Pidgin Poetics

[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.

Bislama is simple, even impoverished in vocabulary. But what non-native speakers forget is that what matters in language is expression. The mechanics of Bislama are deceptively easy to master, leading people to feel that it’s enough to drop the ‘h’ after the ‘s’ and the ‘t’ and to suffix every verb with ‘em’. That doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Bislama has come a long way from its origins as hand-waving baby talk employed to negotiate the price of a bush knife or a bag of copra. As mobility became possible with the cessation of most inter-tribal conflict, Bislama became the language not only of trade, but of the much more subtle and nuanced negotiation of alliance and arbitration between chiefs, between shipmates, between travelers and labourers from all over our little patch of the Pacific.

Only a smattering of native words found their way into the language, but the island ethos is its very essence. Just as they do in countless island tongues, metaphor, natural imagery, obliqueness and inference lie at the heart of self-expression in Bislama.

Every poet knows that simplicity need not lack subtlety. Anyone with an ear for it quickly finds that, in the hands of an adept practitioner, Bislama is an ideal tool for open-ended, allusive expression. Conversely, it can be a remarkably crude instrument if not handled gently.

Where English writes the road map, Bislama only gestures. This means that ambiguity has to be managed carefully. In a milieu with a nearly complete lack of privacy, circumspection and euphemism were applied to all aspects of daily life. All aspects. Especially the ones that Victorians once kept carefully locked away indoors.

This is English, so I’ll have to state things plainly: In a world of thatched roofs and bamboo walls, gossiping about so-and-so’s personal habits or sexual escapades requires deliberate vagueness. There is, in other words, no such thing as benign euphemism in Bislama.

When a native English speaker, fresh from his third language lesson, tosses out a phrase like ‘samting blong yu’ (literally, ‘something of yours’), it’s enough to make everybody in the room cringe. The speaker has unintentionally referred to his interlocutor’s private parts.

I remember hearing about a young doctor in Papua New Guinea. He enthusiastically encouraged his first patient, a woman in labour, by repeatedly shouting, “Pusum!” (“Push!”) Even in her agony, the young lady was nonplussed. The doctor was telling her to do the very thing that had got her pregnant in the first place. Surely now was not the time.

Making mistakes is an integral part of all learning, and I confess that I’ve been guilty of a few howlers myself. Once, in the course of complimenting a friend’s mother’s cooking, I mistakenly accused her of having sex with the chicken. Happily, the family knew me well enough that they simply collapsed in laughter. As did I, once my faux-pas became clear.

But this is more than just a homily against silly mistakes. Once you’re done chuckling, I want you to remember this: Bislama is not nearly as simple as it sounds. There is a poetry to it that can delight, even enlighten, if you listen for it.

Yes, there’s no such thing as ‘no’ in Vanuatu. We all know that. But when you’re sitting in the nakamal, chatting with the village bigman, are you sure he’s really talking about his crops? When the chief remarks as he wipes his feet that one should not track dirt into a household, he’s talking about more than domestic hygiene.

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.

As I learned to my dismay back in university, poetry – like all art – can’t really be taught. Asked to define rhythm, jazz great Fats Waller famously retorted, “If you got to ask, you ain’t got it!” Bislama lessons are fine and good, but remember this:

A proper understanding of Bislama comes only with time, an open ear and a willingness to listen beyond the words, until the English falls away and only the poetry remains. And when you finally hear it, you’ll be glad you did.