Bislama 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 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. Essentially speaking, Bislama can be described as a language with an English vocabulary and an Austronesian 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 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, Pijin of the Solomon Islands, and Torres Strait Creole north of Australia.
This pidgin started spreading over the Vanuatu archipelago at the turn of the 20th century, as the Blackbirders began to come back into 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 one of the most language-dense countries in the world (one count puts it at 113 languages for a land area the size of Connecticut state), 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 (previously also spelled "Bichelamar") comes via the 19th century word "Beach-la-Mar" from French "bêche de mer" sea cucumber
, which itself comes from an alteration of the Portuguese "bicho do mar". In the mid-nineteenth century, sea cucumbers were also harvested and dried at the same time that sandalwood
was gathered. The name 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.
Two frequent words in Bislama are "long" and "blong", which take the place of many prepositions in English or French.
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 Eng. "belong", blong
takes the place of 'of' or the genitive case in other languages. Just like Eng. of
, 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 do not conjugate. Usually they consist of a stem word borrowed from English, French or indigenous languages and on many transitive verbs
the ending -em, -im, or -um, depending on vowel harmony
. 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, probably borrowed from the English form of to be "been")
- Bambae/Bae mi wantem bia ~ I will want beer. (Bambae/Bae=future tense marker, possibly borrowed from the English "by and by" or "maybe")
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
- yumitufala : (you me two fella) - 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)
- trifala/trigeta : those three
- yumi : us inclusive (all of us)
- mifala : us exclusive (that person and me)
- yufala : all you
- ol : many of them
- olgeta : all of them
Pronouns do not decline.
- hem i no kakae yam = he doesn't eat (a, the) yam
nomo : no/any more (placed before the predicate)
- hem i nomo kakae yam = he doesn't eat (a, the) yam any more
nomo : only / doesn't but
- hem i kakae yam nomo = he only eats 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
- hem i stap kukum kumala = he/she is now cooking sweet potatoes / he/she usually makes sweet potatoes
gogo : continual action
- hem i kukum kumala gogo = he/she keeps on cooking sweet potatoes / he/she continually cooks sweet potatoes
bin : (been) - completed action
- hem i bin go long Kanal = he has gone to Luganville (principal city in Santo)
finis : finished, past tense (when before object)
- hem i finis kakae = 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
- 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
|| Tok Pisin
|| Torres Strait Creole |
| the / this
|| __ ia / ya
|| __ ia
|| dispela __
|| dis __ |
| he / she / it / him / her
|| em / en
|| em |
|| po |
| (adjective marker)
|| -Ø |
|| woman / mere
|| oman |
Literature and samples
The longest written work in Bislama is the recently completed Bible
| Luke 2:6-7: |
| 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."
Yumi, Yumi, Yumi
Yumi, Yumi, yumi I glad long talem se
Yumi, yumi, yumi ol man blong Vanuatu
God i givim ples ya long yumi,
Yumi glat tumas long hem,
Yumi strong mo yumi fri long hem,
Yumi brata evriwan!
Plante fasin blong bifo i stap,
Plante fasin blong tedei,
Be yumi i olsem wan nomo,
Hemia fasin blong yumi!
Yumi save plante wok i stap,
Long ol aelan blong yumi,
God i helpem yumi evriwan,
Hem i papa blong yumi,
We (We, We) are happy to proclaim
We (We, We) are the People of Vanuatu!
God has given us this land;
This gives us great cause for rejoicing.
We are strong, we are free in this land;
We are all brothers.
We have many traditions
And we are finding new ways.
Now we shall be one Person,
We shall be united for ever.
We know there is much work to be done
On all our islands.
God helps all of us,
He is our father,
- Camden, Pastor Bill. 1979. Parallels in structure of lexicon and syntax between New Hebrides Bislama and the South Santo language as spoken at Tangoa. Pacific Linguistics, A-57:51-117.
- 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. xxi + 422pp.
- Crowley, Terry. 1995. An illustrated Bislama-English and English-Bislama dictionary. Vila: Pacific Languages Unit and Vanuatu Extension Centre, University of the South Pacific. (Revised 2004.) vii + 478pp. * Builds on the work of Camden (1977) and other sources to provide a very comprehensive modern dictionary of modern Bislama, together with a comprehensive English index.
- Crowley, Terry. 2004. Bislama Reference Grammar. Oceanic Linguistics Special Publication No. 31. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
- 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.