Last updated
Region Vanuatu
Native speakers
10,000 (2011) [1]
200,000 L2 speakers[ citation needed ]
Latin, Avoiuli (local)
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1 bi
ISO 639-2 bis
ISO 639-3 bis
Glottolog bisl1239
Linguasphere 52-ABB-ce
Idioma bislama.png
A Bislama speaker, recorded in Vanuatu.
Learning Bislama Course

Bislama (English: /ˈbɪsləmɑː/ ; [2] Bislama:  [bislaˈma] ; also known by its earlier French name, bichelamar [3] [biʃlamaʁ] ) is a creole language, and one of the official languages of Vanuatu. It is the first language of many of the "Urban ni-Vanuatu" (citizens who live in Port Vila and Luganville), and the second language of much of the rest of the country's residents. The lyrics of "Yumi, Yumi, Yumi", the country's national anthem, are composed in Bislama.


More than 95% of Bislama words are of English origin, whilst the remainder comprises a few dozen words from French, as well as some specific vocabulary inherited from various languages of Vanuatu; though these are essentially limited to flora and fauna terminology. [4] While the influence of these vernacular languages is low on the vocabulary side, it is very high in the morphosyntax. As such, Bislama can be described simply as a language with an English vocabulary and an Oceanic grammar and phonology. [5]


During the period of "blackbirding" in the 1870s and 1880s, hundreds of thousands of Pacific islanders (many of them from the New Hebrides – now the Vanuatu archipelago) were taken as indentured labourers, often kidnapped, and forced to work on plantations, mainly in Queensland, Australia, and Fiji. [6] With several languages being spoken in these plantations a localised pidgin was formed, combining English vocabulary with grammatical structures typical of languages in the region. [7] This early plantation pidgin is the origin not only of Bislama, but also of Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, and Pijin of the Solomon Islands; though not of Torres Strait Creole in the north of Australia.

This creole started spreading throughout the Vanuatu archipelago at the turn of the 20th century, as former blackbirds and their descendants began to return to their native islands. Knowledge of this creole would facilitate communication not only with European traders and settlers, but also between native populations, and because Vanuatu is the most language-dense country in the world (one count puts it at 113 languages for a population of 225,000), [8] Bislama usefully serves as a lingua franca for communication between ni-Vanuatu, as well as with and between foreigners. Although it has been primarily a spoken-only language for most of its history, the first dictionary of Bislama was published in 1995. [9] This, along with its second edition in 2004, has helped to create a standardised and uniform spelling of written Bislama.

Besides Bislama, most ni-Vanuatu also know their local language, the local language of their father and/or mother, as well as their spouse, oftentimes. The country's official languages of tuition in schools and educational institutions are English and French.


The name of Bislama (also referred to, especially in French, as "Bichelamar") comes via the early 19th century word "Beach-la-Mar" from pseudo-French "biche de mer" or "bêche de mer", sea cucumber, which itself comes from an alteration of the Portuguese "bicho do mar". [10] In the early 1840s, sea cucumbers were also harvested and dried at the same time that sandalwood was gathered. The names biche-la-mar and 'Sandalwood English' came to be associated with the kind of pidgin that came to be used by the local laborers between themselves, as well as their English-speaking overseers. [11]

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in an account of his travels through the Pacific in 1888 and 1889, "the natives themselves have often scraped up a little English ... or an efficient pidgin, what is called to the westward 'Beach-la-Mar'." [12] In Jack London's story "Yah! Yah! Yah!", one of his "South Sea Tales", there is repeated a reference to "a bastard lingo called bech-de-mer", and much of the story's dialogue is conducted in it.

Today, the word "bislama" itself is seldom used by younger speakers of Bislama to refer to sea slugs, as a new re-borrowing from pseudo-French "bêche de mer", which has taken the form "besdemea", has become more popular. [13]


A sign in Bislama written in boustrophedon Avoiuli script, from the island of Pentekost. The top-left reads, sab senta blong melenisian institiut blong tijim saen. filosofi. hiumaniti mo teknoloji. lisa vilij lolovini (Sap Centre of the Melanesian Institute for teaching signs, philosophy, humanity and technology, Lisaa village, Central Pentecost). Notice in Avoiuli script at a custom school, Pentcost Island, 2014.jpg
A sign in Bislama written in boustrophedon Avoiuli script, from the island of Pentekost. The top-left reads, sab senta blong melenisian institiut blong tijim saen. filosofi. hiumaniti mo teknoloji. lisa vilij lolovini (Sap Centre of the Melanesian Institute for teaching signs, philosophy, humanity and technology, Lisaa village, Central Pentecost).

The Bislama Latin alphabet uses the letters A, B, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U, V, W, Y and the digraphs AE, AO and NG .

An older Latin orthography, used before 1995, had É (now written E), AI and AU (now AE and AO). For those vowels in hiatus, and were used (now written AI and AU). Labialized consonants, now written MW and PW, were then spelled with a macron, following the conventions used for some vernacular Vanuatu languages: was used for /mʷ/ and for /pʷ/. [14] [15]

On the island of Pentecost, the avoiuli script is sometimes used for Bislama. The shapes of the letters derive from sand-drawing. It has distinct letters for NG and NGG, but otherwise corresponds closely to the Latin alphabet above, though capitals are seldom used, punctuation differs, there are digits for higher numbers and logograms for commonly traded commodities such as pig tusks.


Two frequent words in Bislama are "long" and "blong", which take the place of many prepositions in English or French.


Long holds many other related meanings, and is sometimes used in improvisation.


Originally from the English word "belong", blong takes the place of 'of' or the genitive case in other languages. Just like of in English, it is one of the most widely used and versatile words in the language, and can indicate possession, country of origin, defining characteristics, intention, and others.

Buk blong mi
The book that belongs to me, my book
Man blong Amerika
Man from America, American.
Hemi woman blong saiens
She is a woman of science, She is a scientist.
Man blong dring
Man of drinking i.e. a drinker


Verbs in Bislama usually consist of a stem word (borrowed from English, French or indigenous languages); most transitive verbs add to this a transitive suffix.

The form of that suffix is /-em/, /-im/, or /-um/, depending on vowel harmony. If the last vowel of the verb's stem is either -u- or -i-, then that vowel will normally be copied into the transitive suffix – however, there are rare exceptions. For all other stem vowels, the transitive suffix has its default form /-em/: [16]

Morphology of transitive verb endings
hearhar-harem 'hear, feel'
telltal-talem 'tell, say'
catchkas-kasem 'get, reach'
carrykar-karem 'carry, bring'
readyrere 'ready'rerem 'prepare'
look outlukaot-lukaotem 'search'
paype-pem 'buy'

Note that exceptions exist, such as lukim ("look").

Examples of transitive verbs which exceptionally don't take this suffix include: kakae 'eat, bite'; trink 'drink'; save 'know'; se 'say'.

Verbs do not conjugate. The tense, aspect and mood of a sentence are indicated with markers such as stap, bin and bae that are placed in the sentence.

Mi stap kakae taro
I'm eating taro
Mi bin kakae taro
I have eaten taro
Bae mi kakae taro
I will eat taro


The plural is formed by putting ol before the word. For example, bia 'beer'; ol bia = "beers". Ol comes from the English "all". When used with numbers, the singular form is used. 2 bia, 3 bia, etc.


The personal pronouns of Bislama closely resemble those of Tok Pisin. They feature four grammatical numbers (singular, dual, trial and plural) and also encode the clusivity distinction: 1st person non-singular pronouns (equivalent of English we) are described as inclusive if they include the addressee (i.e. {you + I}, {you + I + others}), but exclusive otherwise (i.e. {I + other people}). Bislama pronouns do not decline.

personal pronouns of Bislama
1st personinclusive-yumituyumitriyumi
2nd personyuyutufalayutrifalayufala
3rd personhem

The third person singular hem, also written em lacks gender distinction, so it can mean either he, she or it. The predicate marker i – a particle which is placed before the verbal phrase of a sentence – is sometimes merged with the third person pronoun, giving the words hemi and emi, respectively, in singular, and oli in plural. [17]

Tense/aspect/mood markers

hemi stap kukum kumala
he/she is cooking sweet potatoes

Some of these markers also have lexical meanings. For example, save can mean "be able to" but it is also a verb "know".


sapos yumitu faenem pig, bae yumitu kilim i ded
if we find a pig, we'll kill it

Dialectal variations

Dialects exist, based mainly on different pronunciations in different areas which stem from the different sounds of the native languages. The future tense marker can be heard to be said as: Bambae, Mbae, Nambae, or Bae. There are also preferences for using Bislama or native words that vary from place to place, and most people insert English, French, or local language words to fill out Bislama. So in the capital city it is common to hear 'computer'; in other places one might hear 'ordinateur'.

Pacific creole comparison

English Bislama Pijin Tok Pisin Torres Strait Creole
andmoannaane / ne / an / a
the__ ia / ya__ iadispela __dha / dhemtu / dhem
this__ ia / ya__ iadispela __dhis __ (ia) / dhemtu __ ia / dhem __ ia
he / she / it / him / herhemhemem / enem
(adjective marker)-fala-fala-pela-Ø when attributive (em i big man 'he's a big man')
-wan when predicative (man i bigwan 'the man's big')
womanwomanwoman / meremeriuman / oman (dialect difference)

Literature and samples

The longest written work in Bislama is the Bible completed in 1998. [18]

Luke 2:6–7:

"Tufala i stap yet long Betlehem, nao i kam kasem stret taem blong Meri i bonem pikinini. Nao hem i bonem fasbon pikinin blong hem we hem i boe. Hem i kavremap gud long kaliko, nao i putum hem i slip long wan bokis we oltaim ol man ol i stap putum gras long hem, blong ol anamol ol i kakae. Tufala i mekem olsem, from we long hotel, i no gat ples blong tufala i stap."


While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

Bislama translation of the Book of Mormon: Samfala Toktok blong Buk blong Mormon: Wan Narafala Testeman blong Jisas Kraes Book of Mormon - Bislama.jpg
Bislama translation of the Book of Mormon : Samfala Toktok blong Buk blong Mormon: Wan Narafala Testeman blong Jisas Kraes

Yumi, Yumi, Yumi

Bislama words

Yumi, Yumi, yumi i glad long talem se
Yumi, yumi, yumi ol man blong Vanuatu

God i givim ples ya long yumi,
Yumi glat tumas long hem,
Yumi strong mo yumi fri long hem,
Yumi brata evriwan!


Plante fasin blong bifo i stap,
Plante fasin blong tedei,
Be yumi i olsem wan nomo,
Hemia fasin blong yumi!


Yumi save plante wok i stap,
Long ol aelan blong yumi,
God i helpem yumi evriwan,
Hem i papa blong yumi,


English translation

We (, We, We) are happy to proclaim
We (, We, We) are the People of Vanuatu!

God has given us this land;
This gives us great cause for rejoicing.
We are strong, we are free in this land;
We are all brothers.


We have many traditions
And we are finding new ways.
But we are all one
We shall be united for ever.


We know there is much work to be done
On all our islands.
God helps all of us,
He is our father,


Further reading

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  1. Bislama at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  3. Bislama, Ethnologue. Accessed Jan. 2, 2014.
  4. See Charpentier (1979).
  5. See Camden (1979).
  6. Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus and Marcus Buford Rediker (2007). Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World, University of California Press, pp 188–190. ISBN   0-520-25206-3.
  7. For this whole section, see: Tryon & Charpentier (2004), and Crowley (1990).
  8. See Crowley (2000:50); François (2012:86).
  9. See Crowley (1995).
  10. "bêche-de-mer", American Heritage Dictionary, 2000
  11. See Crowley (1990).
  12. Stevenson, Robert Louis (2004). In the South Seas (1st ed.). Fairfield, IA: 1st World Publishing. p. 15. ISBN   1-59540-504-6.
  13. Crowley, Terry (1990). "1". Beach-la-Mar to Bislama: The Emergence of a National Language in Vanuatu. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 33.
  14. "Letter Database".
  15., p. 71
  16., p. 11-13, 49 and 57
  17. "Bislama". Ethnologue.