Bislama Bons Mots

In Bislama’s most common usage, the laughing, chaffing repartee that punctuates our daily exchanges, it’s good-natured, inventive and cheeky, strikingly similar to the bawdy discourse in a Dublin pub on any given Friday.

My point – and I do have one – is that visitors ignore the nuance and linguistic flair inherent in Vanuatu discourse at their peril. No one can truly say they understand Bislama until they’ve grasped its vividly metaphorical, highly contextual fluidity and made it their own.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

I’m going to leave current events alone for a week. Not for lack of news, but because the smaller things in life need our attention, too.

This week, let’s take a lighthearted look at a few expressions that make Bislama such a delightful language. Before we do, though, I must apologise to native Bislama speakers: I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t already know. Nonetheless, it’s sometimes useful to record such trifles for posterity.

Because of its impoverished vocabulary, Bislama relies heavily on metaphor, imagery and euphemism. The pictures it paints are remarkably vivid and often frankly indecent, generating wild laughter among the interlocutors. Propriety dictates that I leave out the most scandalous of them….

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Pidgin Poetics

Bislama is more than the sum of its words. People ignore this lesson at their peril. A poor Bislama speaker may be forgiven, but a poor listener suffers more than they know.

More than once, I’ve had to pull some well-meaning soul aside and explain that they can’t get another meeting with some functionary because they didn’t pay any attention to what they were told at the last one. Often enough, they’ll angrily retort that nothing important was said.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

I have a terrible confession to make: When I was young, working towards a degree in English Literature, I not only studied poetry, I wrote it too.

Now that I’ve got that dirty little secret out of the way, I can talk a little about one of the enduring delights of living in Vanuatu: The poetry of the language.

In literature and linguistics, pidgin tongues usually come across as the simple country cousin of ‘proper’ languages. That may be, but too many people seem to think that ‘simple’ and ‘stupid’ are synonymous. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

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