Development and Stages of Pidgins and Creoles towards Decreolization. A Phonological Analysis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011
20 Pages, Grade: 2,3
Thomas Gantner (Author)



1. Introduction

2. Development and emergence of Pidgins and Creoles by using the example of Hawai’i Pidgin English
2.1 Emergence of Pidgin and Creole languages
2.2 A brief socio-historical overview of pidgin
2.3 Stages in the development of a pidgin towards a creole
2.4 Further Development: Decreolization

3. Grammatical Features of Hawai’i Pidgin English
3.1 Phonology of Hawai’i Pidgin English with textual proof
3.1.1 Vowels in Hawai’i Pidgin English
3.1.2 Consonants in Hawai’i Pidgin

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“God say, lissen! I goin send my messenja guy.

He going ahead a you

An he goin get everyting ready

Befo you come,

Cuz you my real Spesho Guy, you know.

Inside da boonies,

My messenja guy goin talk real loud an real strong

So everybody can hear:

‘Eh! Make da road ready fo da Good Boss Up Dea!

Make um strait fo him!’-“[1]

As a starting point I took a poem from the Pidgin Bible from Hawai’i. Hawai’i was strongly influenced by Standard English on its way as a pidgin towards a stable pidgin. As displayed in the poem a great deal of words were borrowed from the English lexicon. The senior researcher Ryo Stanwood states:” A lot of the Hawaiian words have disappeared, and they’re replaced by English.”[2]

First, I will briefly portray the emergence of pidgin and creole languages and their development towards the post-creole continuum. I will examine the different types of pidgin-creole developments and the phenomenon of decreolizing - the approximation of the creole towards the lexifier by using the example of the Hawaiian Creole that I will also portray out of a socio-historical point of view. That creole is officially still called ‘Hawai’i Pidgin’ by its speakers, but I will avoid using that term in my paper. Therefore, the term Hawai’i Creole English, short HCE, is more appropriate. Furthermore, I will deal with HCE’s phonology, especially with its difference to Standard English, in detail – due to the question whether HCE is decreolizing or not. As Norval S. H. Smith states, creole phonology is a “neglected field” and “younger languages” have the tendency to be not as much irregular as “elder languagetend to be.[3] Other problematic cases I am dealing with in this term paper are whether creoles always can be traced back to a pidgin stage – and why there are creoles that seem to have a greater substrata influence than their pidgin ancestor had. A notable feature here is, that creole speakers compared to pidgin speakers never got acquainted with any substrate language.

2. Development and emergence of Pidgins and Creoles by using the example of Hawai’i Pidgin English

2.1 Emergence of Pidgin and Creole languages

Contact languages, such as pidgins and creoles, develop when two or even more groups of people, i.e. in trade situations or in the context of colonization, have a need for communication and do not share a common language.[4] Thus, a language has to emerge that is spoken by all groups in that particular geographical area, indigenized varieties that are frequently referred to as “New Englishes” or “World Englishes”. Most likely the lexicon of the newly developed language derives from the dominant language, known as the lexifier or the superstrate – the language that is more prestigious. The counterpart of the superstrate is the substrate language, that is eliminated by the superstrate and that shifted towards a pidgin or a creole. However, the substrate can interfere with the development of the target language.[5] The function of a pidgin is very limited, such as for the basic communication in trade and work contacts. A pidgin does not have native speakers and is restricted in its usage, but within a few generations a pidgin can improve and becomes a stable-pidgin or even a creole language that is nativized. Improvements are made through transfer that comes into effect when communication problems evolve, and the pidgin vocabulary is no longer able anymore to cope with its own lexicon and grammatical features.[6] Therefore, the pidgin-speaking community desires to speak more complex expressions.[7] A condition for a pidgin to become stable over time is that the trade or work relations between the two speech communities are maintained. Consequently, it can be said that the length of a pidgins life is bound to the existence of a particular function. Creoles also occur when there is a contact between two or more languages. In contrast to pidgins, however, a creole is a nativized language that is more complex and can be considered as its own language. The creole that is spoken in Hawaii is still kept very simple in phonology compared to English.[8] For instance, English ‘th’ sounds are substituted by ‘t’ or ‘d’, as in tink ‘think’ or dis ‘this’.[9] I will deal with that more in detail when it comes to consonants of HCE phonology. That is also illustrated in some Hawaiian literature with the usage of an apostrophe as an indication that a sound is missing – for example t’ink ‘think’.[10]

Over the years a creole can gradually develop out of a pidgin by undergoing morphosyntactic expansion and “emerge from successive cycles of approximation of their lexifiers”[11], but it is also possible that a jargon or a pre-pidgin expands rapidly. This case is called “abrupt creolization”, and lacks completely the evidence of a preceding pidgin that was stable to a particular point of time in the past.[12]

For a pidgin to stabilize the speakers of the substrate language need to continue having a purpose to use their first language. For example, if slaves were isolated from their group, they started shifting to the target language instantly and deculturated from their own.

2.2 A brief socio-historical overview of pidgin

To give a Sociohistorical background for a gradual creolization, I would like to portray the development of the Hawaiian Creole.

Before Hawaii was immigrated by different ethnical groups of people, it had its own original language that was related to Samoan and Maori, languages of the Malayo-Polynesian family.[13]

Hawaii had its first contact with Europeans in 1778, when it became a stopover for merchant ships which were involved in whaling and trading with Asia. In subsequent years Hawaii became a multicultural island and they got acquainted with two different pidgins – the Pacific Pidgin English and the Chinese Pidgin English. When sugarcane plantations established first in 1835 which brought laborers from different countries, such as Portugal, Spain, China, the Philippines, Japan, Puerto Rico, to Hawai’i, the workers were isolated by ethnic groups in which they continued speaking their mother tongue.[14] When they started working on multiethnic plantations, a need for a language for communication arose.[15] The Great Depression in the 1930s forced some of the workers to move into urbanized areas in search for jobs that were not available anymore on the plantations. Consequently, they brought the Pidgin with them. Thus, the Hawaii Pidgin with the function of interethnic communication developed and stabilized - especially in Honolulu and other urbanized areas. In World War II a huge amount of military workforces from the United States arrived. That offered possibilities for the Hawaiians to improve their skills of Standard English. The prestige of HCE decreased more and more.[16] The children of immigrants learned Hawaii Pidgin as a first language and also interethnic marriages accelerated the ‘pidgin-to-creole process’. Subsequently, Pidgin changed from an auxiliary language with a limited form of communication towards a creole. Today Hawaii Creole English is widely-used in Hawaii, as it is also the official language for administration and education.[17]

It is still called Hawaii Pidgin, probably because of the fast development that lacks the stage of an expanded pidgin[18]. In subsequent chapters I would like to discuss if Hawaii Pidgin is decreolizing or not.

2.3 Stages in the development of a pidgin towards a creole

As already pointed out, pidgins and creoles are “dynamically evolving” with the condition of appropriate social circumstances. However it is important to emphasize that there is no such thing as the one and only pidgin-to-creole life-cycle. According to Mühlhäusler there can be made a distinction between three different types of creolization, and it can take place even when the pidgin-stage is never achieved.[19]

The first type of creolization is infrequent, but it does occur when individuals shift rapidly from a jargon or a pre-pidgin, an earlier and more unstable stage of a pidgin in the life-cycle model, towards the target language. This phenomenon happens when people from different linguistic backgrounds work together, as in several Caribbean colonies. The purpose for these arranged groupings was to prevent slaves to rebel. Thus, no crystallized pidgin stage could evolve.[20] So either the jargon is maintained when there is little purpose to communicate, or it shifts abruptly into a creole. Jargons are structurally and systematically characterized as diverse and it is frequently interfered by the mother tongue of the group. Also, the structure is very simplified, and sentences are kept short and simple.[21] It is assumed that the simplicity found in jargons and pidgins in relation to morphology, their lexicon and their grammar, is based on second language acquisition (SLA).[22]

Here is an example from a late eighteenth century Hawaii’ jargon that was also called ‘hapa haole’ with the meaning of ‘half white’.[23]

“Take care. By and by you dead. Tiana too many men.”

‘Take care. You will soon be dead, because Tiana has many men.’[24]

The second type of creolization is more typical, but it is required that the jargon that evolves into a stabilized pidgin does not expand. Accordingly, the pidgin has to develop quickly and abrupt much like HCE. In contrast to a jargon, a pidgin is regarded as less richly varied and displays structural standards that have to be acquired. Most pidgins derive a huge amount of their lexicon from one language; whereas pidgins exist that do have more than one source language, such as ‘Russenorsk’ that developed out of Norwegian and Russian. Examples for the third type are the gradually developed ‘Tok Pisin’ that is spoken in Papua New Guinea. ‘Tok Pisin’ is creolizing and is on its way to become the main community language in that area, but it has with approximately one million people less native speakers than second language learners that comprises a group of four million people. If only part of a community acquires the language as a mother tongue, the term ‘pidgincreole’ describes this phenomenon.[25]

2.4 Further Development: Decreolization

In the post-creole continuum, or also known as the ‘pidgin-to-English continuum’, the creole decreolizes and approximates again to the lexifier, the target language. Decreolization in general is characterized by generational changes in the language, as the amount of people, who are just able to speak the basilect of the creole, declines. It has to be distinguished here between the acrolect and the basilect. The acrolect is characterized by formal speech and is detectable in urban places where it is the closest variety of the creole’s lexifier; whereas the informal basilect, spoken in rural places, portrays the typical creole, and is the furthest variety of the lexifier. Though, also the influence of the internal language resources, i.e. ‘Tok Pisin’, on its own nativized variety, should also be taken into account. Through the process of gradual basilectalization with a huge amount of unqualified speakers, the creole clearly differentiates more and more from its target language. This process is characterized by incorrect reproduction and transmission errors when trying to approximate towards the language of the lexifier.[26] For the post-creole continuum to occur it is necessary that the language of the lexifier is the official and dominant language in that area. However, rural areas where the basilect is spoken are often untroubled by the continuum.[27] In urban regions ‘Tok Pisin’ is increasingly decreolizing, because of the widespread borrowing from the English language.[28] On the basis of urban-rural decline, according to the degree of Anglicization, I deduce that geographical aspects do have a higher impact on English words that are borrowed more than social aspects do.

A question might arise whether HCE that is still called Hawaii Pidgin by its native speakers, as mentioned earlier, is decreolizing. The language in the creole continuum ranges from the basilect, a ‘heavy’ pidgin, to an acrolect that is close to Standard English.

Nevertheless, most of the inhabitants of Hawaii speak a mesolect, a variety in between the basilect and the acrolect. Thus, they can always switch between these two forms depending on the circumstantial situation such as their conversational partner, the topic they are talking about or the setting in which they are located.[29] If most of the inhabitants of Hawaii speak the mesolect of the Hawaiian Creole, in which they can shift easily from the distant linguistic variety towards varieties that are close to Standard English, I wonder why they do not adhere to one language for communication. However, the Hawaiians do not agree on the one and only valid form of Pidgin. Some people think the basilectal form of Hawai’i that strongly is to be distinguished in grammar from Standard English is the right form. Others have the opinion that a form closer to English with a limited local lexicon has to be used.[30]

The first possible shift completely back towards Hawaiian Creole seems to be complicated, because English as a world language is essential for them. They need to communicate in trade situations, and also higher education is not possible without English-speaking inhabitants – The use of Pidgin in education is considered a handicap, even if the acrolect version of the creole is clearly understandable. Besides, Hawaii belongs to the United States of America since 1959 as the 50th state of the USA, and therefore their dwellers do have the chance to succeed in education and business outside of their homeland. It appears that most of the Hawaiians learned English as a first language and began to acquire Hawaii Pidgin later as a second language.[31]

According to an interview between the newspaper ‘Honolulu Advertiser’ and Oswald Andrew Bushnell, a history professor at the University of Hawai’i, it becomes clear that it is difficult to succeed nowadays in Hawai’i without the ability to speak English. There is a part of Hawaiians that learned Pidgin as their first language, and are not able to speak or write English. Referring to Reinecke, 20 percent of Hawaii’s population in 1935 were L1s of Pidgin, 20 to 30 percent were able to speak a creolized version of Standard English, and most of them – 30 to 40 percent – spoke a post-creole form. 15 percent, especially in urbanized areas, spoke Standard English. Today almost the whole population shifted towards the target language.[32] Also, most of the L1 Pidgin-speaking community is illiterate, because their parents were never able to read and write as well. A possible reason is that they are just not willing to approximate towards Standard English with the purpose to rebel against the dominant white, or also called haole culture.[33] Instead, that part of Hawaiian society does not spend time for education, or as Bushnell states in the interview: “Nowadays, there are too many other things to do, even if you have a good mind. “I would like to read a book. Haven’t got time. Too busy watching tee-vee, trotting around to pahties, going to bahs.”[34] By imitating a Hawaiian citizen, Bushnell uses ‘typical’ Pidgin words to emphasize that a lot of people, especially in rural areas, are uneducated.

One may question why the Hawaiians live in a multilingual community where it is not needed, and why do they strive to learn such a ‘broken’ language variety. The preservation of Hawaii Pidgin was and still is a significant indication that the Hawaiians want to preserve some of their local identity and want to prevent acculturation. In 2005, the first Pidgin class was taught at Hawaii Pacific University as an attempt to perpetuate Pidgin as a second language.[35] It is also a language of community and social coherence, and might remind the Hawaiians of their plantation history when they were in contact with citizens of the United States, who spoke American English, and who influenced their language to a significant degree. Hawaii is situated in a phase that is unique according to the classic pidgin-to-creole life-cycle model, as Rickford (1983) states in his article ‘What happens in decreolization’[36] as “an intermediate stage of decreolization which may be maintained for generations because of sociopsychological factors favoring creole maintenance, even by speakers who have added an acrolectal variety to their repertoire.”[37] There is a creole continuum for Hawaii Pidgin, but it does not conventionally decreolize[38], possibly because of the accelerated development from a pre-pidgin towards a creole. Hawaii Pidgin does coexist with English in the Hawaiian society, and both languages fulfill both purposes, in spoken and in written form.

3. Grammatical Features of Hawai’i Pidgin English

The linguist Derek Bickerton made an assumption in 1981 in his work ‘Roots of Language’ that semantic and syntactic changes from Hawaii Pidgin English towards HCE were not influenced by either the superstrate language, Standard English, or any substrate languages. HCE portrays a significant similarity with other creoles, as word order, determiners, the TMA (Tense, Mood, Aspect) system and sentential complementation. It also makes use of the same form for possessive and existential words; adjectives form a subclass of verbs, questions can be answered with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and passive constructions are used as a lexical voice. Therefore, he constructed a hypothesis to explain how innovations in HCE developed, that is the ‘Language Bioprogram Hypothesis’. He states that every human is equipped with linguistic competence and a new-born individual is able to cope with the different varieties in word order utilized by his parents, but the Bioprogram only takes effect when creolization occurs abrupt within the first creole generation. Bickerton builds this hypothesis with regard to the strict SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) - structure in HCE in spite of speakers from different linguistic backgrounds. Also, there is an exact distinction for the use of determiners in HCE. The article da is used with a specific reference in a noun phrase when the object, the article is referring to, is known to the reader or listener. The second distinction has to be made when the object is unknown to the reader or listener. Thus, the indefinite article wan is used. The third case deals with noun phrases that do not have an article. That occurs either in a negation or in a case where the identity of the object is unknown.[39] In a ‘normal’ language situation, the adult already speaks a language consisting of structured grammatical features which is acquired by children in the same way. In the situation of a ‘creole genesis’ the innate Bioprogram encourages children to make up their own set of rules out of the ‘chaotic’ input. Salikoko Mufwene, a linguist from the University of Chicago, states that he mistrusts Bickerton’s hypothesis which also does not provide strong and convincing arguments. He points out that it is highly doubtful that every human is equipped with the same Bioprogram according to the different development of languages.[40] The substrate languages that are spoken on the multicultural plantations in Hawaii could have caused semantic categories to grammaticalize into the TMA system – tense, mood, aspect – of Hawaii Pidgin. But it is complicated to identify if the resulted language emerged through direct transmission of the substrate language, or if more than one substrate source contributed to the creole. But it is highly doubtful that these grammatical features are introduced through Standard English, because there is marginal overlap. Uncertainties also exist about the copula ste (also /stay) ‘stay’ in HP that indicates the progressive form, i.e. “da dog stay on da lanai” which can be translated as “The dog is on the porch”[41] The uncertainty is whether it derives from the Portuguese copula estar, with which it consistently does not appear in noun phrases. Moreover, stei is used increasingly with the introduction of Standard English word ‘be’.[42] It has to be taken into account that stei and other TMA markers, such as wen (short for went) which indicates past tense, i.e. “my slippah wen buss” with the meaning of “my sandal broke”.[43] Other TMA markers are gon, and fo (also for) which introduce a complement clause, first debuted in written form in the 1920s by the first monolingual creole speakers. The word “fo” is used instead of “to” in Standard English. “Eribadi kam fo si daet haus.” (“Everybody comes to the see house.”).[44] Consequentially, it could be assumed that these features were transferred by the substrate and were innovated by the children.[45]

At this point one may ask how it is possible that the developed creole has more substrate features than the foregoing pidgin. To respond to that question it is important to know that the Portuguese were the first immigrants who shifted from their own language towards the Hawai’i Pidgin as their primary language. Additionally, between 1895 and 1905 Portuguese children were the largest group of immigrants in schools with more than 20 percent. The first native speakers of the Hawai’i Creole mostly belonged to the second generation of children who were born on Hawaii. Therefore, the grammatical innovations therefore were not made by the first native speakers, but rather transferred out of a need to provide for structures that were not available in the auxiliary language by their parents when shifting towards HPE during their lifetime.[46] Consequently, the adults would innovate grammatical features and their children would “amplify and restructure certain (substrate-based) innovations through L2A [second language acquisition] by adults”.[47] Locally born children after the 1920s, especially Japanese had no impact on the development of the creole, because it was well-established by then.[48] All in all the most important factor of building a new language system is the presence of children, who transform the linguistic input of a pidgin from their parents into the linguistic system of the creole.


[1] Mark, “Tell ‘bout Jesus”, <> (accessed 07/09/2011, 15:00).

[2] Viotti, Vicki, “Scholars debate if pidgin got da pilikias”, <> (accessed 07/09/2011, 14:00).

[3] Kouwenberg, Silvia; Singler, John (2008), “The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies”, Oxford,p. 98.

[4] Siegel, Jeff (2008), The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole Languages. Oxford 2008, p. 1.

[5] The third form of language influence is the adstrate language that is equally prestigious with another language in a particular geographical area. An example would be the linguistic relationship between Old English and Norse where no superstrate or substrate was present.

[6] Siegel, Jeff (2008), The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole Languages, Oxford, p. 3.

[7] Kouwenberg, Silvia; Singler, John (2008), “The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies”, Oxford, p. 206.

[8] Siegel, Jeff (2008), The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole Languages, Oxford, p. 43.

[9] Sakoda, Kent; Siegel, Jeff: Pidgin Grammar (2003), An Introduction to the Creole Language of Hawaii, Honolulu, p. 21.

[10] Ibid., p. 23.

[11] Kouwenberg, Silvia; Singler, John (2008), “The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies”, Oxford, p. 10.

[12] Patrick, Peter, “Shift without normal transmission. Abrupt Creolization“, < > (accessed 07/09/2011, 11:00).

[13] MrArthur, Tom (2003), “Oxford Guide to World English”, Oxford, p. 404.

[14] Siegel, Jeff (2008), The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole Languages, Oxford, p. 47.

[15] Holm, John (1989), Pidgins and Creoles. Volume 2, Cambridge, p. 518 – 522.

[16] Ibid, p. 524.

[17] MrArthur, Tom (2003), “Oxford Guide to World English”, Oxford, p. 402.

[18] In the stage of an expanded pidgin, native speakers start to emerge. That happens likely in urbanized areas in which people from different ethnic backgrounds need to communicate with each other. Consequently, the Expanded Pidgin becomes the main language in that area.

[19] Kouwenberg, Silvia; Singler, John (2008), “The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies”, Oxford, p. 92.

[20] Thomason, Sarah; Kaufman, Terrence (1992), Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics, Berkeley, p. 148.

[21] Kouwenberg, Silvia; Singler, John (2008), “The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies”, Oxford, p. 132-133.

[22] Siegel, Jeff (2008), The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole Languages, Oxford, p. 45.

[23] Holm, John (1989), Pidgins and Creoles. Volume 2, Cambridge, p. 519.

[24] Kouwenberg, Silvia; Singler, John (2008), “The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies”, Oxford, p. 133.

[25] Siegel, Jeff (2008), The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole Languages, Oxford, p. 134-137.

[26] Ibid, p. 51.

[27] Ibid, p. 235-237.

[28] Ibid, p. 240.

[29] Siegel, Jeff (2008), The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole Languages, Oxford, p. 257.

[30] Sakoda, Kent; Siegel, Jeff: Pidgin Grammar (2003), An Introduction to the Creole Language of Hawaii, Honolulu, p. 20.

[31] Siegel, Jeff (2008), The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole Languages, Oxford, p. 266.

[32] Holm, John (1989), Pidgins and Creoles. Volume 2, Cambridge, p. 517-518.

[33] In Hawai’i Pidgin ‘haole’ has got the meaning of a white person or a Caucasian.

[34] Dye, Bob (1997), Hawai’i Chronicles II: Contemporary Island History from the Pages of Honolulu Magazine, Honolulu, p. 96-97.

[35] Pang, Gordon, “Pidgin get one new dictionary, cuz” &agt;; (accessed 07/09/2011)

[36] Andersen, Roger (1983), Pidginization and Creolization as Language Acquisition, Massachusetts, p. 298 – 319.

[37] Siegel, Jeff (2008), The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole Languages, Oxford, p. 266.

[38] When a creole is conventionally decreolizing, part of the creoles’ grammatical forms are substituted by grammatical forms from the lexifier. These kinds of changes are easy to observe, whereas in the ‘Covert decreolization’ the outward appearance of words does not change. However, the function of the language does change directed towards the lexifier. (see Siegel, Jeff (2008), The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole Languages, Oxford, p. 259.)

[39] Kouwenberg, Silvia; Singler, John (2008), “The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies”, Oxford, p. 220-225.

[40] Sebba, Mark (1997), Contact languages: Pidgins and Creoles, New York, p. 177-180.

[41] Reevesman, Anne: A local habitation and a name: Local literatures of Hawai’I. Milwaukee 2007, p. 142.

[42] Kouwenberg, Silvia; Singler, John (2008), “The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies”, Oxford, p. 61-62.

[43] Sebba, Mark (1997), Contact languages: Pidgins and Creoles, New York, p. 177-180.

[44] Hargrove, Ermile; Sakoda, Kent; Siegel, Jeff: “Language Varieties: Hawai’i Creole”, < > (accessed 08/09/2011, 16:00)

[45] Kouwenberg, Silvia; Singler, John (2008), “The Handbook of Pidgin and Creole Studies”, Oxford, p. 203.

[46] Ibid, p. 206-207.

[47] Ibid, p. 208.

[48] Ibid, p. 234.

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Development and Stages of Pidgins and Creoles towards Decreolization. A Phonological Analysis
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Enriching English
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pidgin, creole, bible, contact, Hawaii, plantage, post-creole, Standard Englisch, influence, phonology, World English, stable, multiculturalism, communication, Jargon, interference, decreolization, Tok Pisin, Honululu, grammatical features, language bioprogram, innovation, vowel, consonant, syllable, rhythm, diphthong, basilect, mesolect
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Thomas Gantner (Author), 2011, Development and Stages of Pidgins and Creoles towards Decreolization. A Phonological Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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