I tried asking a similar question on Reddit: The minimum required to teach abstract nouns to children without writing or illustrations?, but (a) people misunderstood my question (and/or were rude), and (b) most of the discussion revolved around "child language acquisition". Child language acquisition is not what I'm after, as that assumes everyone around you (all the elders and peers) speak regularly, and you just "pick it up" through statistical mechanisms and such. But I don't know if "adults surrounded by speakers" would pick up a language as well as children, hence my focus on Pidgin languages for this question.

How do people speaking Pidgin languages learn abstract nouns. Obviously this is a little easier question to answer than "how did the first ape learn to speak (especially abstract nouns) if nobody spoke around them?", because the Pidgin people have as a background a primary native language which they learned as children, so they are familiar with abstract concepts most likely already. But even in that situation, how do you express to someone "to have faith" or to "trust" something, or what "freedom" or "honesty" are?

Obviously you can have in your own mind the concept of "faith" in your native language, and just even make up a word in the Pidgin, like "fe" to mean faith. But how does the adult listener know what you mean, if they don't speak your native language too? Would you somehow mime it to them? I saw some papers suggesting how you might use when or if definitions to express things, like "when a slave is released from prison, they gain their freedom", so maybe you teach them like that? But then I saw that, at least for children, they pick up ~10-15 words per day for years and years, leading up to a high-school graduate knowing ~60k-80k "words", but only ~1 of those words per day (MAX) is learned by receiving a definition or through reading, type of thing. So thinking about Pidgin people defining their terms might be unrealistic. So does it just come down to the way children learn, and through context cues and repeated usage they just somehow "pick it up"?

Hoping to find more research into specifically how abstract nouns are learned/taught/communicated in pidgins, because that seems as close as we are going to get in terms of experiential evidence as to how early humans could have learned language as adults, if no language was being spoken already around them. But even Pidgins are far off, as each person has a native language as background knowledge, whereas early apes might not have had that. But it is a very rough approximation, and I'm sure there are some insights to glean from here, but I have found little in terms of how abstract nouns are learned in pidgins.

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    Mostly they don't. People who speak pidgins generally speak other languages as well. Pidgins are contact languages, used normally for very non-abstract things. When a pidgin grows into a creole with native speakers, nouns can get quite abstract, just like anywhere else.
    – jlawler
    Aug 7, 2023 at 18:21

1 Answer 1


I don't think child language acquisition is all that far off what you should be after. The main problem is that you're asking an essentially un-researchable question. Step one would be to identify a pidgin, then you go there and watch what happens when a person comes into that area and has to talk to others. Nootka Pidgin is extinct, Nigerian Pidgin is not a pidgin anymore, and Sheng may or may not be a "pidgin" depending on your criteria.

As a runner-up question, you might wonder "how do adults learn a language based purely on monolingual exposure, without instructions?". The "without instructions" part is important, unless your question really reduces to "How do you conduct a first-level ESL class?". For instance, how do refugees learn the local language, wherever they end up. Usually, the host country has some kind of language program. Ultimately, grandma sometimes does not learn English, Arabic or Spanish, and you have enclaves of monolingual Tigrinya speakers that don't talk to the locals.

In other words, a 6 year old transplanted from Eritrea to Burma is in the same position as the 60 year old grandmother, but somehow the child always figures it out, and the grandmother sometimes doesn't. How does a child figure out word meaning, and how does an adult?

Now we can cross the Rubicon of prescriptivity: and sometimes, the child doesn't figure out the meaning of the word, they figure out an adjacent meaning. There is semantic change. Nobody figures out "the" meaning of a word, because word meaning is kind of imprecise. Children are better at figuring out the range of meanings of a word in a society because they are better socialized and less cranky.

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