200,000 L2 speakers
Official language in
Bislama (English //; Bislama: [bislaˈma]), also called Bichelamar, is a creole language, one of the official languages of Vanuatu. It is the first language of many of the "Urban ni-Vanuatu" (those who live in Port Vila and Luganville), and the second language of much of the rest of the country's residents. "Yumi, Yumi, Yumi", the Vanuatu national anthem, is in Bislama.
More than 95% of Bislama words are of English origin; the remainder combines a few dozen words from French, as well as some vocabulary inherited from various languages of Vanuatu, essentially limited to flora and fauna terminology. While the influence of these vernacular languages is low on the vocabulary side, it is very high in the morphosyntax. Bislama can be basically described as a language with an English vocabulary and an Oceanic grammar.
During the period known as Blackbirding, in the 1870s and 1880s, hundreds of thousands of Pacific islanders (many of them from the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) archipelago) were enslaved and forced to work on plantations, mainly in Queensland, Australia and Fiji. With several languages being spoken in these plantations, a pidgin was formed, combining English vocabulary with grammatical structures typical of languages in the region. This early plantation pidgin is the origin not only of Bislama, but also of Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea and Pijin of the Solomon Islands, though not of Torres Strait Creole north of Australia.
This pidgin started spreading over the Vanuatu archipelago at the turn of the 20th century, as the survivors of Blackbirding began to come back to their native islands: knowledge of this pidgin would facilitate communication not only with European traders and settlers, but also between native populations of remote islands within the archipelago. This is how Bislama was born, progressively evolving separately from other related pidgins from the Pacific.
Because Vanuatu is the most language-dense country in the world (one count puts it at 113 languages for a population of 225,000), Bislama usefully serves as a lingua franca for communication between ni-Vanuatu, as well as with and even between foreigners. Besides Bislama, most ni-Vanuatu also know their local language, the local language of their father and that of their mother, and their spouse, and formal schools are taught in English or in French.
Over the past century or so, Bislama has evolved to what is currently spoken and written. Only recently (1995, with second edition in 2004) has the first dictionary of Bislama been published, and this has helped to create a uniform spelling of Bislama.
The name of Bislama (also referred to, especially in French, as "Bichelamar") comes via the early 19th century word "Beach-la-Mar" from pseudo-French "biche de mer" or "bêche de mer", sea cucumber, which itself comes from an alteration of the Portuguese "bicho do mar". In the early 1840s, sea cucumbers were also harvested and dried at the same time that sandalwood was gathered. The names biche-la-mar and 'Sandalwood English' came to be associated with the kind of pidgin that came to be used by the local laborers between themselves, as well as their English-speaking overseers.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in an account of his travels through the Pacific in 1888 and 1889, “the natives themselves have often scraped up a little English,... or an efficient pidgin, what is called to the westward 'Beach-la-Mar'.”'. In Jack London's story "Yah! Yah! Yah!", one of his "South Sea Tales", there is repeated a reference to “a bastard lingo called bech-de-mer”, and much of the story's dialogue is conducted in it.
Today, the word "bislama" itself is seldom used by younger speakers of Bislama to refer to sea slugs, as a new re-borrowing from pseudo-French "bêche de mer", which has taken the form "besdemea", has become more popular.
Two frequent words in Bislama are "long" and "blong", which take the place of many prepositions in English or French.
Long as 'next to', 'by', 'beside' etc...
Stoa long haos: The store next to the house.
long as 'at' or 'to'
Mi bin stap long ples ia bifo: I have been to this place before.
Mi stap long stoa: I am at the store.
long as 'in'
Jea long haos: The chair in the house.
Long holds many other related meanings, and is sometimes used in improvisation.
Originally from the English word "belong", blong takes the place of 'of' or the genitive case in other languages. Just like of in English, it is one of the most widely used and versatile words in the language, and can indicate possession, country of origin, defining characteristics, intention, and others.
- Buk blong mi: The book that belongs to me, my book
- Man blong Amerika: Man from America, American.
- Hemi woman blong saiens. She is a woman of science, She is a scientist.
- Man blong dring: Man of drinking i.e. a drinker
Verbs in Bislama usually consist of a stem word (borrowed from English, French or indigenous languages); most transitive verbs add to this a transitive suffix. The form of that suffix is /-em/, /-im/, or /-um/, depending on vowel harmony. If the last vowel of the verb’s stem is either -u- or -i-, then that vowel will be copied into the transitive suffix. For all other stem vowels, the transitive suffix has its default form /-em/:
|hear||har-||harem ‘hear, feel’|
|tell||tal-||talem ‘tell, say’|
|catch||kas-||kasem ‘get, reach’|
|carry||kar-||karem ‘carry, bring’|
|ready||rere ‘ready’||rerem ‘prepare’|
|look out||lukaot-||lukaotem ‘search’|
Verbs do not conjugate. There is a past tense and a future tense marker that usually goes at the beginning of the sentence or next to the verb. For example:
- Mi wantem bia ~ I want beer.
- Mi bin wantem bia ~ I wanted beer (bin=past tense marker, from the English "been")
- Bambae/Bae mi wantem bia ~ I will want beer. (Bambae/Bae=future tense marker, from English "by and by")
The plural is formed by putting "ol" before the word: bia=beer. Ol bia = "beers". "Ol" comes from the English "all". When used with numbers, the singular form is used. 2 bia, 3 bia, etc...
Bislama features dual, trial, and plural personal pronouns as well as an inclusive and exclusive we (inclusive meaning I + you, exclusive meaning I + he/she/it/they, not you). Following are the Bislama plural personal pronouns, in italics the English transliteration where useful to understand/remember, and the grammatical category.
- mi : I, me
- yu : you
- hem : him, her
- yumitu : (you me two) - us, inclusive (you and me)
- mitufala : (me two fella) - us, exclusive (me and someone else)
- yutufala : you two
- tufala/tugeta : those two
- yumitrifala : (you me three fella) - us three, inclusive (you two and me)
- mitrifala : (me three fella) - us three exclusive (us three)
- yutrifala : (you three fella) - you three exclusive (you three)
- trifala/trigeta : those three
- yumi : us inclusive (all of us)
- mifala : us exclusive (those people and me)
- yufala : all you
- ol : many of them
- olgeta : all of them
Pronouns do not decline.
no : not
- hem i no kakae yam = he doesn't eat (a, the) yam
nomo (placed before the predicate): no/any more
- hem i nomo kakae yam = he doesn't eat (a, the) yam anymore
nomo (placed after the predicate): only
- hem i kakae yam nomo = he eats only yam
neva : never
- hem i neva kakae yam = he never eats yam
jes : shows an action that has just occurred
- mifala i jes wekap = we just woke up
stat : start, commencement of a process
- hem i stat kukum kumala = he/she has started to cook sweet potatoes
stap : ongoing or habitual action
- hemi stap kukum kumala = he/she is now cooking sweet potatoes / he/she usually makes sweet potatoes
gogo : continual action
- hemi kukum kumala gogo = he/she keeps on cooking sweet potatoes / he/she continually cooks sweet potatoes
bin : (been) - completed action
- hemi bin go long Kanal = he has gone to Luganville (principal city in Santo)
finis : finished, past tense (when before object)
- hemi kakae finis = he is finished eating
finis : already (when after object)
- hem i kakae finis = he has already eaten
mas : must
- hem i mas kakae = he must eat
traem : try
- hem i traem singsing = he tries to sing
wantem : want
- hem i wantem go long Kanal = he wants to go to Luganville
save : can, know; from French savoir
- mi save toktok langwis bislama = I can speak Bislama
sapos : (suppose) if
- sapos yumitufala i faenem pig, yumitufala i kilim hem i ded = if we find a pig, we'll kill it
Dialects exist, based mainly on different pronunciations in different areas which stem from the different sounds of the native languages. The future tense marker can be heard to be said as: Bambae, Mbae, Nambae, or Bae. There are also preferences for using Bislama or native words that vary from place to place, and most people insert English, French, or local language words to fill out Bislama. So in the capital city it is common to hear 'computer'; in other places you might hear 'ordinateur'.
Pacific creole comparison
|English||Bislama||Pijin||Tok Pisin||Torres Strait Creole|
|and||mo||an||na||ane / ne / an / a|
|the||__ ia / ya||__ ia||dispela __||dha / dhemtu / dhem|
|this||__ ia / ya||__ ia||dispela __||dhis __ (ia) / dhemtu __ ia / dhem __ ia|
|he / she / it / him / her||hem||hem||em / en||em|
|(adjective marker)||-fala||-fala||-pela||-Ø when attributive (em i big man ‘he's a big man’)
-wan when predicative (man i bigwan ‘the man's big’)
|woman||woman||woman / mere||meri||uman / oman (dialect difference)|
Literature and samples
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (September 2013)|
"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 kavremap gud long kaliko, nao i putum hem i slip long wan bokis we oltaim ol man ol i stap putum gras long hem, blong ol anamol ol i kakae. Tufala i mekem olsem, from we long hotel, i no gat ples blong tufala i stap."
Yumi, Yumi, Yumi
God i givim ples ya long yumi,
Plante fasin blong bifo i stap,
Yumi save plante wok i stap,
God has given us this land;
We have many traditions
We know there is much work to be done
- Camden, William. 1979. Parallels in structure and lexicon and syntax between New Hebrides Bislama and the South Santo language spoken at Tangoa. In Papers in Pidgin and Creole Linguistics, No.2. Pacific Linguistics, A-57. Canberra: Australian National University. pp. 51–117.
- Charpentier, Jean-Michel. 1979. Le pidgin bislama(n) et le multilinguisme aux Nouvelles-Hébrides. Langues et Civilisations à Tradition Orale 35. Paris: SELAF.
- Crowley, Terry (1990). Beach-la-Mar to Bislama: The Emergence of a National Language in Vanuatu. Oxford Studies in Language Contact. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 422..
- Crowley, Terry (1995). An illustrated Bislama-English and English-Bislama dictionary. Oxford Studies in Language Contact. Port Vila: Pacific Languages Unit and Vanuatu Extension Centre, University of the South Pacific. p. 478..
- Crowley, Terry (2000), The language situation in Vanuatu, Current Issues in Language Planning 1 (1): 47–132
- Crowley, Terry. 2004. Bislama Reference Grammar. Oceanic Linguistics Special Publication No. 31. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
- François, Alexandre (2012), The dynamics of linguistic diversity: Egalitarian multilingualism and power imbalance among northern Vanuatu languages, International Journal of the Sociology of Language 214: 85–110, doi:10.1515/ijsl-2012-0022.
- Darrell T. Tryon and Jean-Michel Charpentier. 2004. Pacific Pidgins and Creoles: Origins, Growth and Development. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2004. xix + 559 pp. Hardcover ISBN 3-11-016998-3.
- Bislama at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
- Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Bislama". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
- Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
- Bislama, Ethnologue. Accessed Jan. 2, 2014.
- See Charpentier (1979).
- See Camden (1979).
- Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus and Marcus Buford Rediker (2007). Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World, University of California Press, pp 188-190. ISBN 0-520-25206-3.
- In addition, whaling captains who picked up workforce from Africa and the Pacific Islands had already developed some sort of pidginized English. Modern Bislama bears a striking resemblance to Pidgin Englishes of West Africa (where the slave trade was also active at one time); it is possible that Bislama is one branch of an evolution of pidgins from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the first truly global trading system began. See Monogenetic theory of pidgins.
- For this whole section, see: Tryon & Charpentier (2004), and Crowley (1990).
- See Crowley (2000:50); François (2012:86).
- See Crowley (1995).
- "bêche-de-mer", American Heritage Dictionary, 2000
- See Crowley (1990).
- Stevenson, Robert Louis (2004). In the South Seas (1st edition ed.). Fairfield, IA: 1st World Publishing. p. 15. ISBN 1-59540-504-6.
- Crowley, Terry (1990). "1". Beach-la-Mar to Bislama: The Emergence of a National Language in Vanuatu. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 33.
- Examples of transitive verbs which exceptionally don't take this suffix include: kakae ‘eat, bite’; trink ‘drink’; save ‘know’; se ‘say’.
- Note the exception: Eng. look → Bisl. lukim.
- Bislama | Ethnologue:Language Development
|Bislama edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia|
- Bislama.org, a portal of resources about the Bislama language.
- Bislama Translator & Spelling Dictionary for Microsoft Word English - Bislama online translator and MS Word dictionary
- Bislama at DMOZ
- Vanuatu Daily Post - news in English and Bislama
- A bibliography of Bislama, from an Australian National University website
- Peace Corps in Vanuatu - Bislama Language Lessons
- Portions of the Book of Common Prayer in Bislama Preabuk long Bislama
- Book of Mormon in Bislama