Pidginise your English!
How to speak Bislama (Vanuatu Pidgin English)
What is pidgin English?
Pidgins are highly simplified forms of a language that originally arose where people with no common language came into contact with one another and were forced to communicate. Some of these pidgins later evolved into sophisticated, fully-developed languages (these are technically known as 'creoles', although the term 'pidgin' has persisted).
Pidgin English is regarded by many as a bit of a joke, but it is in fact the main language of three countries. Bislama, the form of pidgin English dealt with in this guide, is the national language of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, and related forms of pidgin are spoken in the neighbouring countries of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Their vocabulary of these languages is based on English, but in their sounds and grammar they incorporate many features of native Melanesian languages.
Why is pidgin English used in Vanuatu?
In Vanuatu, over a hundred distinct languages are spoken in a country with a population no greater than that of a large English town - virtually every group of villages has its own language. Colonialism exacerbated the islanders' difficulty in understanding one another, since Vanuatu was ruled jointly by the UK and France, and was given a dual education system - which persists to this day - in which some schoolchildren are educated in English and others in French.
In the late 19th-century, labourers from Vanuatu and other parts of Melanesia were taken to work on sugar cane plantations in Queensland and Fiji. There, islanders who spoke different native languages needed a way to communicate with one another and with their English-speaking masters, and a simple pidgin language developed as a result. This was based partly on the 'South Sea jargon' used by early sailors.
The new form of speech was known as "Bislama" from the French bêche-de-mer, meaning "sea cucumber", which was an important export from the South Pacific at that time. Returning labourers took Bislama back to Vanuatu, where it evolved from a simplified pidgin into a fully-fledged language, and was used wherever people with different native tongues need to communicate. When Vanuatu became independent in 1980, Bislama was declared its 'national language', although English and French continue to be used for many official purposes, and Bislama is actually banned in many schools.
For most people, Bislama remains a second language. People in rural Vanuatu grow up speaking native languages and only later learn Bislama, although for some urban children it is a first language. Partly because Bislama is seldom a person's native language, and partly because it is not formally taught in schools, there is considerable variation in how the language is used. The pronunciation of Bislama is often strongly tainted by that of the speaker's native language (especially among English-speaking foreigners like me), and many of the 'rules' of the language are frequently bent or broken. Bislama hybridises freely with its parent language, and you will hear many sentences that are half-English and half-Bislama spoken not just by expatriates but also by educated natives.
The pronunciation of the word "Bislama" varies. Old colonial types stress the second 'a' ("Bislamaah" or "Bishlemaah"), younger expatriates stress the first 'a' ("Bislaahma"), and locals don't stress either syllable ("Bislahmah"). Take your pick.
Why should visitors pidginise their English?
Bislama is Vanuatu's national language, and is the only language in which you can talk to a stranger there and have a good chance of being properly understood. (The only people in Vanuatu who do not always speak Bislama well are children and old women in villages.) The fact that Bislama is dervied from simplified English and the fact that people are not expected to speak it in a standardised, 'correct' way make it extremely easy for visitors to Vanuatu to pick up the basics of the language.
If you'll be spending time in rural Vanuatu, knowledge of Bislama is vital. For tourists in town, Bislama is not essential - most of the people you'll deal with in hotels and offices in Port Vila speak basic English (and/or French) - but it will definitely help to make a good impression and set you apart from the mass of clueless tourists.
Even if your attempts to speak Bislama are so bad that what comes out of your mouth is regarded by the locals as nothing more than simplified English, they will appreciate your efforts, since English is not their mother tongue and they may struggle to understand it. Native speakers of a language often fail to realise how difficult their natural speech - which is fast, complex, locally-accented, and full of idiomatic expressions - can be for a foreigner to understand. If nothing else, trying to speak Bislama in Vanuatu provides a way of simplifying your English so that it is easier for the locals to understand without appearing silly or condescending.
The only situation in Vanuatu in which I would recommend speaking proper English rather than attempting Bislama is when chatting to older schoolchildren, who are taught English at school (even if they attend Francophone schools) and will benefit from the opportunity to practise the language with a native speaker.
How can you pidginise your English?
The following is not a comprehensive guide to speaking Bislama - for that, get a copy of the book Bislama: an introduction to the national language of Vanuatu by Darrell Tryon. However, below are a few tips to get you started...
Spell things phonetically.
Written Bislama looks extremely strange, because unlike in normal English, words are spelled roughly as they are pronounced. Even Bislama sentences that are almost pure English can look utterly foreign when written down. Consider this outlandish-looking headline from a Vanuatu newspaper:
Proses fud komsamson i kosem plande sik long pipol tede
When written with English spelling, its meaning is obvious:
Process food consumption ee cause'm plenty sick 'long people today
When faced with a written Bislama sentence, try reading it out loud and you can often grasp what it means.
A few things to remember with Bislama spelling and pronunciation...
Get used to mixed-up sounds.
Some pairs of sounds that are distinct in English are not always distinguished in Bislama. The letters p and b, for example, are interchangeable in Bislama, as are g and k. This means that the word pig, for example, may be rendered as bik. Sometimes you'll hear a sound that is actually halfway between the two English ones.
When speaking and writing Bislama you can simply stick with the English sounds and letters, but be aware that others may not.
Simplify your consonants.
Some consonants that occur in English are awkward for native speakers of Melanesian languages, and are therefore altered in Bislama. For example, sh is reduced to s (e.g. sak = "shark") and th is reduced to t (e.g. tri = "three").
Groups of consonants at the end of a word are often simplified to is (e.g. manis = "month") .
Pronounce your vowels clearly.
English speakers (particularly those from the south of England) have a tendency to hit one syllable in a word very hard and mumble the others. For example, we might pronounce "basket" as "baaask't". Don't do this in Bislama. Pronounce ev-e-ry vo-wel dis-tinct-ly, without stressing any particular syllable.
Don't worry about the basics.
The basic words and phrases you'll use when meeting strangers are virtually the same in Bislama as in English:
Note that although these are the words listed in Bislama phrasebooks, some of them, such as Halo!, are used almost entirely with foreigners. Traditional ni-Vanuatu do not exchange pleasantries of the type used by Europeans, and instead greet one another by their names or traditional titles, sometimes in combination with the word Yes!. Baibai and tata are also rare among locals, who more commonly depart with Ale! (from the French allez!, "on your way"), or Gud naet if it's late in the day.
Simplify your vocabulary.
The vocabulary of Bislama is largerly based upon that of English, but manages with a much smaller number of words. In many situations, Bislama has just a single word where in English we have more than one. For example, instead of the words "rock" and "stone" there is just a single word ston.
The following words can be used in Bislama more-or-less the same as in English:
There are some other Bislama terms that are not normally used in English but will be familiar to English speakers. Expatriates who have been in Vanuatu for a long time often get into the habit of using these words even when speaking normal English. Examples include:
Some words have broader meanings in Bislama than in English:
And a couple have more specific meanings:
There are a few British-derived words in Bislama that might be unfamiliar to Americans:
And there are a few American words too:
In spite of the fact that French is an official language in Vanuatu, there are not many important words in Bislama that come directly from French. However, there are a few:
There are also French-dervied alternatives to a few English-derived words, particularly terms for food:
Express unusual concepts by putting together common words.
Concepts that we express in English using unique words are expressed in Bislama using combinations of simpler words. For example, instead of a word "puppy" there is the phrase smol dog ("small dog"), and instead of a word "tusk" there is the phrase tut blong pig ("pig's tooth").
Some of these phrases are delightful. My favourites (all of which are legitimate terms listed in Terry Crowley's New Bislama Dictionary) include:
Talk like an old-fashioned sailor.
When Captain Jack Sparrow said "You savvy?", he was unknowingly talking Bislama. Although most of its vocabulary comes from English, Bislama also inherited a few words from the 'South Sea Jargon' used by early sailors and beachcombers in the South Pacific.
Such words include:
(Save and pikinini are derived from Spanish or Portuguese; kakae and tabu come from South Pacific languages.)
Not surprisingly in a language that evolved from sailor-talk, Bislama dictionaries also list a few words and phrases whose English equivalents would be considered swear words. Sit blong faea ("shit of the fire"), for example, is a Bislama term meaning "ash", whilst bagarap ("buggered up") means "broken". Originally, these expressions were not offensive in Bislama, but educated islanders who know English seem to avoid them nowadays.
Words whose English equivalents are highly offensive (e.g. fakem) are also offensive in Bislama.
Nonetheless, Bislama remains a fairly blunt language. You can, for example, talk freely about a waetman ("white man") or blakman ("black man") without the need for silly euphemisms such as "coloured" or "Caucasian".
Pick up a few Melanesian words.
Quite a few of the words used in Bislama come from Vanuatu's native languages. Most of these words begin with na (which is the word for "the" in some of Vanuatu's languages). Often these are words for which there is no precise or well-known English equivalent.
Common examples include:
Others are wonderfully obscure:
Be prepared to get very confused when people talk about their families.
Superficially, the majority of the family terms in Bislama resemble English ones:
However, the way in which Melanesians refer to members of their family does not always correspond to their actual position in the family tree. In particular, be aware that:
Refer to someone as a stret ("straight") relative if you want to emphasise that the person actually is your brother, sister, etc.
You can refer to your sons and daughters as boe blong mi ("my boy") and gel blong mi ("my girl"). As in English, you can also use the term olfala ("old folks") in connection with your parents.
People enjoy asking and being asked about their families. Among locals, this allows people to establish whether or not they have any family connection (in small island communities, nearly everyone is related to everyone else!); with outsiders it's simply a good way of making conversation. I have had the following conversation at least fifty times during my time in Vanuatu...
Yu mared finis?
Papa wetem mama blong yu, tufala i laef yet?
Yes, tufala i laef yet.
Yu gat hamas brata?
Mi no gat brata. Mi gat wan sista nomo.
Yutufala tu nomo, long famle blong yu?
Yes, mitufala tu nomo.
Yu, yu fesbon?
Yes, mi fesbon. Be yu? Yu gat hamas brata?
[My companion usually turns out to have at least six brothers, and the conversation goes on for a while...]
Don't worry about numbers and dates.
Numbers, days of the week, and months of the year are more-or-less the same in Bislama as in English, although they are spelled somewhat differently (wan, tu, tri, fo, faef...). With large numbers, French-educated ni-Vanuatu may use French numbers instead of English ones.
Positions in a sequence (first, second, third, etc) are expressed as nambawan ("number one"), nambatu ("number two"), nambatri ("number three"), and so on. Dates are expressed in a similar way:
namba faef jenuare
Nambawan ("number one") is often used to mean "excellent" or "the best".
The word -fala is often added to numbers, especially when you're talking about a specific set of things:
Forget the word "the"
In Bislama there is no equivalent of the word "the":
boe i givim biskit long dog
If you want to emphasise that you're talking about a specific thing, rather than about things in general, you can use the word ia. This word is used in a lot of the situations where English speakers would use the word "this", but ia comes after the noun rather than before it:
man ia i gat wan bigfala trak
The phrase hemia, meaning "this one", is extremely common:
mi wantem hemia
Bislama, like nearly every language apart from English, simply uses the word "one" (wan) in situations where we sould say "a" or "an":
wan boe i lukluk wan pijin long wan tri
Don't add 's' to the end of words.
When marking English essays written by Vanuatu schoolchildren, about three quarters of the corrections I make consist of adding or removing the letter 's' from the end of a word. The students find this feature of English hard because in Bislama it doesn't occur (although the 's' does occasionally creep into the speech of English-educated ni-Vanuatu).
To indicate plurals in Bislama, add ol to the front of the word instead.
Ol comes from the English "all", but doesn't have quite the same meaning: ol means that you are referring to several of something, but not necessarily all of them. If you do want to refer to "all of them", use olgeta instead.
And if you really want to make your point all-encompassing, put evriwan somewhere in the sentence:
olgeta puskat oli ded evriwan
The letter 's' is never added to verbs is Bislama either. Whereas in English we say "I drink" but "he drinks", in Bislama the same word dring is used for both.
Use the words 'blong' and 'long' a lot.
The word blong, from the English "belonging to", is used a lot in Bislama. It can be used to indicate possession:
basket blong mi
Or to indicate the purpose of something:
rum blong swim
Or to indicate where something comes from:
mi blong Inglan
When referring to people from a particular place, or parts of a particular plant, the word blong is usually omitted:
The word long is a general-purpose preposition. Depending on the context, it can mean "at", "in", "on", "to", "from", "by", or "about":
mi stap long haos
hem i wok long eapot
If blong or long on its own is too vague for you, there are more specific variants, such as:
If you want to be clear about whether you mean "from" or "to", make use of the phrases kam long ("come from") and go long ("go to").
oli tekem i kam long haos
oli tekem i go long haos
In both blong and long, the ng sound is typically pronounced extremely softly. Sometimes it disappears completely, so that the words sound like "blow" and "low".
Learn to describe things.
Some of the most commonly-used adjectives in Bislama are:
Other descriptive words in Bislama that can be used more-or-less as in English include:
The Bislama words for compass directions (not, saot, is, wes) and for colours (blu, yelo, red, etc) are also similar to their English equivalents.
I gud?, meaning "How's things?", is a common greeting. If someone asks you this and you're well, repeat the phrase back with a satisfied tone of voice. Another often-heard phrase is i stret, meaning "OK" or "fine". Tru? ("really?") is the standard response to anything unbelievable or impressive.
You can often make an adjective stronger by adding the ending -fala:
wan big pig
wan bigfala pig
Another ending frequently attached to adjectives is -wan ("one"):
haos i smolwan
mi wantem narawan
These endings go better with some words than others. With certain adjectives, -fala and -wan are almost always added; with others they are never used. I'm not even going to attempt a list of which adjectives take -fala and -wan and which don't, but after speaking Bislama for a while you'll get a feel for which combinations sound right.
Learn the pronouns.
Bislama does not distinguish between subject and object pronouns, meaning that, for example, the word mi is used for both "I" and "me", and the word olgeta (often shortened to ol) is used for both "they" and "them".
Nor does Bislama distinguish between "he", "she", and "it": the word hem is used for any single person or thing, regardless of gender.
Speakers of Bislama do, however, make an important distinction between different forms of the word "we" or "us". Yumi ("you and me") includes the person being spoken to, whilst mifala ("me and others") does not.
The main pronouns in Bislama are...
In addition, there are variants on these pronouns, such as yumitu and mitufala ("us two"). These are fairly self-explanatory when you hear them.
Put 'i' in nearly every sentence.
The 'predicate marker' i (pronounced "ee") is a fairly meaningless but important grammatical particle that occurs in most Bislama sentences. It usually comes before a verb (an action), or before a descriptive word that is being used like a verb:
hem i dring kava
sip i kam tede
basket i red
However, the i is left out in situations where it would be awkward to pronounce (notably after the word mi or yu):
yu dring kava
mi kam tede
In some situations, i looks as if it corresponds to the word "is", but in fact it does not.
A plural version of the marker, oli, is used when you want to make it clear that an action is being done by more than one thing:
flaengfokis oli tekem frut
Learn to distinguish past, present and future.
Verbs in Bislama do not change depending on whether they are in the past or present tense. For example, ron can mean "run" or "ran", and kam can mean "come" or "came". The past tense is indicated instead using the marker bin (from the English "been"):
mi bin go long stoa
If it's obvious that something happened in the past, you don't need to bother with the past tense marker:
yestede mi go long skul
Another way of indicating that something happened in the past is by putting finis ("finished") at the end of a sentence. However, don't overuse this - finis is needed only when you want to emphasise that something has already been completed:
sip i kam finis
The continuous tense (something that is ongoing and happening in the present) is indicated by the word stap:
mi stap lanem Bislama
To indicate that something will happen in the future, put the word bae (the shortened form of bambae, from the English "by-and-by") at the start of a sentence:
bae mi go long Vila
Distinguish between transitive and intransitive verbs.
In Bislama, transitive verbs - actions that you do to something or someone else - usually end in -em, -im or -um (whichever ending sounds best):
mi laekem kokonas
hem i kostem 50 vatu
Notable exceptions to this are gat ("have got"), save ("know"), kakae ("eat") and dring ("drink"). Only tourists say mi drinkem kava!
Intransitive verbs - things you simply do, without involving anyone or anything else - don't have these endings:
hem i slip
Some verbs have both transitive and intransitive forms:
wud i bon
mifala i bonem wud
Using the transitive form of a verb implies that there is an object involved, even if you don't explicitly say so:
Here are some common verbs in Bislama:
As you can see in the above table, words like "down" (daon), "up" (ap) and "out" (aot) can often be added to verbs, much like in English. Feel free to invent words of this kind if you need to - even if your new word isn't 'correct' Bislama, it will probably be understood.
Another way of inventing verbs in Bislama, much used by Vanuatu's newspapers, is to take a (transitive) English verb and add the -em, -im or -um ending to it. Glancing at the sports section of a recent paper, invaetem ("invite"), selebretem ("celebrate") and presentem ("present") are among the dodgy-looking verbs used.
Abandon the idea that every sentence should have a verb.
In Bislama sentence, the verb "be" (or one of its variants such as "am", "is", "are", "was" or "were") is often left out, producing verb-less sentences like these:
mi blong Pentikos
yu wan gudfala man
"Me Tarzan, you Jane" is also acceptable Bislama, although a ni-Vanuatu ape-man would probably include some repetition for emphasis (see below):
If you feel that it's necessary to include the word "be" (or "is", "are", etc) in order to make the sentence clear, then use the word stap (from the English "stop"). This is usually done when describing where something is located, or talking about a temporary state of affairs:
epot i stap klosap long solwota
mi stap kukum taro
yu stap kwaet!
Whilst some Bislama sentences have no verb, others have multiple verbs strung together in a way that can't be done in English (although plenty of Vanuatu schoolchildren try!):
oli karem raes i kam
hem i wokboat i raonem aelan
Be prepared to use words in new and seemingly-ungrammatical situations.
In Bislama, people sometimes take a word that we would consider a noun or an adjective, and use it as a verb:
bae mifala i Krismas long Vila
mi traem Inglis long hem
Learn to say more about an action
To say that you are capable of doing something, or do it habitually, use the word save:
mi save klaemap long hil ia
To say that you should do something, use the word sud:
mi sud go long ofis
To say that you must do something, use the word mas:
mi mas go long Vila
To express a negative (something that did not happen), put the word no before the verb:
trak i no kam
You can also use the following words to say if, when and how something will happen:
Learn to say whether or not something exists.
The phrase "there is" or "there are" is translated by the Bislama i gat. To say "here", use the phrase long ples ia (literally "in this place"):
i gat wan stoa long ples ia
To say that there are many of something, or a large amount, use the words plante ("plenty") or fulap ("full-up"). Note that fulap doesn't necessarily mean that something is completely full and cannot hold more:
i gat fulap puskat long velej ia
To say that there are only a few of something, or a small amount, use the word smol:
i gat smol raes nomo
To say that there is none at all, use the phrase i no gat. This type of phrase is depressingly common:
i no gat bensin long trak
Learn the important little words.
In Bislama these include:
Use 'we' and 'se' appropriately.
The words we (pronounced like "way") and se (pronounced like "say") are used in Bislama in many places where we would say "that" or "which" in English.
We is used in situations like the following:
tri we i foldaon
ples we yufala evriwan i save
Se is used with verbs like harem ("hear" or "feel"), talem ("say") and ting ("think"). The phrase mi harem se ("I hear that...") is the title of a regular Vanuatu newspaper column, and is a good way to introduce a piece of unsubstantiated gossip:
mi harem se hem i stilim wan pig, be hem i talem se pig ia i ronwe
There are lots of other minor situations in which these two words can be used. Some people, for example, put either we or se after words such as from ("because") or sapos ("if").
sapos we yumi gat masket, yumi save sutum pijin ia
In informal speech, the word se can also be used like the English "say"...
hem i se wota i bigwan
Remember that the meanings of some words depend on their position in the sentence.
Some words alter their meaninig depending upon where they are placed in a sentence. The word tumas, for example, literally means "too much":
hemi i dring tumas kava
However, if used at the end of a phrase it means simply "very" or "a lot", and does not imply that something is excessive:
mi laekem ples ia tumas
Similarly, the word nomo literally means "no more", but if placed at the end of a sentence it means "just" or "only":
i nomo gat wota
i gat wota nomo
Repeat yourself a lot.
In Bislama, you can often emphasise a word simply by repeating it (or repeating part of it):
hem i wan bigfala samting
hem i wan bigbigfala samting
People often use repetition to emphasise that they are talking about a particular person (and not somebody else):
hem i laekem tinfis, be mi mi no laekem
You can use repetition to suggest that something is continuing to happen for a long time:
bae oli wok go go go kasem nekis yia
Or that it is happening all over the place:
In a few cases, repeating a word turns it from a verb into a noun:
Repetition can also be used to distinguish pairs of words that would otherwise be easily confused in Bislama:
Be active, not passive.
In English, sentences can be either active ("He did it") or passive ("It was done"). Passive sentences are used when we don't know or don't care who is responsible for an action.
In Bislama, only active sentences are allowed; there is no equivalent of the passive voice. A passive sentence is usually best translated into Bislama as an active sentence involving wan man ("someone") or ol/olgeta ("they")...
wan man i stilim baskel
oli meksem wetem wota
Learn to ask questions.
In English, we alter the order of the words in a sentence when asking a question. In Bislama, people don't. Instead, speakers usually indicate that they are asking a question simply by their tone of voice. Sometimes it can be frustratingly difficult to work out whether somebody is asking you something or telling you something:
bae plen i kam tumora
bae plen i kam tumora?
If you want to make it clear that you are asking a question, you can put the phrase o nogat? or no nogat? (the equivalent of "isn't it?") at the end of the sentence:
bae plen i kam tumora, no nogat?
You can also indicate that you are asking a question by putting a? ("uh?") at the end of a sentence:
bae plen i kam tumora, a?
When asking questions in Bislama you'll use the word wanem ("what") a lot:
As well as using the word on its own, you can ask a lot of different types of question using variants of wanem...
Olsem wanem? on its own is commonly used as a greeting - the equivalent of "How's it going?".
Other question words you'll hear include:
It's generally polite to put question words such as this at the end of a sentence. Putting them at the beginning can sound forceful or rude:
yu stap long ples ia from wanem?
from wanem yu stap long ples ia?
However, it's OK to put the question word at the beginning of a sentence in cases where it would be awkward to do otherwise. The following, for example, are perfectly acceptable:
wanem nem blong yu?
wanem taem blong yu?
Beware of negative questions. If you ask "Isn't there any water?" (I no gat wota?), for example, and it's true that there's no water, most people in Vanuatu will answer "yes", whereas an English speaker would usually answer "no" in this situation. If you ask "Isn't there any?" and in fact there is water, people will answer si, a special word that is used in Bislama when responding positively to a negative question. If this is confusing you, the easy solution is to avoid asking negative questions.
Learn to say when you don't understand.
With a bit of practice your use of this phrase will be kept to a minimum:
mi no harem save
And finally, an example...
Below is the Vanuatu national anthem, in its original Bislama form (on the left) with an English translation (on the right). In between the two I've written the Bislama form with English-like spellings, to help illustrate how the two languages relate to one another.
© Andrew Gray, 2008