Problematic Pidginizations: Who Can Accept Ghanaian English?


By Esther de Bruijn


copyright 2006


“The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use” – Chinua Achebe



From its entrance during the colonial period, English in Ghana (like other ‘anglophone’ West African nations) has taken various forms, ranging along a continuum from Pidgin English to British Standard English, with innumerable hybrids in between those two poles.  Those common forms of English have always threatened to alter ideas of ‘correct’ English in Ghana and so have been denounced by most Ghanaian educators, who enforce the British standard as the only appropriate form for written English in Ghana and who denounce all linguistic deviations from BSE as “pidginizations.” Other scholars see the resistance to cultural modifications as futile and insist that a “Ghanaian Standard” be recognized as equally as legitimate as the British standard.  And these defenders of the Ghanaian Standard have made considerable progress in meeting the charge to “systematically distinguish” Ghanaian English as a ‘New English’ (Ahulu “How Ghanaian is Ghanaian English?” 27).  However, one immense impediment stands in their way – ethnic sensitivities.  If the loanwords and expressions in Ghanaian English do not represent the ‘identity’ of all of the  many ethnolinguistic groups in Ghana, those unrepresented groups will be hostile towards the idea of accepting Ghanaian English as a national lingua franca.   


The Debate


The contention between British Standard English (BSE) and Ghanaian English (GE) instantiates the larger, international argument over Standard English (SE) and New Englishes – a dispute that Samuel Ahulu suggests “may be one of the longest running linguistic debates this century” (“Ghanaian English” 18).  Since, in this postcolonial era, the majority of English speakers are ‘non-native’ (meaning, they use English as a second (or third or fourth) language), deviations from the original colonial language abound and generate new variations of English.  These modifications are the subject of the debate between the defenders of New Englishes, who pronounce all forms of English equal, and the upholders of Standard English, who decree British or American forms to be the only ‘acceptable’ forms of English worldwide.  Another position, which opposes SE as ‘Imperial,’ meaning, as a language imposed on postcolonial nations, proposes that English be dropped as an ‘official’ language and be replaced with indigenous languages.


In the case of Ghana, the extremes of the debate are obvious.  Calling the “‘notion of ‘Standard English’” a “‘forced violation of educated Ghanaians’ linguistic rights,’” one writer advises that the “‘borrowed language be butchered’” (Duodu, qut. in “How Ghanaian” 27).  Recognizing this proposal as absurd for a nation that aspires to improved international relations, other scholars, like Ibrahim Gyasi, consider it necessary to keep their British Standard English ‘pure,’ free of all linguistic deviations, or ‘errors’: “We should not, therefore, elevate bastardization into the status of legitimacy and call it ‘Ghanaian English’” (“Aspects of English in Ghana” 27).  But convinced that a variation of English that reflects the cultural distinctiveness of Ghana is necessary, the champions of Ghanaian English urge that “the floodgates [be] opened to allow English to find its own mode in Ghana” (Dako Ghanaianisms 3).


A Historical Perspective


While all African countries who were once colonized by the British participate in this debate, Ghana is particularly vociferous in its opinions on English.  Presently, Ghana’s government sponsors nine indigenous languages and recognizes about twenty-eight other indigenous ones (see Ghana’s Official webpage:, but the official language and lingua franca is English. Why the British English Standard is so highly valued in Ghana might be ascertained by tracing English back to its roots in the nation.  Due to its extensive trade with the Europeans, and, particularly, the British from the 17th to 19th century, Ghana (then known as the Gold Coast) probably had more initial contact with the British than did any of the other West African nations (McArthur 276).  After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the colonizers set upon Christian missionaries to ‘civilize’ the ‘barbarous’ subjects of their protectorate.  Texts in English – the Bible, but also British literature – were the chief means to this end, and schools became institutions where eliminating ‘savage’ behaviour and eradicating Pidgins went hand in hand.  Under the British, it became evident that literacy in English was the way to social and political advancement – to such a degree, it can be argued, that the Gold Coast writers’ embrace of the colonizer’s language led to the nation’s independence.  By then, BSE was well established as the language of the education, business, and government sectors of society. 


The Problem of Pidgins


One of the key problems the proposed Ghanaian English encounters is that all lexical deviations from BSE are subject to being stigmatized as unacceptable “pidginizations” (Ahulu “Hybridized English in Ghana” 36).  To get a sense of the gravity of this stigmatization, we need to understand what a pidgin is.  The Ghanaian linguist Samuel Ahulu clarifies that linguists use pidgin to refer to “a simplified language used for restricted communicative purposes by people who normally have no language in common” (“Hybridized” 36).


Consider the sample of Ghanaian Pidgin that Magnus Huber provides in Ghanaian Pidgin English in its West African Context:

Ghanaian pidgin (from “Broda Wahala.  Counsel for the offense” 1990):

las tam a tεl ju se a no bi hɔntamã, an a no bi sodzamã, so fɔ gan plava ma mɔf no dè fɔ insaid o!


Standard English translation (by Magnus Huber):

Last time I told you that I am neither a hunter nor a soldier, so I cannot say anything about trouble involving guns.







In contrast, listen to the language of an average, secondary-school educated Ghanaian, whose spoken English deviates from BSE but is far from a Pidgin: Listen Now!


Ahulu goes on to inform us that, currently, Pidgin English is used by only a small percentage of the Ghanaian population – those uneducated in BSE.  It is strange, then, that Tom McArther reports in The Oxford Guide to World English (2002) that in Ghana, “English is official, Pidgin (with no distinctive local name) is widely used” (276, emphasis mine).  It would seem that his classification of “Pidgin” in Ghana is substantially different from Ahulu’s.  With such slippage of the term, it is not difficult to imagine that Ghanaian English might be misidentified as a ‘Pidgin variety’ (McArther 268).  More significant, though, is Ahulu’s castigating application of the term: when he suggests that the deviations characteristic of “hybrid” forms of English are “pidginizations,” he means to preclude such deviations from ever being accepted into English in the education system.  For him (and several other influential scholars), then, Ghanaian English is out of the question.


Ghanaian English and Intensive Language Contact


At this point, it is important to note that the main controversy over the ‘appropriateness’ of Ghanaian English refers specifically to a written variation.  Although this variation sees some grammatical deviation from BSE, Kari Dako, one of the loudest supporters of Ghanaian English, highlights “Ghanaianisms” as predominant peculiarities of this New English.  She introduces these as “lexical items of both English and of local origin” (“Ghanaianisms: Towards a Semantic and Formal Classification” 23) – words that, for the most part, are adopted from Twi, an Akan language, or reflect aspects of the Akan culture.  Because these words almost always retain their linguistic integrity (their indigenous spelling, in particular) when they enter English, they are easily mistaken as code-switched expressions (whose use is only temporary and unpredictable) rather than lexical borrowings (words that appear with a certain predictability and frequency).  So even though a word like sica (‘money’) appears regularly in newspapers and government documents, upholders of BSE treat the word as code-switched, not borrowed, and judge its usage in written English as ‘incorrect.’  Dako explains that these words resist adaptations in English (whereby they might be recognized as borrowed) because of Ghana’s “intensive language contact” situation, where “bilinguals use two or more languages side by side throughout the day” (“Code Switching and Lexical Borrowing 49).  Since written English is so entrenched in the public sector but indigenous languages dominate the rest of society, Ghanaians switch between reading English and speaking indigenous languages throughout their daily activities.  


To illustrate, a typical Ghanaian, let us call her Akosua, might browse the papers at a news-stand on her way to the bus stop . . .



. . . and pass various billboards during her ride into town . .















































. . . The mirror-wura (seller) on the far right might use “Ghanaian English,”

Pidgin English, Twi, Ga, or some combination thereof to sell her his wares

through her tro-tro (local mini-bus) window . . .















. . . At the 37 interchange, she could stop by the Lord’s Triumph convenience store (where all goods are written in English) to pick out a greeting card from an all-English selection . . .


. . . While they wait for her, the salesgirls probably chat in English because Fazima, the girl in red, is from the north and doesn’t speak Twi, which the two other girls normally use in casual conversation . . .


So Akosua would make her purchase speaking English or Twi, depending on which salesgirl helped her, and continue on with her day, mixing languages along the way.



When she returned home, she might watch this Guinness Commercial, where the “intensive language contact” is especially obvious, integrating both written and oral English with oral Twi.   Watch Now!


This extreme linguistic contact does involve regular code-switching, but, Dako argues, it also cultivates a more regularized, indigenized variation of English. 




Dako’s glossary of over 2500 Ghanaianisms (Ghanaianisms: A Glossary) displays the extensive borrowings of indiginous lexical items in English in Ghana, and it reveals numerous lexical creations and uses of English words that are distinctive to English use in Ghana.  Her methodology of compiling these items involved the systematic notation of Ghanaian vocabulary in written English over a ten year period.  To satisfy the demand for a “Ghanaian Standard,” one that ensures that the variation can be “systematically distinguished” from other English forms (“How Ghanaian” 27), Dako only includes lexical items that appeared at least three times over eight years in print or in writing – in newspapers, magazines, periodicals, creative writing, essays, and/ or private letters (Ghanaianisms 1).  Among these items, cultural borrowings – such as consumables, personal appellations, religious beliefs, cultural implements – dominate, words that carry specific cultural meanings for which Standard British English has no equivalent.  To use one of Dako’s choice examples, waakye (/wɒtʃː/) is a local dish of rice and beans cooked with a hot pepper paste.  Although all Ghanaians – including the so-called higher sector – always refer to this food as waakye in conversation, and even though it consistently appears as such in state-recognized printed texts (like newspapers) and literature in English, still, university instructors insist that this item be referred to as rice and beans – an obviously inadequate replacement – in written English as it is taught in the education system.  An example of a Ghanaianism that even educated Ghanaians do not realize is distinctive of English in Ghana is outdooring, a word referring to a Ghanaian animist sort of christening.  As already indicated above, sika appears along with the SE word card in the compound sika card, which refers to a debit card in Ghana.  Other deviations from SE include semantic changes to SE lexemes, such as the distinction  of a lady as a woman with a formal education from a woman, who could be illiterate or educated – as in Fela Kuti’s song “Lady.” Listen Now!  


Ethnic Sensitivities to “Ghanaian English”


Another example of a Ghanaianism, an English coinage, illustrates the problem of labeling words that reflect the cultural practices of only one ethno-linguistic group.  The verb to enstool relates to the Akan ‘stool,’ the sacred seat of Akan chiefs, and it is commonly used as an equivalent of to enthrone.  Such a word, Ahulu warns, is “capable of arousing strong ethnic sentiment” as soon as it is labeled “Ghanaian” since it does not recognize the cultural practices of other Ghanaian ethnic groups (like the Ewe or Ga).  The same strong ethnic sentiment that has prevented the adoption of one indigenous Ghanaian language as an official language is the ethnic sentiment that will refuse to accept a ‘Ghanaian English’ that comprises lexical items that disproportionately represent the culture of one ethnic group – namely the Akans.  So it seems that no matter how vigorously scholars like Dako defend indigenous lexical peculiarities in English in Ghana, if these particularities do not give fair representations of the multiple ethno-linguistic cultures in Ghana – probably an impossible task – this Ghanaian English will never be deemed an ‘acceptable’ English language.  


For Further Reading


English in West Africa:


Achebe, Chinua. "English and the African Writer." Transition. 4.18 (1965): 27-30. 


McArthur, Tom. The Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.



Ghanaian English:


Ahulu, Samuel. "How Ghanaian is Ghanaian English?" English Today: The International Review of the English Language. 10.2 (1994): 25-9.


---. "Hybridized English in Ghana." English Today: The International Review of the English Language. 11.4 (1995): 31-6.


---. "How Ghanaian is Ghanaian English?" English Today: The International Review of the English Language 10.2 (1994): 25-9.


Criper, L. "A Classification of Types of English in Ghana." Journal of African Languages. 10.3 (1971): 6-17.


Dako, Kari. "Code-Switching and Lexical Borrowing: Which is what in Ghanaian English?" English Today: The International Review of the English Language. 18.3 (2002): 48-54.


---.  Ghanaianisms: A Glossary. Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 2003.


---. "Ghanaianisms: Towards a Semantic and a Formal Classification." English World-Wide: A Journal of Varieties of English. 22.1 (2001): 23-53.


Gyasi, Ibrahim K. "Aspects of English in Ghana." English Today: The International Review of the English Language 7.2 (1991): 26-31.


---. "The State of English in Ghana." English Today: The International Review of the English Language 6.3 (1990): 24-6.


Saah, Kofi K. "Language use and Attitudes in Ghana." Anthropological Linguistics. 28.3 (1986): 367-77.


Sey, Kofi Abakah. Ghanaian English: An Exploratory Survey. London: Macmillan, 1973.





Huber, Magnus and Manfred Görlach. "Texts: West African Pidgin English." English World-Wide: A Journal of Varieties of English. 17.2 (1996): 239-58.


Huber, Magnus. Ghanaian Pidgin English in its West African Context: A Sociohistorical and Structural Analysis. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1999.