Pidgin English in the New Hebrides

By: Elizabeth Reed Dickie

Originally Published in 1975

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New Hebrides is an area in the throes of rapid culture change. Being propelled into articulation with the Western world by the Age of Exploration, being exploited by both the blackbirders and the early settlers, and being a major stage for the Pacific Theater in the Second World War, have all had profound effects upon the aboriginal culture of this archipelago. In concert with social change has come linguistic innovation; Pidgin English (Bislama) and creole languages are spoken throughout the group and are direct products of early contact with Europeans.

The term pidgin is thought to have been derived from the English word business. It was first applied to Chinese Pidgin English, and later came to denote languages of similar type. Creole, however, comes originally from the Portuguese crioulo and initially referred to a white man of European descent who had been born and raised in a tropical or semi­tropical colony. Later, the term was extended to include natives and other people of non-European background. Finally, creole was applied to some of the languages spoken around the Caribbean and in West Africa and was then extended to include all similar languages throughout the world.

As language types, pidgins and creoles were first distinguished and defined by Leonard Bloomfield over forty years ago. His definition, although subject to much recent debate, embodies the essence of the current concepts concerning these languages. Pidgin was defined as a makeshift adaptation, re­duced in structure and limited in use, and most importantly no one’s first language, i.e., a contact vernacular; creole was a pidgin that had become a primary language in that it was a language of the home and learned by chil­dren directly from their parents. The essential linguistic processes involved are reduction and restriction in form and use for pidgins, and later expansion and extension in form and use for creoles. Thus, pidgin and creole are not easily separated into discrete categories but form a dynamic continuum.

Historically, the earliest pidgin for which there is direct evidence is the pidginized Romance vernacular spoken between the European Crusaders and traders during the Middle Ages along the coast between Mar­seilles and Genoa. As the Crusades were dominated by the French, the language formed to communicate with the Levantines was called the lingua franca. Beginning as a specific descriptive term, the meaning of lingua franca has been expanded to include any language that is used as a means of com­munication between people who do not share a common language.

As a result of a similar contact situation brought about by European trading through­out the world during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, pidgin languages are present on all continents. Areas in direct contact with Euro­peans have the highest incidence and main­tenance of pidgin, but it has spread to remote areas as a lingua franca among natives. Thus, pidgins in the Pacific, as with other pidgins, were a direct result of the influences of trade, conquest, plantation labor, migration, and colonialism generated during the Age of Exploration.

Present theory holds that pidgins are created in a multilingual situation; that is, one where more than two languages are spoken, and where there is a dominant language that supplies much of the vocabulary. Whinnom has further suggested that pidgins may be an outgrowth of a plantation setting where the natives who worked together did not speak a common language. For example, indentured native labor was used on the newly created plantations in Queensland, Samoa, and Fiji, and in the mines of New Caledonia. It is esti­mated that between 1868 and 1906 more than sixty thousand natives went to the Queens­land Colony in Australia. Of these, the majority were from the New Hebrides and Solomon Islands. Once on the plantations, natives who spoke the same language were kept separated, to minimize collusion and insurrection. The creation of pidgin can there­fore be seen as a lingua franca between natives, and not a result of plantation owners’ simplified attempts to communicate their desires to natives in “baby-talk.”

Because of this evolution, the vocabulary of pidgins in the Pacific is derived almost entirely from one or more European languages. In many instances, the words, in their Euro­pean sense, are crude and often obscene, be­cause natives adopted vocabulary used in the harsh plantation setting. Fortunately, these expressions have acquired modified meanings and express the ordinary and not the pro­fane. An example is the expression bagerap (“buggered up,” an Australian slang expres­sion) which now means “to be spoiled, ruined.”

While the New Hebrides Pidgin similarly developed as a result of the historical pro­cesses described above, it has a particularly interesting history which bears closer exam­ination. When describing New Hebridean Pidgin, the terms Bislama, Bichelamar, Beche­de-mer, or Beach-la-mar are often used inter­changeably in colloquial speech. The com­monly used term Bislama will be employed in this paper when referring to New Hebridean Pidgin. Taxonomically, Bislama is subsumed under Melanesian Pidgin English, of which there appear to be two main types: an eastern variety, centered in New Guinea, and a western variety, centered in the British Solomon Islands. The New Hebridean Pidgin is a sub-dialect of the latter. Bislama was very similar to the New Caledonian Pidgin English before it became “relexified” in some areas to Pidgin French (retaining the name Bislama). Historically Bislama seems to be an example

of “relexification” of Chinese Pidgin English. (“Relexification” is the process of taking an already pidginized language and replacing one vocabulary with another, usually maintaining the structure of the original.)

The probable course of development of Bislama began in the 16th century with the Portuguese, who engaged in worldwide trade. The China Coast was an important trade area and it was there that Portuguese Pidgin was born. It is postulated that, when other nations started trading with China, they followed the model of Portuguese Pidgin and through the process of “relexification” new pidgin lan­guages were created. These new pidgins were farmed, in part directly from Portuguese Pidgin, in part by replacement of Portuguese terms with English (or Dutch or French de­pending on the area), in part by additions from other sources, e.g., the local native dialect.

One result of this miscegenation was Chinese Pidgin English. The first variety of Pidgin English arose in Canton after the founding, in 1664, of the English trading post (“factory”). From Canton, Chinese Pidgin English spread along the southeast coast of China and into the Yang-tze River Valley as the “Treaty Ports” were established. Trade to and from China came from all corners of the world, and it was the sea trade between China and the Pacific Islands that was the crucial factor in the formation of a South Seas Pidgin.

This South Seas Pidgin came to be known as Bislama. The name was an Anglicized version of beche-de-mer, the name given to a kind of sea slug or trepang, which was the main article of trade between China and the Pacific, since trepang was considered to be a great delicacy in soups. The beche-de-mer traders took Chinese Pidgin English and adapted it to their needs, and Bislama became the basis of the development of other farms of Pidgin English spoken throughout the Pacific from New Caledonia to the Caroline Islands.

The history of Bislama is reflected semantically and the etymology of some of the very common and basic words has been traced. The omnipresent save (“savvy”), meaning “to know” or “to be able” is derived from the Portuguese saber (“to know”). The change from b to v reflects the French influ­ence, most likely from savoir. Pikinini (“pickaninny”), usually meaning “small child,” entered English Pidgin from the Portuguese pequeno (“small”) and pequenino (“diminu­tive”); however, in the Pacific the longer form (pequenino) was favored, but the restricted meaning of “small child” was attached. The word bambae (“by-and-by”) is from English Pidgin but it may possibly be a “relexifica­tion” of the Portuguese logo. The word tumas (“too much”] has the modified meaning of “very much, a great deal” and is derived directly from English Pidgin. A word from the same source modified similarly is samting (“something”). The Bislama meaning is simply “thing.” Early contacts with Polynesia have also left their mark in words like kaikai (“to eat”] from the Polynesian koi (“to eat”].

Besides reflecting its multilingual history, Bislama mirrors the social relations that exist in a colonial setting. In the town of Santo (Luganville), it is not uncommon to hear a black man addressed as boi (“boy”). The re­ciprocal term of address to a white man is usually masta (“master,” “mister”?). The plan­tation heritage and the blackbirder’s mark have yet to be erased from the lexicon.

Although Bislama historically is derived almost entirely from English, maintaining the same basic linguistic categories and vocabu­lary, the phonology and much of the grammar reflect a Malayo-Polynesian influence. Pho­netically, the English sounds of sh as in “shine” and z as in “buzz” are not used by New Hebrideans, so words like “rubbish” and “dances” become rabis and tanis, respec­tively. Phonemically, English speakers dis­tinguish between words on the basis of whether or not consonant sounds are voiced, as with “pat” and “bat,” “ten” and “den,” and “kale” and “gale.” Although New Hebridean speakers can hear these differences, the dis­tinction between unvoiced and voiced con­sonants is not significant in their native dialects. This non-differentiation is carried over to their pronunciation of Pidgin English. The result is that a word like olgeta can be pronounced as oIgeta, olketa, olgedn, and

Ikeda and retain the same meaning, “all” (from “all together”). The vowel system of Bislama is similarly derived from the Melanesian.

Grammatically the system is mainly New Hebridean. A clear instance of this is the use of three suffixes, -falai, meaning “more than one,” -fala, meaning “specific” or “definite” rather than “general,” and -im, meaning that “a direct object is involved.”

mi kaikai
mifala kaikai

yu Iukim mi yu
Iukim mifala

haus blong yu
haus blong yufala

gudfala man
smolfala haus

mi rid
mi ridim buk
mi ridim
ol i kros
ol i krosim disfala boi
o/ i krosim


“I eat” “we eat”

“you see me”
“you see us”

“your (singular) house”
“your (plural) house”

“(a) good man”
“(a) little house”

“I read”
“I read a book”
“I read it”

“they are angry”
“they are angry at this native”
“they are angry at him”

The formation of new words by joining two or more words already present in the lexicon is also a New Hebridean pattern. Three common words thus used are op (“up”), daun (“down”), and we (“away”), as with the verb go (“go”) in goap “go up,” godaun “go down,” and gowe “go away.” Of the com­pound words, the most important types are those that are noun + noun and adjective + noun. The following are examples: noun + noun: haus boi = “house for the boys’ or native workers,” ha us boi = “house-boy,” had man = “the head of a man,” hedman = “headman.”

Adjective + noun: wanfala tok = “one language,” wantok = “person from the same village (literally having the same language),” waitfala man = “light-colored man,” waitm an = “European.”

Although most of its vocabulary is of European origin, the grammar of Bislama, spoken in Santo and on Malo, is mostly Melanesian, often taking on the characteristics of the speaker’s native language. Geograph­ical variation of spoken Pidgin exists, but as literacy increases and as communications networks expand, the differences will un­doubtedly decrease. There are many factors standardizing Pidgin within the New Hebrides. For example, the spelling of the language is becoming standardized. The :English-Bislama Dictionary by the Rev. William Camden has set forward an orthography based on pho­nemics, following the phonetic guidelines set down by the IPA (The International Phonetic Association). In addition to the dictionary, the Four Gospels of the New Testament have been translated into Bislama under the auspices of Rev. Camden. The monthly British Newsletter invariably contains articles writ­ten in Bislama which are consistent with Rev. Camden’s orthography.

A typical example of a passage written in standardized Bislama is from the Pidgin Bible, Gud Nyus Bilong Jisas Krais (“Good News Belong Jesus Christ”): Ale, sipos wan man i talem long yufala, i se “Yufala i Iuk, emia Mesaya ia,” no i se “Yufala i lik, em i step long pies is longwe,” bambae yufala i mas no biliy long tok ia. Matyu 24:23

Literally transcribed in English the Bislama reads: Aller, suppose one man he tells to you-fella, he say “You-fella he look, Messiah here,” no he say “You-fella he look, then he stop along place here longway,” by-and-by you-fella he must no believe along talk here.

Compare this to the same passage in the New Testament {Matthew 24:23):

Then if any man shall say unto you, La, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.

In addition to the standardization of spelling, the spoken forms of Bislama are becoming regularized due to the influence of radio broadcasts. Throughout the New Hebrides, natives have acquired and are listening to short-wave radios. A day in the remote Small Nambas village of Boutin is not complete without listening to the noon broad­cast of Radio Vila, in English, French, and Pidgin.

Bislama is of interest to the anthropologist as well as to the linguist. The sociolinguistic aspects of Pidgin (Le., how and when the language is spoken) are of importance because within the New Hebrides a form of either pidgin or creole language is spoken on every island. The pidgins are the most prevalent. but creolization has occurred in the southern part of the archipelago, especially around the city of Port Vila on Efate,

The natives of the northern islands of Espiritu Santo, Malo, and Malekula speak a pidgin. In the town of Santo, as one walks up and down the main road, one hears people conversing in French, English, Chinese, and Bislama, as well as the South Santo and Malo dialects. However, as soon as a shop is entered, the lingua franca between merchant and customer is usually Bislama.

Malo, the situation is slightly differ­ent. Tamambo, the local language, is the most commonly spoken, but most people also know Bislama. Children learn either English or French in school, but also have a command of Pidgin. As men have more occasions to visit Santo where they deal with people who do not speak their language, they tend to be more proficient in Pidgin than women.

Malekula is similar to Santo and Malo in language usage. In the administrative head­quarters of Norsup and Lakatoro, Pidgin is read and spoken by most of the inhabitants. Proficiency decreases in the more isolated bush villages.

The situation on Efate is very different. Port Vila is the administrative capital and the international port of entry. Of all the islands, moreover, Efate has been subject to the most concentrated European influence. It is here that Bislama has become creolized. As in many other areas of the world where pidgins have become primary languages, there is a social correlate that accompanies creolization. Speaking Bislama is considered to be a mark of inferior social status. When addressing a native in Vila, one avoids using Bislama. Many natives there have learned either French or English, which they use with Europeans, and communicate in Bfslama Creole only among themselves.

Bislama is clearly a language in its own right and its uses in the New Hebrides should be studied further. Its importance is great, for its advantages are many. It serves as a lingua franca in a region where more than a hundred different languages are spoken.

Until recently the study of pidgin and creole languages was neglected. They were considered to be, at best, marginal languages and, at worst, a “baby-talk” version of a European language. It was not until 1933 that the first attempt at formal classification of pidgins appeared. It now seems that the study of pidgins and creoles is valuable for lin­guistic theory. Some of the great literary languages of today probably had just such humble beginnings.

Cite This Article

Dickie, Elizabeth Reed. "Bislama." Expedition Magazine 17, no. 3 (May, 1975): -. Accessed February 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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