Bislama Bons Mots

[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….

Faea I Ded – The full expression is ‘Faea blong yu i ded,’ though it’s often reduced to a single exclamation: ‘Faea!’ It means, literally, ‘Your fire is dead.’ It’s used as a capping statement, gleefully punctuating the fact your interlocutor has been left speechless, unable to respond to a winning argument or repartee.

Many statements are overtly positive, but have extremely sarcastic connotations:

Yu laf gud ia? – Literally, ‘Are you laughing enough?’ A friend translates it thusly: ‘What the heck are you laughing at? If I hear another sound coming out of your hyena mouth, I will pummel you!

Some of the most amusing expressions refer to, er, social activities, including kava drinking and other after-hours shenanigans:

Wire i taj – Literally, ‘The wires have touched.’ Used to suggest that someone’s neural circuitry is positively sparking from the effects of strong kava. It’s not entirely a positive thing, connoting a circuit that’s been shorted out more than a properly functioning one. Contrast with ‘feeling a buzz’ in English.

Rod I Smol – Literally, ‘The path is [too] small.’ In Bislama, any human-navigable pathway is a ‘rod’. A particularly narrow hillside trail, for example, might be called ‘rod blong nani’ – a goat track. This expression usually refers to someone so intoxicated that they cannot keep to the path. The road, therefore, is too narrow for their staggering gait.

Fo Wheel I Fas – Literally, ‘[All] four wheels are stuck.’ This term refers to someone so inebriated that they can’t even crawl on hands and knees (hence four wheels). Note the archaic use of ‘fast’, meaning ‘bound up’, not ‘speedy’.

Danis Rap – Literally, ‘Rap Dancing.’ Someone who’s overdosed on kava will often fall prey to violent muscular convulsions alarmingly similar to a rap dancer ‘popping’, that is, jerking their limbs about in a robotic fashion.

Karen Blong Hem – Literally, ‘His/Her garden.’ It’s used as a euphemistic reference to someone’s boyfriend/girlfriend, usually because they’re not formally associated to one another. In that sense, it implies a slightly risqué – or at least casual – relationship. (This is only the first part of an extended metaphor that becomes far too explicit for present company.)

Hem I Pas Bihaen – Literally ‘S/He has gone behind [someone else].’ A euphemistic way for saying that someone has been cheating on their partner.

… Blong Rod – Literally, ‘[Someone/thing] from the street.’ In the possessive form (shown here), it alludes to refuse lying at the side of the road. So a ‘pikinini blong rod’ is a worthless person, essentially ‘born in the gutter’. Likewise, ‘toktok blong rod’ is baseless rumour. If we say of a woman, ‘Hemi stap wokbaot long rod’ (‘She’s walking about on the road’), we’re using a term identical to ‘steet walker’ in English.

Mi Holem Taet Yu – Literally, ‘I hold you tight.’ Quite suggestive in English, this expression is actually perfectly innocuous. It’s the equivalent of saying, ‘Wait a minute.’ It’s usually spoken in an apologetic tone.

There are many more such vivid turns of phrase, but alas, most of them aren’t fit for these pages.
Commonplace nuisances also give rise to remarkably apt metaphor:

Rat I Kaekae… – Literally, ‘Rats have eaten [something].’ Used to describe the pilfering and petty theft endemic throughout Vanuatu. See also:

… I Grow Leg – Literally ‘[Something] has grown legs.’ Again, this refers to petty theft, describing the propensity of all things in Vanuatu to mysteriously grow legs and walk away of their own volition.

Reading this, you already have formed the impression that Bislama consists of nothing but scandalous language. That’s not true. When used in formal circumstances, Bislama can take on a cadence and oratorical power similar to the classical Latin of Cicero’s senatorial speeches.

But in its most common usage, the laughing, chaffing exchanges that punctuate our daily exchanges, it’s good-natured, inventive and cheeky, strikingly similar to the bawdy discourse in a Dublin pub on any given Friday.

Perhaps the most enjoyable linguistic trope is the verbal ellipses, wherein one begins an ostensibly innocuous statement and trails off just before it declines to outright scandal. As in so many other languages, timing is the essence of comedy.

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.