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History and Culture: Bislama - A Brief History

The term Bislama, according to some authorities in Pidgins, comes from Beach-la-Mar or Bech-de-mer which is boiled, dried, and smoked flesh of sea cucumber used to make soups. Bislama grew out of the whaling trades in the Pacific, mainly in Polynesia and Mironesia during the first half of the nineteenth century then gradually moved west to Melanesia. At the same, the discovery on sandalwood in Erromango, Tanna, Aneityum, brought more traders to Vanuatu. Because sandalwood particularly prized in China and used in burial ceremonies and religious rites, it was the subject of export and trade in the southern islands of Vanuatu. Another activity that further developed contacts between Europeans, Polynesian and Ni-Vanuatu beside the whaling and sandalwood, was the Bech-de-Mer export industry, hence the name Bislama.

Bislama, according Darrell Tryon, developed and stabilized in Queensland plantations where labourers recruited from Melanesia used it to communicate among themselves. As recruits from the same island and speaking the same language were separated, they were forced to communicate in this "broken English" that were used earlier by the whalers and sandalwooders and reinforced by the English spoken by their overseers. This new form of Pidgin English eventually evolved into Bislama (Vanuatu), Tok Pisin (PNG) and Pijin (Solomon) when the recruits took them back to their local communities. The variety of Pidgin English all reflect the fundamental structure of Melanesian languages using basically the English words in Melanesian grammar and syntax.

Vanuatu in 1971, the first Bislama translation of the Four Gospels, Gud Nius Blong Jisas Krais, and the New Testament, Niu Testaman, signified the universal acceptance of Bislama as the Lingua Franca of Vanuatu. This was a crucial step for the development of Bislama and the Independence movement as Bislama became the unifying factor between islands speaking different languages (Vanuatu has one of the lowest number of people per language in the world). Because of the emergence of political movement toward Independence, Bislama has undergone an extensive lexical expansion to accommodate new concepts and ideas associated with the new political development. After Independence, the Constitution of Vanuatu granted Bislama the status of National Language recognizing its important role as the only language of nationwide currency. Even though the current two-language educational system, English and French which are the official languages of Vanuatu, excludes Bislama, Bislama is the language of the National Anthem of Vanuatu.

Today Bislama lexicon continues to grow as Vanuatu continues to change and develop economically, particularly in the two major towns, Port Vila and Luganville, and it is still in transition to become fully standardized in its written and spoken forms. With the establishment of the Literacy Association of Vanuatu and several dictionaries, the process of standardization continues on as more people becoming exposed to the spoken and written Bislama on different forms of mass communication medium and official documents. The government of Vanuatu are taking steps to experiment with education in Bislama at the primary level promoting Bislama as the language of communication across all islands in Vanuatu.

Here are some phrases to introduce you to Bislama.

Hello Halo (Hello)
Bye Tata
Thank you very much! Tankiu tumas! (Thank you too much!)
See you later Lukim yu! (Look you!)
How are you? Olsem Wanem? (All same what?)
I’m fine Mi oraet! (Me alright!)
What’s your name? Wanem nem blong yu? (What name belong you?)
My name is… Nem blong mi…. (Name belong me...)
What is this? Wanem ia? (What here?)
Where’s the bathroom? Smol haos hemi stap wea? (Small house, him is stay where?)
I want to eat now. Mi wantem kakae naoia. (Me want to eat now here.)
Where do you live? Yu slip wea? (You sleep where.)
I come from America. Mi kam long Amerika. (Me come along America.)
I’m here with the Peace Corps. Mi stap ia wetem Pis Kops. (Me stay here with Peace Corps.)
Do you speak English? Yu save toktok long English? (You can talk talk along English?)
I don’t understand what you said to me. Mi no kasem wanem you bin talem long mi. (Me no catch what you been telling along me.)
I’m a vegetarian. Mi no save kakae mit. (Me no can eat meat.)
I want to swim in the ocean. Mi wantem swim long solwata. (Me want to swim along salt-water.)
Are there snakes here? I gat snek long ples ia? (got snake along place here?)
How much? Hao mas? (How much?)

The Training Staff prepared the following lessons to complement the extensive language training you will receive during Pre-Service Training (PST). Practicing these introductory phrases prior to your arrival will get you started on the road to a very successful and rewarding Peace Corps experience. Read More »

You can also translate single words to/from English/Bislama here.

I have learned that if I want to integrate into the community I have to be the one to go out and cultivate the relationships. Vanuatu VolunteerCommunity Health Project

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