Bislama, Vanuatu's National Language

Vanuatu has about 110 languages for its 150,000 inhabitants, the world's highest concentration of languages. Historically, most villages had very limited contact with each other, and many developed their own languages. Contact with the West, which brought trade, Christianization, and colonization, forced the villages to communicate with other, and throughout much of Melanesia (from Papua New Guinea through The Solomon Islands to Vanuatu) a more-or-less common pidgin developed. Vanuatu's variant of this pidgin is called Bislama.

 Melanesian Pidgin got its start in the 19th century, when Europeans harvested sandalwood and sea cucumbers (this reputed aphrodisiac, named "bicho do mar" in Portuguese, became "bêche-de-mer" in French and then "Bislama") for trade with China. (The word "pidgin" is Chinese Pidgin for "business".) The development of Melanesian Pidgin accelerated in the late 1800's when Melanesians were recruited as labourers for Queensland's sugarcane plantations. Men with mutually-unintelligible village languages found themselves living and working together, as well as needing to communicate with their English-speaking supervisors. Melanesian Pidgin developed out of necessity, and returning labourers brought their new language back to Vanuatu. There, Bislama's development continued when men began working on European-owned plantations in the early 1900's, when they were recruited to work on the large American bases during WW II, and when the urban centres of Port Vila and Luganville began growing in the 1960's.

 Bislama is a mixture of English, French, and Melanesian words set to a Melanesian syntax. Words tend to represent general concepts, rather than specific things. For example, the noun "han" means "upper extremity", as in "arm" (anywhere from fingertip to shoulder), "sleeve", "tree branch", etc. The verb "harem" means "sense", as in "hear", "feel", "smell", or "taste". Concepts expressed in conversation can be a bit vague and are usually expressed several different ways, with examples given and gestures made: misunderstandings are not unusual. Spelling is phonetic and fluid, especially since several consonant sounds are considered equivalent; for example "k" and "g", or "b" and "p".

 Many newly-arrived expatriates, or expatriates whose experience with ni-Vanuatu does not extend far beyond giving orders to a housegirl, think Bislama is simply a form of baby-talk, which can be mastered without effort and understanding of which can be enhanced by raising one's voice. This is not true, as Bislama is a language in its own right.

 In my case, on my first day of work with the Malekula Local Government Council, my boss told me and the entire staff that I was allowed three days of speaking English, after which I was to be communicated with in Bislama only. Despite my week of Bislama tutelage in the aftermath of Cyclone Uma after my arrival in Port Vila, I found that I really only started to understand people face-to-face after three weeks, and over the telephone (no facial or body-language clues) after three months. When I left Malekula after two years, I was just gaining an idiomatic facility with the language.

 Our children played with the neighbourhood kids for a few months seemingly without a common language until one day, we noticed them chattering away in Bislama. By the time we left, they spoke English only with us, and they continued to bicker in Bislama while we toured Australia until they noticed that they were the only people on the continent speaking it.

 Urban ni-Vanuatu, especially those who often communicate with a mass audience, often take shortcuts and use English or French phrases to substitute for several Bislama sentences, a language variant known as "politician's Bislama".

 A common language was essential for Vanuatu's transformation from a collection of villages to a nation. As a home-grown lingua franca, Bislama is very much an unifying force as well as a source of national pride.

Here is a Christmas quote in Bislama:

"Tufala i stap yet long Betlehem, nao i kam kasem stret taem blong Meri i bonem pikinini. Nao hem i bonem fasbon pikinin blong hem we hem i boe. Hem i kavremapgud long kaliko, nao i putum hem i slip long wan bokis we oltaim ol man oli stap putum gras long hem, blong ol anamol oli kakae. Tufala i mekem olsem, from we long hotel, i no gat ples blong tufala i stap." - Luk 2:6-7.

 The style of Bislama in this Bible passage is relatively simple (see the long passage that means "manger"), because most of the intended audience is rural, with less exposure to Bislama (and Western concepts such as cutting fodder to feed livestock) than residents of town, where the language continues to develop. (To be fair, how many modern Western non-horsemen would know what a "manger" was if not for these famous verses?) A loose literal translation is:

 "The two of them were in Bethlehem, now it came the exact time for Mary she births child. Now him he born firstborn of her that him he boy. She she coverup (him) good in cloth, now she put him he lay in one box where always all men they are putting grass in him, for all animals they eat (it). The two of them they made same, because at hotel, it no got place for the two of them to stay." - Luke 2:6-7

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 ©Stan Combs 1995