Pidgin play: linguistic subversion on Chinese-run construction sites in Ethiopia

African Affairs, Volume 119, Issue 476, July 2020, Pages 432–451,


african affairs


The Chinese-run construction sites that have emerged across the Ethiopian landscape over the past two decades have given rise to a pidgin — a contact language that facilitates communication between Chinese managers and the Ethiopian labourers under their direction. By unravelling the nature of this pidgin, including its lexicon, syntax, and semantics, this article discusses the power dynamics in Ethiopian–Chinese encounters through the lens of language. A prototypical contact language at first blush, the pidgin spoken on Chinese road projects in Ethiopia is different from pidgins that emerged in colonial Africa. Its structure and use reveal that power relations between Chinese management and Ethiopian rank and file are less asymmetrical than often portrayed. As a site of contestation as much as collaboration, pidgin has in fact become one of the domains in which power is negotiated. By hijacking words and manipulating their meanings, Ethiopian workers play with pidgin in an attempt to confront expatriate management and challenge the sociopolitical asymmetries that the growing Chinese presence in their country has brought forth.