On the bus ride back to the office today, I eavesdropped (as I often do) to a couple of women speaking one of Vanuatu’s hundreds of local languages. While I can speak exactly none of them, I know dribs and drabs of about a dozen or so, and it serves as a pleasant game to try to figure out whence the interlocutors originate.

On the bus ride back to the office today, I eavesdropped (as I often do) to a couple of women speaking one of Vanuatu’s hundreds of local languages. While I can speak exactly none of them, I know dribs and drabs of about a dozen or so, and it serves as a pleasant game to try to figure out whence the  interlocutors originate.

The women shifted between Bislama and language as required, using the former to fill in any gaps that a pre-modern, agrarian vocabulary might expose when discussing life in town. The dialogue, to these ignorant ears, went something like this:

“Language language language language language mobile language language language text language language language credit language language language westem mani nomo!”

It didn’t surprise me that ‘mobile’, ‘credit’ or ‘text’ required substitution. But it is telling indeed that this language had no word for ‘money’ and, even more interesting, ‘waste.’

Two Solitudes?

Notwithstanding its strengths, French’s permanent minority status here in Vanuatu has certainly allowed the perpetuation of some of the same kinds of injustice seen in Quebec in past generations. French has often received less attention than it should. The demonstrably superior education system has not received the recognition it deserves. The use of French in law, in government services and publications is often an afterthought.

Given my personal experience living on the cusp between two cultures, I am naturally sympathetic to Education Minister Charlot Salwai’s efforts to increase the French component in the core curriculum. Having benefited from a completely bilingual education, and having experienced the consequent benefits of a more nuanced, more cosmopolitan view of the world, I can only consider his plan to be a good thing.

That said, I am vividly conscious as well of the potential for division that language issues can create. In Canada in 1970, Quebec separatists conducted a series of murders, kidnappings and bombings that resulted in the imposition of martial law and the arbitrary arrest of thousands of activists, most of whom were guilty of nothing more than caring about their culture.

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

I grew up in a border town, in a border generation. One side of the river was majority French, the other English. My elders held tight to decidedly parochial views about their respective cultures. The English felt the ascendancy of their language (and subsequent control over business, government and education) was an inevitable and unavoidable result of their conquest of French Canada in 1760. The French, on the other hand, used their language as a cultural badge of courage, an undying assertion that they had never been conquered in spirit.

During the 1960s and 1970s an intense and occasionally violent cultural revival swept the French-speaking province of Quebec. Language became a weapon, leveraging access to public and private services.

Many of these reforms were necessary, long past due. Pierre Trudeau, the bi-cultural, bilingual Prime Minister at the time, had agitated for social justice in his youth. He was, nonetheless, a strong federalist, and opposed growing cries for Quebec’s secession from the Canadian confederation of provinces.

Vanuatu and Canada’s respective histories reveal more than a few parallels. Though different in detail, many common themes emerge. In Vanuatu, French and English camps were pitted against one another in the run-up to Independence, with the largely English Lini camp charging full-blown toward freedom and numerous, largely French-speaking, elements advocating a go-slowly (or not at all) approach.

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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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