervening 3rd person possessive pronoun (i.e. ìn or
(9) à hiɛ dɛ fud ìn tes.
1SG smell ART.DEF food 3SG.POSS smell
ʹI smelled the foodʹs odour.ʹ
In basilectal GhaPE these constructions are in free variation but the student variety
shows a clear preference for the one involving a possessive pronoun. It also uses its
own 3PL.POSS pronoun dɛ̀ma with plural possessors:
(10) dɛ bɔis dɛ̀ma dɔm nɔ
ART.DEF boy‐PL 3PL.POSS dorm TOP
ʹthe boysʹ dormitoryʹ
The form of adjectives is invariant. They precede the noun when used attributively:
ì bì dis
smɔ lamp, afrikã lamp.
busu‐busu 3SG COP DEM small lamp, African lamp
ʹBusu‐busu is this small lamp, African lamp.ʹ
What are called predicative adjectives in English are verbs in GhaPE because they
occur in the verbal slot, are found in serial verb constructions (12), can be preceded
by bound pronouns (13) and by the verbal TMA markers (14):
(12) wì plɛnti pas dɛ̀m.
1PL be.plenty pass 3PL.OBJ
ʹWe are more numerous than them.ʹ
(13) dɛ tin ì tik laik kɔŋkrit.
DEF thing 3SG be.thick like concrete
ʹThe thing was as hard as concrete.ʹ
(14) jù gò
2SG FUT be.sorry
ʹYou will be sorry.ʹ
Adjective comparison of equality is expressed by serialized laik ʹbe‐likeʹ, cf. (13)
above and (15):
(15) ì bikam wail laik taiga.
3SG become wild like tiger
ʹHe will become as wild as a tiger/like a tiger.ʹ
Except for a couple of irregular adjectives like gud‐bεta‐bεs ʹgood‐better‐bestʹ the
comparative of superiority is marked by serialized pas ʹsurpassʹ, cf. (12) above and
(16) dè gɛt strɔŋ pas wi.
3PL get strong pass 1SG
ʹThey became stronger than us.ʹ
There is no grammaticalized way of encoding the superlative. Instead, the
comparative of superiority is combined with a universal standard, as in
(17) à dè sɔfa pas ɛvribɔdi.
1SG PROG suffer pass everybody
ʹI suffer most.ʹ or ʹI suffer more than everybody.ʹ
6. Verb phrase
Tables 4a and b provide an overview of the forms and etyma of the GhaPE mood and
aspect markers as well as the meanings they encode. Except for postverbal
completive finiʃ, the markers precede the verb:
all except progressive
bigin (dè) begin
habitual ability or permission
Lexical aspect (stative, adjectival, adjectival) is only relevant if sentences are uttered
in isolation. In this case, the default, context‐free reading of unmarked stative verbs
is present (18), while unmarked action verbs receive a past reading (19):
(18) buʃmã ì sabi insai dɛ buʃ pas ju.
bushman 3SG know inside ART.DEF bush pass 2SG
ʹA bushman knows the bush better than you.ʹ
(19) wɔta kari dɛ̀m ɔl insai dɛ gɔta.
water carry 3PL.OBJ all inside ART.DEF gutter
ʹThe flood washed them all into the drain.ʹ
However, discourse co(n)text (e.g. time adverbials, sequencing of events in the
narration, shared world knowledge) more often than not overrides this default tense
interpretation, so that an unmarked stative verb form like no can also mean ʹknewʹ.
Note also that GhaPE has no anterior tense marker (bin in other WAPEs). Therefore,
anteriority (past for stative verbs and past‐before‐past for action verbs) can only be
inferred from the context.
The use of the TMA markers listed in Tables 4a‐c above is illustrated in the following
Dè encodes the progressive (20) and habitualis (21):
(20) sɔmbɔdi dè kam.
somebody PROG come
ʹSomebody is coming.ʹ
(21) ì bì so
dè jus àua lamp fɔ dɛ ɔp.
3SG COP so 1PL HAB use 1PL.POSS lamp for ART.DEF up
ʹThat is how we use our lamps in the North.ʹ
Kàm marks successive events in narratives:
(22) ɔ dɛ jam kam rɔt.
all ART.DEF yam SEQ rot
ʹ(And the) all the yams rotted.ʹ
Ingressive aspect can be expressed by bigin (dè), often accompanied by a reduplicated
(23) dè bigin dè fait~fait dɛ̀m.
PROG fight~fight 3PL.OBJ
ʹThey started to fight them.ʹ
GhaPE does not have the completive marker dɔn of other WAPEs and Krio. If
completiveness has to be openly encoded, posterverbal finiʃ is used:
(24) ì bɔn finiʃ.
3SG give.birth COMPL
ʹShe has given (finished giving) birth.ʹ
The future (24) and conditional (25) are marked by gò:
(25) dè gò kolɛk dɛ bɔla.
3PL FUT collect ART.DEF [refuse]
ʹThey will collect the refuse.ʹ
(26) no faktri de wì gò tɔk se nima wì dè mek faktri wɛk.
NEG factory COP 1PL COND talk COMP Nima 1PL HAB make factory work
ʹThere is no factory so that we could say that in Nima we work in factories.ʹ
Fìt expresses physical ability (27) and permission (28). The latter can also be
expressed by an impersonal construction involving the 3PL pronoun and gri ʹagreeʹ
(27) à no fìt mari sɛf.
1SG NEG ABI marry FOC
ʹI canʹt even marry.ʹ
(28) jù no gò fìt opĩ ̀ maf tɔk.
2SG NEG COND ABI open mouth talk
ʹYou would not have been allowed to say anything.ʹ
(29) dɛ fait diɛ, dè no gò gri mek ì hapĩ̀.
ART.DEF fight FOC 3PL NEG FUT agree CAUS 3SG happen
ʹThey wouldnʹt allow the fight to happen.ʹ
Deontic modality is signalled by fɔ̀:
(30) jù fɔ̀ fait àm.
2SG DEO fight 3SG.OBJ
ʹYou have to fight him.ʹ
Serialized wan encodes intentionalis (31) or imminence (32):
(31) ì wan kam ste nima.
3SG INT come stay Nima
ʹHe wants to come and stay in Nima.ʹ
(32) dat fait laik ì wan hapĩ ̀.
DEM fight like 3SG INT happen
ʹThat fight was about to happen.ʹ
A maximum of two markers can be combined. Gò can be followed by fìt/ dè/ kàm and
dè by fìt/ kàm. The resulting meaning is usually a composite of the individual
meanings of the markers:
(33) jù no
gò fìt slip.
2SG NEG COND ABI sleep
ʹYou wouldnʹt be able to sleep.ʹ (irrealis (in)ability)
(34) dɛ̀m gò dè ʃek jù.
3PL FUT PROG
ʹThey will be shaking you.ʹ (future progressive)
(35) dè gò kam tek dɛ kau ʃit.
3PL FUT SEQ take DEF cow shit
ʹThey will (then) take the dung.ʹ (future sequential)
(36) jù no
dè fìt waka.
2SG NEG HAB ABI walk
ʹYou are not able to walk.ʹ (habitual (in)ability)
(37) nau dɛ tin dè kam sprɛd.
now ART.DEF thing PROG SEQ spread
ʹ(And) now the thing (clashes) was staring to spread.ʹ (ingressive sequentiality)
Verbal negation is expressed by no, which takes the first position in the verb phrase,
before the mood/aspect markers:
(38) jù no gò sabi àm.
2SG NEG FUT [know] 3SG.OBJ
ʹYou wonʹt know it.ʹ
Except for the optional co-occurrence of the negative indefinite natiŋ with verbal
negation (see (7) above), there is no negative concord in GhaPE:
(39) jù no gò giv Ø braib, dè no gò tek jù.
2SG NEG FUT give bribe 3PL NEG FUT take 2SG.OBJ
ʹ(If) you wonʹt give them a bribe, they wonʹt take you.ʹ