Bislama is the most broadly spoken language in Vanuatu. It is sometimes referred to as Pigeon English but it is truly a language all its own. Bislama can seem a bit comical at first but in many ways it is more practical than most languages. It has a very small vocabulary of about 5,000 words and one word will be used where English would have 5 or 10 words. This makes it easier to learn. Most tourists have some basic Bislama mastered within a week. Some phrases to get you started:
The following was provided with permission by Terry Crowley. For a more complete description of this interesting language please go to http://www.une.edu.au/langnet/bislama.htm.
Bislama is widely spoken in Vanuatu. Vanuatu was first settled by Melanesian people speaking Oceanic languages several thousand years ago, but the first major contact with Europeans was not until around the mid-1800s when stands of sandalwood were discovered. In the 1870s and 1880s, many thousands of Ni-Vanuatu were recruited to work on plantations in Queensland, along with smaller numbers in Fiji. These multilingual situations resulted in the formation of a pidgin, which has evolved over the last hundred years or so to become the language that is spoken today.
The name of the language derives from the nineteenth-century word Beach-la-Mar, which itself derives from the French biche de mer 'sea cucumber'. Sea cucumbers were also harvested and dried at the same time that sandalwood was gathered in the mid-1800s, and this name came to be associated with the kind of pidgin that came to be used by the local labourers between themselves, as well as their English-speaking overseers.
Attitudes and Current Use
Bislama is the major common language that is used by most of the people of Vanuatu. There are over one hundred separate languages belonging to the Oceanic subgroup of the larger Austronesian family spoken in Vanuatu, but almost everybody also speaks Bislama as a second language. About ten percent of the population, mostly younger people living in the two towns of Vila and Santo, speak
Bislama as their first language.
Bislama is a variety of Melanesian Pidgin, which means that it is mutually intelligible with Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea and Pijin in Solomon Islands. However, only in Vanuatu is this language declared by the constitution to be the national language, a situation which arose as a kind of compromise to allow local politicians to avoid a politically divisive choice between English or French, both of which were used as languages of government prior to independence in 1980. Bislama is the major language of debate in the national parliament, as well as of national politics generally, as well as much local politics. Bislama is the major language of the radio station that broadcasts nationally, and many public notices, as well as items in the local newspapers, are written in Bislama. The largest single document that is written in Bislama is the recently completed Bible.
Most children attend at least six years of primary school. Bislama is not formally incorporated into the school curriculum but is often used in the classroom. The same has been true of local vernaculars as well, though recently moves have begun to incorporate local languages into the early stages of primary education in a more formal manner.
The major lexifier for Bislama is English, with words such as brij for 'bridge' and buluk for 'cow' (from "bullock"). Some of the words of English origin in Bislama are archaic, e.g. masket for 'rifle' (from "musket") or giaman for 'tell lies' (from "gammon"), or stylistically restricted, e.g. puskat for 'cat' (from "pussy cat") or bagarap for 'ruined' (from "buggered up"). Some words of English origin have meanings which are modelled more on what is found in local Oceanic languages, such as han, which means both 'hand' and 'arm', while leg means both 'foot' and 'leg'.
However, there is a substantial number of common words of French origin in Bislama as well, such as bonane 'new year celebration' (from "bonne ann�e"), kabine 'toilet' (from "cabinet") and pima 'chilli' (from "piment"). There is also a fair number of words derived from some of the many local languages, most commonly referring to items of local culture or to local flora and fauna, e.g. nakamal 'meeting house', nabanga 'banyan tree' and nasiviru 'parrot'. It is usually difficult to assign a particular language of origin for such forms because those local words which are most likely to be incorporated into the Bislama vocabulary are those which are most widely distributed in the languages of the country.
While many words in Bislama are recognisable from their English (and sometimes French) origins, the language is not pronounced at all like English or French. At the same time, because Bislama is spoken by most people in addition to their own local vernacular, there is a tendency for some sounds to be pronounced in ways that show influence of the local languages.
The consonants we find in most people's Bislama are: p t k b d g m n ng f v s h l r y w. Also, the sound that we write as 'ch' in English is found in Bislama, though it is written as j. Words in Bislama are often pronounced with consonants dropped or vowels inserted between consonants when they come from English words that contain sequences of consonants together, e.g. 'district' becomes distrik, 'electric' becomes letrik, 'school' becomes sukul, 'six' becomes sikis. Sounds in English that are not found in Bislama are also usually adapted to the nearest equivalent sound in Bislama, e.g. 'th' becomes t as in 'Mathew', which becomes Matyu; 'z' and 'sh' both become s as in 'ship', which becomes sip.
There are only five vowels in Bislama: i e a o u. Other vowels in English are generally adapted to the nearest equivalent vowel in Bislama, so a word like 'burn' in English is pronounced as bon. Differences such as the vowels in 'kill' and 'keel' are not made in Bislama, and both of these words come out simply as kil, which means either 'injury' (from 'kill') or 'keel'. The so-called front rounded vowels of French in words such as l�gume 'vegetable' loses its rounding to become plain front vowels. The word for 'vegetable' in Bislama is therefore legim. In addition to these pure vowels, Bislama has a number of diphthongs, and the practice is to write these as ae (corresponding to the sound in English 'eye'), oe (as in 'boy'), ao (as in 'cow').
Ther is no formal definition of the intonation pattern of Bislama, but it certainly seems to have a unique melody involving an unusual rise and fall of the voice while speaking. Although there are plenty of differences of vocabulary and grammar between Bislama and both Pijin and Tok Pisin, one of the more immediately noticeable characteristics of Bislama is its distinctive intonation.
When you want to say that something (or somebody) is something else, there is no verb meaning "be" in Bislama, and the words describing the two things are simply placed one after the other, as in:
Mi tija. 'I am a teacher.'
Yu hanggre. 'You are hungry.'
When the first part of the sentence is a noun or a pronoun other than mi or yu, the second part of the sentence will usually be separated from the first part by the small word i, as in:
Tomson i hanggre. 'Thompson is hungry.'
Mifala i bos. 'We are the bosses.'
To indicate that an action is being performed, a verb follows a pronoun or a noun, with the word i coming between the two as described above. Thus:
Tomson i kukum raes. 'Thompson cooks the rice.'
Mifala i ridim buk. 'We read the book.'
However, if the first noun is plural rather than singular, the word i is replaced by oli, e.g.
Ol man oli kukum raes. 'The men cook rice.'
Ol studen oli ridim buk. 'The students read the book.'
Ol bos oli hanggre. 'The bosses are hungry.'
Tense and aspect
Verbs in Bislama do not have endings to express meanings like present continuous or past tense in English. A verb can appear on its own, as in the examples just given, where it can have any tense depending on the context. But if you need to indicate the tense, this can be done by placing a special "auxiliary" between the word i (or oli) and the verb. Other meanings can also be expressed by words of this kind, e.g.
Tomson i bin ridim buk. 'Thompson read the book.'
Tomson i stap ridim buk. 'Thompson is reading the book.'
Tomson i save kukum raes. 'Thompson can cook the rice.'
Ol studen oli mas ridim buk. 'The students must read the book.'
There are two exceptions. Firstly, the future tense is expressed by the form bae, which is not placed between i (or oli) and the verb at all, but it appears either before the word i (or oli), or before at the beginning of the sentence, e.g.
Bae Tomson i ridim buk. 'Thompson will read the book.'
Ol studen bae oli ridim buk. 'The students will read the book.'
Secondly, if you want to indicate that something has already happened, you do this by placing finis after the verb, e.g.
Ol studen oli ridim buk finis. 'The students have already read the book.'
Tomson i hanggre finis. 'Thompson is already hungry.'
To make a statement negative in Bislama, all you have to do is put the word no between the word i (or oli) and the verb, e.g.
Tomson i no kukum raes. 'Thompson does not cook rice.'
Ol student oli no ridim buk. 'The students do not read books.'
It is possible to place no before any of the other words that express tense or aspect (except bai), as in:
Tomson i no bin salem haos. 'Thompson did not sell the house.'
Ol bos oli no mas ridim buk. 'The bosses must not read the book.'
Bae ol man oli no kukum raes. 'The men will not cook rice.'
Verbs that have objects in Bislama generally have a special ending to indicate this. So, compare the following:
Sera i stap rid. 'Sarah is reading.'
Sera i stap ridim buk. 'Sarah is reading the book.'
This ending is sometimes -im, sometimes -um, and sometimes -em. When the last vowel in the verb is i or u, then the vowel of the ending will be the same, but when there is any other vowel in the verb, the ending will always be -em. That is why we say:
Sera i bin kuk. 'Sarah cooked.'
Sera i bin kukum raes. 'Sarah cooked the rice.'
Haos bae i bon. 'The house will burn.'
Lulu bae i bonem haos. 'Lulu will burn the house.'
There are four main prepositions in Bislama: long meaning 'in', 'on', 'at' or 'with'; blong meaning 'of' or 'for'; wetem 'along with' and from 'because of'. Thus:
Mi stap slip long haos. 'I am sleeping in the house.'
Mi bin katem frut long naef. 'I cut the fruit with the knife.'
Ol studen oli save swim long riva. 'The students can swim in the river.'
Bae mi kuk blong yu. 'I will cook for you.'
Bae mi kam wetem yu. 'I will come with you.'
Mi bin kam from ol studen. 'I came because of the students.'
The preposition blong is also used to indicate possession, e.g.
haos blong mi 'my house'
ol studen blong tija 'the teacher's students'
tija blong ol studen 'the students' teacher'
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