The Treasures of Bislama

 

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the Overture.

I first heard about Bislama when I was bidding farewell to one of my friends in Germany. She was a German-American and also a polyglot (who focused primarily on Middle Eastern Languages, I remember she knew Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic very well with knowledge of Egyptian Arabic and Turkish. Probably many others I forgot to mention).

We were in an American-themed diner in Heidelberg that was housed in a caboose. We were talking about what sort of languages we planned to learn in the future, and I mentioned Greenlandic and Faroese as being on my “hit list”.

She mentioned a language called Bislama, that I had never heard of before. She told me that it was a Creole English that was the primary language of Vanuatu, and proceeded to tell me some vocabulary that she learned.

Here’s a small taste of what people on the internet know about Bislama (if they know anything at all): http://imgur.com/GiiTKf8

Vanuatu also has the distinction of being the only country in the world that has its national anthem in an English Creole Language (Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, while they have very similar Creoles spoken there, have their national anthems in Standard English).

“Yumi, Yumi, Yumi” (Yumi = you and me = we [inclusive]) is a melody you don’t forget easily! Have yourself a listen to the instrumental track with the words on the screen! (The vowels should be pronounced as in Spanish, and the consonants like in phonetic English, and you’ll be good. Bislama, like other Creole Languages, is hyper-mathematical in its spelling system, although no doubt speakers will talk very quickly and abbreviate stuff that way):

To translate the first two lines:

 

Yumi, yumi, yumi i glat long talem se

Yumi, yumi, yumi i man blong Vanuatu

 

(We, we, we are happy to say that

We, we, we are people of Vanuatu)

 

In English you don’t say something like “Vanuatuan”, instead you refer to the people and culture of Vanuatu as “Ni-Vanuatu” or “Ni-Van” for short. This comes from usages of local languages.

Unlike Pijin or Tok Pisin (its releatives in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea respectively), Bislama has a significant amount of French words (bonane = new year, kabine = toilet) as well as those with both English-loaned and French-loaned equivalents (accident can be “aksiden” or “aksidong”, the first from English and the second from French).

The fact that there was the struggle between British and French colonialists in Vanuatu actually caused its people to cling strongly to the usage of Bislama as a national languages (although English and French are also used in official contexts as well). It’s a bit like two giants are asking you “what team are you on?” and you confidently assert “I am on team me”.

Bislama is not only a cultural treasure of what is actually a noteworthy tourist destination in the Pacific, it’s also surprisingly accessible to learn (because of that fact).

YouTube tutorials and the LiveLingua Project will help you on your way to fluency, as well as the Lonely Planet Pidgin Phrasebook which is literally the most useful phrasebook I’ve encountered in any language (as far as English-language phrasebooks are concerned!) And, of course, there is also bislama.org which is VERY helpful!

2015-03-17 20.17.12

They redid the cover shortly after I acquired this version with the cool masks.

The word “Bislama” actually comes from the French word “Bêche-de-mer”, the sea cucumber, because Bislama was the language used to communicate with Ni-Vanuatu traders that were dealt with to acquire said sea cucumbers. In more old-timey books, the language will be referred to as “Bêche-de-mer”.

Jack London even uses Bislama (WAY before the days of the orthography used to write the language nowadays) in ones of his stories, “Yah, Yah, Yah!”.

The portions in Bislama were a bit of a headache for me to sight-read but I read them out loud and, sure enough, it sounds like completely legitimate Bislama that Ni-Vanuatu from contemporary times can understand without any issues at all:

http://www.online-literature.com/london/48/

Note how he actually uses Standard English spelling to write Bislama. Contemporary Bislama doesn’t do that, instead opting for a hyper-phonetic system (the National Anthem Video above actually uses the contemporary orthography).

Bislama is extraordinarily rich in interjections. Some of them come from French (“alala!”) and some from English (“areno!” = I don’t know) and many more come from the many local languages that came together to form Bislama.

If you speak English and want to learn Bislama, expect a significant head start in your vocabulary, especially once you begin picking up patterns on how English words are transferred into Bislama’s pronunciation system.

The patterns are fairly easy to pick up not only in that regard but also concerning its idiomatic structure (remember, these were designed by the genius of the human mind so as to create an efficient tongue that can be readily used in communication and even more readily learned in advance! The same is true for ALL Creole Languages!)

Often there is the duplication of syllables, “bigbigman” (dignitary, someone with a lot of status) can also be “bigman”, to follow is “folfolem” (all transitive verbs in Bislama end in –m and it employs a system of vowel harmony not unlike languages like Hungarian that adjust suffixes depending on vowel content of the word. Folfol + em – folfolem, but put + em [to put] = putum, the –em shifts to a –um).

I’ve noticed similar patterns of duplication used in Burmese, Chinese and even Hebrew and English variants (good, good!). Surprisingly this makes words easier for you to remember.

Some words are also very easy to attach “stories” to. A lot of these words are not appropriate for writing in a blog post like this but one such word is “fiftififti”, which actually means…bisexual! Fancy that! Another word refers to an effeminate man, “geligeli”, and shouldn’t be too easy for you to forget.

I really wanted to look at the comprehensive dictionary at bislama.org in more detail and list some of the words that jumped out at me, but aside from risking repetitive-strain-injury the comprehensive dictionary (of around 7000 words, mind you, making it one of the smallest comprehensive dictionaries of a language I’ve encountered [remember: comprehensive dictionary = ALL KNOWN WORDS IN THE LANGUAGE]), there are also a lot of place names not only relevant to Melanesia and beyond but also the Bible and sometimes it can be painful to browse the list because of that.

Another extraordinary damaging myth about Bislama is that it “isn’t a real language”, “is just a dialect of English” or is just “broken English”. All of these ideas are unequivocally false. If Bislama isn’t a real language, that Afrikaans and Yiddish should also be disqualifies as well. And Haitian Creole is also deemed as 100% legitimate while many creoles in the world are not.

Bislama can not only be helpful for you in navigating rural areas of Vanuatu (as well as giving you a leg-up on related languages spoken throughout Melanesia and Australia), but is also a marketable skill, especially in the Pacific.

Thanks largely to climate change, the world’s eyes are on the Pacific because it is, sadly, the front line in this battle against our damaged environment. Somehow, somewhere I feel that there is hope, oddly enough, and I think that a very good first step would be to experience the culture of places like Vanuatu in which people are not only suffering because of climate change but also singing and lamenting and talking about it endlessly to a degree that we should be doing in more industrialized nations.

Looking back, Bislama made me a better human being, and the more I learn about Melanesia in general and Vanuatu in particular, I glimpse a side of humanity, poised between 2017 and our ancient roots as humans, that many people should be looking at with more seriousness.

I also have a Bislama Anki deck (although it isn’t without its problems) of the Bislama.org list. If you want it from me, message me from the “Have Jared Teach You!” link at the top of this page!

yumi yumi yumi

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