Question: In reference to this question about how to show a foreign language in a manuscript, I am wondering: What is the best way to handle a pidgin language in a manuscript? In a wider sense: How would you treat a heavy slang that came up with original words and phrases?

Motivation: A pidgin language influenced by English, French, the Lingua Franca, Yiddish and others used in the 50s and 60s is the central symbol of a novel I am working on. It uses "original" words (in the sense that the "parent language" is not obvious) that I intend to highlight by using italics. However, as it was used mainly by English native speakers, some words are real English words but are either part of a phrase of the pidgin language or mean something entirely different.

Problem, refined: Since I will not write the novel in English, I wonder whether it makes sense to translate these English pidgin words or simply keep them and treat them to italics.

The advantage of keeping the English original is that it would add some extra "Englishness" to the story.

The disadvantage: People not fluent in English might simply miss out on the creativity of some of the pidgin phrases. (Example: "lattie" means flat or house, and "lattie on water" is a ship. The "on water" is obviously easily translatable.)

What do you think? Thanks for sharing your opinions with me.

5 Answers 5


Personally I don't think you need to make the words italics, if you introduce a word that isn't part of the reader's vocabulary, and give them enough clues to understand what it is, then they will pick it up.

So for instance, if you had a sentence that said - 'Do you want to come to my lattie for supper' and later maybe said '...its in my lattie' people are going to pick up what it means.

If later on you say 'we're catching the lattie-on-water' to cross the river, it won't make a difference whether the reader knows English, the ones that do will understand the subtlety, the ones that don't will simply see it as a bit more of a phrase they need to learn.

drip the words in slowly, guide the reader into understanding the meaning, and don't clog up your story with unneeded explanations.


As an alternative to footnotes, you could just immediately translate the first few statements containing a new pidgin word, perhaps putting the translation in italics. For (an extremely made-up) example:

"Jah, got might owie in me gulliver", said Collins. God, my head really hurts.

Used sparingly, this might serve as a less intrusive way of expanding the reader's vocabulary bit by bit.

And if all else fails, you can always simply say something like "X means Y" where necessary. Awkward, but maybe the lesser evil in some cases.


I was taught to handle foreign languages (and this would include pidgins) as grace notes in the prose and dialog: there's enough there to remind the reader that characters are speaking a language other than English, but not so much to hinder the reader's progress. So once you've made it clear that the characters are speaking the pidgin, most of the dialog would actually be in English but with important pidgin words thrown in. By important pidgin words I mean an untranslatable term, a word characteristic of the culture (and perhaps ironically contradicting the inevitable prejudices against them), or a word of pride. Including the lattie on water story is an ideal grace note because it not only reminds the reader of the pidgin but it's an interesting story: I'll come away feeling like I've learned something good about a culture I never otherwise would have learned. This sounds like a fun story to write and a great novel to read. Good luck with it.


A pidgin by its nature could theoretically form from English mixed with the language you are writing in so constructing such artificial pidgin seems to be a good solution. Just abandon grammar of your language and mix it with (commonly known) words from English and roman languages. Translators in such situations sometimes do mix languages close related to target language to show somehow how the language of original text felt to the readers (e.g. translating a dialogue between serbian and croatian speaker into dialogue between polish and silesian speaker). I think the same trick would work for pidgin.

But... it also is seen as something controversial or distracting/annoying by people knowing all the languages involved. It is something grammar-nazi like, but some people react this way just because it breaks their cognitive schemas. Similarly writing Яevolution instead of Revolution cmakes russian speakers confused while the others will have no problem reading it. So you should not use the trick I described if you expect your readers to be familiar with the culture (and so language) you are writing about.

If you do not want the trick you may write pidgin phrases in italics (as you have mentioned) but then you definitely should add footnotes. It may be better solution as it would not involve such cognitive bias in people expecting rather the original language than translation but it will raise the amount of text (➡footnotes) so you need to choose how you expect your text to be read.


Alright, here I go:

  • Don't put "englishness" in every sentence (i know you won't)
  • Maybe you could put it in italic. (I personally would put because is foreign)
  • If you are worried about the non-speakers of english, put a note with the meaning, but just if is a difficult word or expression. (A lot of notes distract the readers)

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