Mental Floss

Reader Challenge: Puzzling Out Bislama

Ransom Riggs

I love new languages. The trouble is, I'm usually really bad at them. I'm certain my attempts to speak Portuguese during my honeymoon in Portugal a few years ago are still the butt of jokes there. So when I heard that Vanuatu, where I spent the last few weeks, is one of the most linguistically dense places on earth -- they speak more than 130 distinct languages across a landmass the size of Connecticut -- I was pretty sure I was screwed, sentenced to weeks of hilarious attempts at sign language and uncomfortable meals consisting of things I didn't realize I had ordered and wasn't sure I could stomach (like fruit bats -- which, in a strange humor one evening, I ordered on purpose).

Lucky for me, people in Vanuatu speak a pidjin language called Bislama (bishlama), about 95% of which is derived from English, with a smattering of French mixed in just to confuse me. Like many things colonial, Bislama's origin is downright depressing: back in the late 19th century, a great number of Vanuatan people were kidnapped and taken from their homes to work as slaves on sugar cane plantations in Australia, Fiji and elsewhere, a practice known as "blackbirding." Suddenly, all these people who spoke 130 different languages were forced to communicate with one another -- and with their cruel Western overseers, and other people they had kidnapped from Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands -- in order to survive. The stopgap language that arose was a simplified, almost baby-talk version of English, which when some of the Vanuatans were eventually returned to their country, became Bislama. Similar-but-not-identical pidjin languages flourished in Papua New Guinea (tok pisin) and elsewhere after the practice of blackbirding was stopped in the early 20th century.

Despite its morbid origins, Bislama is a lot of fun -- and in a land with so many languages per square kilometer, it's become a very useful lingua franca between villages that otherwise might not understand one another. It's a very young language, historically speaking -- the first official Bislama dictionary was published in 1995. But I discovered that I didn't even really need a dictionary -- with a little puzzling, I could understand Bislama signage that looked completely unintelligible at first glance. Every sign became like a little word puzzle (something at which our readers are particularly adept), so I figured if I could do it, so could they. Care to give it a try?

First, here are a few basics:

Sound it out. If a word looks like nonsense, trying saying it out loud; you might find some English words hiding in there. For instance, the word "jea." Spelling-wise, there's nothing like it in English. But sound it out -- it means "chair." Similarly, "blujin" looks like gibberish, until you start playing with the vowel-sounds for "u" and "i," and it becomes "blue jean." Another way of saying blue jeans: "jintraoses," or "jean trousers."

Funnier translations start popping up when it comes to naming things that have a tradition in the West but not in the Pacific. The Pope, for instance, is referred to as "papa Katolik," or sometimes, a bit more irreverently, "numbawan Jisasman" (number one Jesus man). Prince Charles has been called "numbawan pikininy blong kween," or "the queen's number one child." ("Pickininny" may not be PC in our country, but is said with great frequency in Vanuatu.)

"Long" and "blong"
From Wikipedia, but accurate: two frequent words in Bislama are "long" and "blong", which take the place of many prepositions in English or French.


Long as 'next to', 'by', 'beside' etc...
Stoa long haos: The store next to the house.

long as 'at' or 'to'
Mi bin stap long ples ia bifo: I have been to this place before.
Mi stap long stoa: I am at the store.


Originally from Eng. "belong", blong takes the place of 'of' or the genitive case in other languages. Just like Eng. of, 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 do not conjugate. Usually they consist of a stem word borrowed from English, French or indigenous languages and on many transitive verbs the ending -em, -im, or -um, depending on vowel harmony. There is a past tense and a future tense marker that usually goes at the beginning of the sentence or next to the verb. For example:

Mi wantem bia ~ I want beer.
Mi bin wantem bia ~ I wanted beer (bin=past tense marker, probably borrowed from the English form of to be "been")
Bambae/Bae mi wantem bia ~ I will want beer. (Bambae/Bae=future tense marker, possibly borrowed from the English "by and by" or "maybe")

Plural nouns
The plural is formed by putting "ol" before the word: bia=beer. Ol bia = "beers." "Ol" comes from the English "all."

There's lots more to be learned, of course, but let's dive right in. See if you can roughly translate these Bislama signs -- I'll post the answers in the comments later today or early tomorrow. Good luck!


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