Bislama – The Language of Vanuatu

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Due to a long history of inter-island and inter village trading, many ni-Vanutau speak numerous languages. However, over 113 distinct languages and many more dialects are found throughout the group.

When Europeans arrived, a lingua franca evolved. Its name, Bislama, derived from the Beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) traders who developed a form of Pidgin English throughout the Pacific. It began as a simplified form of phonetic English, with Spanish and French colloquialisms added for good measure.

As with all languages, it soon took on a life of its own; borrowing and incorporating new words and evolving of time. Today, although similar to Solomon and New Guinea pidgin, it is nevertheless distinctive.

Bislama, though phonetically English with a broad accent, is grammatically simpler. Everything, including women, is spoken of in the masculine. Being a simpler language means that complex ideas or new concepts must be described functionally. The results are descriptions and stories that can be a great deal longer rather if told in English.

Spoken Bislama is relatively easy to understand if the speaker is slow and enunciates the phrases. Written Bislama is also relatively easy to comprehend.

However, in the same way that a Welsh barman may have no trouble in understanding spoken English, an Australian or American may have great difficulty understanding the barman due to a strong accent.

There are some key words that are used in most sentences:

Blong: Belong

It is used in reference to any noun which has a possessive relationship with any other noun.

  • Pikikini blong mi: This child belongs to me
  • Pikinini blong kanu: That outrigger belongs to the canoe
  • Laet blong trak: The light on the truck
  • Finga blong tri: The branches of a tree
  • Bras blong tut: Toothbrush

Long: From, to, in, on

It is used in association with something, but not in possessive sense.

  • Pikinini i go long skul: The child goes to school
  • truk i kam long hotel: The vehicle came from a/the hotel
  • tri i foldaon long trak: A tree fell down on a/the vehicle

In vocabulary, most object groupings are simplified. Thus, all motorised vehicles are ‘truks’, all birds are ‘pidjins’ and all creatures in the sea are ‘fis’.

To distinguish the differences in these groupings, their relationship to size or the environment is used, or a description is given, rather than a distinctive name:

  • Bigfala trak: Large truck or car
  • Smol trak: Small car
  • Pidgin blong solwota: Bird from the sea (seagull)
  • Pidjin blong bus: Bird from the bush
  • Kaofis: Cow fish (dugong)
  • Fis i gat naef long tel blong hem: The fish that has a knife on his tail (surgeon fish)

Personal pronouns are simplified: I, me, myself, becomes simply mi:

  • Mi kam long Vanuatu: I have come to Vanuatu
  • Trak blong mi: This is my truck/car
  • Mi wan nomo mi go long holidei: I'm going by myself on holiday
  • Mi kam long holidei wetem famili blong mi: I'm coming on holiday with my family

For everyday use, you will come across the following words or phrases:

Wan/Tu/Tri One/Two/Three
Mi/Yu Me/You
Hem/Hemia Him/Her/It/This Here
Mifala/Mifala Evriwan Us/We/All Of Us
Olgeta They/Them
Yu/Yufala You/You guys
Dei/Sava/Naet Day/Evening/Night
Wanem/Wanem Ia? What/What Is That?
Frowanem? Why/Why Did You?
Wota/Freswoto/Kolwota/Solwota Water/Drinking Water/Cold Water/Ocean
Plis Please
Tankiu Tumas Thank You Very Much
Sori/Sori Tumas Sorry/Very Sorry
Hamas (Long Hem)? How Much (Is That)?
Yu Save? Do You Know?
Mi No Save I Do Not Know/Understand
Yu Save Tekem Mi Go Long Vila? Can You Take Me To Vila?
Mi Glad Tumas I Am Very Happy
Lukim Yu See You Later
Ale Mi Go I Am Going Now

 

Books and dictionaries on Bislama can be found in many gift shops and bookstores around Vila.