Nawa oh!: BBC launches news service in Pidgin

The Merriam Webster dictionary describes “pidgin” as “a simplified speech used for communication between people with different languages”. Variants of “pidgin” language, mixing English, Dutch and Portuguese with elements of local languages, emerged in various parts of Africa as a result of both trade and colonisation. One such pidgin language is “West African Pidgin English”, which came into being during the Atlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries as a way for local peoples to communicate with British slave-traders and merchants. It is widely spoken in Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, with different local variations.

West African Pidgin English is the language of the new BBC Pidgin digital news service, which was only launched at the end of August 2017. Although there are adverts, films and music in Pidgin, even a radio station that broadcasts exclusively in Pidgin. However, the BBC will be the first organisation to “offer online services in digital platforms” and is not widely used as a medium for news. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, Pidgin is primarily a spoken language, with no standardised spelling. However, BBC Pidgin’s journalists are more than qualified to deal with this, indeed, some of them are capable of translating Shakespeare into Pidgin.

The second problem has to do with how the language has traditionally been viewed. It is seen as a language for use in informal contexts and, in some places, there is stigma around speaking it. According to Miriam Quansah, the BBC’s digital lead for Africa, attitudes to Pidgin vary across the region, with some people being reluctant to admit it is their first language. However, she states that people in Nigeria have pride in speaking Pidgin. The service itself may even play a role in tackling some of the stigma surrounding the language.

The BBC states that its new service will offer “a mix of local, regional and international news, current affairs and analysis”. Although it is based in Lagos, it will have reporters in other parts of Nigeria, as well as Ghana and  Cameroon. At the time of writing, the website contains video interviews, including with the former President of Nigeria on Biafra “Obasanjo on Biafra, Wetin Nigerians dey talk”, an audio news round-up as well as articles on Hurricane Irma, “Hurricane Irma: Florida don feel di force” and North Korea, “North Korea don get sanctions from UN after nuclear test”.

It is estimated that Pidgin is spoken by 75 million people in Nigeria, with around 3-5 million speaking it as a first language. It is also widely spoken in other countries across west Africa.  The purely digital nature of this service is based on the fact that, in this region, news is commonly read on mobile phones. Through doing this, they hope to offer news and current affairs coverage to people it may not have reached otherwise. Whether the BBC’s site will succeed in this aim, and the aim of changing attitudes to this language, only time will tell.


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