Number one big fella him bilong Misis Kwin

I posted this piece in May 2021. It drew large numbers of comments from spambots, so I have deleted the original and am reposting it.

After the recent death of Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, newspapers and magazines devoted acres of newsprint to his life. Some mentioned the name he was known by in the Bislama language on the volcanic island of Tanna in Vanuatu: number one big fella him bilong Misis Kwin.

Hazarding a crude word by word translation, a reformulation into standard British spelling would say something like: Number one big fellow he belongs to the Queen. A slightly freer translation would be the Queen’s top husband. (or perhaps it just means tall husband)

Bislama

Bislama is an English-based creole spoken in Vanuatu. Wikipedia has a site in Bislama. A reasonable amount of the text on the Bislama site is understandable, if you use a bit of imagination.

The home page is, naturally, nambawan pej Wikipedia
Nambawan seems to be another way to spell number one.

Many of the pages on the Bislama site contain the word blong, apparently another spelling for the word written above as bilong. It seems that this word creates a possessive construction, for example:
Long July 2016, populaesen blong Vanuatu i stap araon 277 554.
Vanuatu – Wikipedia
The source of this word is presumably English belong.

Pidgins and creoles

Pidgins generally originate when two or more groups of people with mutually unintelligible languages live or work in close proximity. Instead of learning each other’s languages, they develop a mixture of the languages. A pidgin usually:

  • has a very impoverished vocabulary.
  • uses just sequences of words rather than the elaborate grammatical structure that any normal language has.
  • typically has a simplified sound structure.

A pidgin is not really a full language. Reputedly, the word pidgin arose in Chinese-English pidgin from a Chinese pronunciation of the English word business. Generally, no speakers of a pidgin acquired it as a first language as children.

Once a pidgin starts being acquired by young children as a native language, it starts to become creolized and ultimately becomes a creole (or creole language), having a more developed grammatical structure, vocabulary and sound structure.

Over time, some creoles come into closer contact with one of the original standard languages that gave rise to them, giving rise to a range of different varieties within a post-creole continuum, from an acrolect (close to the standard) to a basilect (close to the creole), through one or more mesolects (in between).

Vanuatu

According to The Languages of Vanuatu: Unity and Diversity (2015, edited by Alexandre François, Sébastien Lacrampe, Michael Franjieh and Stefan Schnell), Vanuatu is the country with world’s greatest density of different languages, whether measured by population or by area. 138 indigenous languages are spoken there, as well as the official languages of Bislama, English and French. The exceptional linguistic density of Vanuatu (free.fr)

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