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Reviewed by:
  • Bislama reference grammar
  • Miriam Meyerhoff1
Terry Crowley . 2004. Bislama reference grammar. Oceanic Linguistics Special Publication No. 31. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0-8248-2880-1. xv + 205 pp. US$27.00, paper.

Bislama is the national language of Vanuatu. It is an English-based creole closely related to both Tok Pisin and Solomons Pijin, and yet clearly distinct from them as well. It is one of Vanuatu's three official languages, but it is not yet recognized as a medium of instruction—this privilege is still accorded to only French and English, the languages of the former colonial adminstrators. In recent years, some vernacular languages have also been tried as the medium of instruction in basic primary classes, and there is talk of using Bislama for teaching, especially in the urban centers of Vanuatu.

Linguists differ in the number of "languages" they recognize as spoken in Vanuatu, but all seem to agree that the country has the highest per capita ratio of languages spoken for any country in the world. As we might expect, this linguistic situation is highly dynamic. As demographic changes centralize more and more of the population in towns, many people are growing concerned about the potential for vernacular language loss in coming generations. Because Bislama is the default code for communication in the towns, it is sometimes seen as the cuckoo in the nest—the social and linguistic expansion of this newcomer being at the expense of the Eastern Oceanic vernacular languages that have been spoken in one form or another in Vanuatu for thousands of years.

No doubt it is partly because of attitudes like this, and also the continued widespread perception that Bislama is simply a failed form of English, that Bislama has been kept out of the classroom in Vanuatu for so long. However, given that the vast majority of NiVanuatu (citizens of Vanuatu) speak Bislama, and that for increasing numbers in the towns of Vila and Santo it is the first language acquired at home, the official proscription against Bislama in school is observed in the breach more than the letter. Professionals at all three levels of education agree that Bislama is a widely used, if illicit, resource for explaining and discussing complex or new concepts in the classroom. (This may be more true of the English-medium education system than of the French.) It is almost certainly at least partly because of negative attitudes towards Bislama that there has been no serious attempt to provide a grammar of the language until now.

Crowley's Bislama Reference Grammar (BRG) builds on his extensive prior work on Bislama and draws on his own experiences as a speaker of Bislama over several decades to provide a descriptive outline of the major features of the language. This is a very difficult task, because as he notes there is considerable variation in the Bislama spoken in Vanuatu, and most of this internal variation is as yet undocumented. I have been told informally that Darrell Tryon has been collecting descriptive material on regional variation in Bislama for a number of years, but as far as I know none of this material has yet been released. The richest unmined resource for studying regional variation in Bislama may be the recordings of the annual meetings of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VKS) fieldworkers, but it is again my understanding that most of these recordings have not been transcribed (and some may be closed to public scrutiny for cultural reasons). Other work has looked in detail at particular grammatical variables in [End Page 301] Bislama (e.g., Meyerhoff 2000, 2002), but this work provides limited generalizations as it focuses on individual variables and is intended to shed light on specific subsections of the grammatical and discourse norms of Bislama.

BRG, then, is the first English language introduction to the structure of Bislama as a whole system. It walks the delicate line between being a conventional grammar (stating what is and is not attested in Bislama) and a user's guide (stating what phonetic and structural variation you might come across in Bislama). A recent quite successful example of this kind of approach is Smith's...


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