Volume 104 1995 > Volume 104, No. 1 > The national drink and the national language in Vanuatu, by Terry Crowley, p 7-22
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The availability of kava in the urban centres of Vanuatu is one of the things that immediately strikes a new arrival. The widespread consumption of this beverage in towns is a relatively recent innovation, however, having spread only since Vanuatu gained its independence in 1980. In fact, kava-drinking has come to be regarded as something of a “national” pastime. In this paper, I shall examine the ways in which kava-drinking is talked about in Bislama, the national language of Vanuatu, and the sources of these new words and expressions.

The Pre-independence Era

Kava has been drunk in most of the islands of Vanuatu for a very long time, and elaborate patterns of usage had evolved by the time that Europeans first arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries. Practices and beliefs associated with kava-drinking, despite the various common features, differed considerably from area to area. The hundred or more local languages in Vanuatu reflect the importance of kava-drinking in the cultures in the names they have for the different varieties of kava, and the ways of talking about the methods of its preparation, its consumption, and the effect that it has on the drinker.

From about the mid-1800s, Christian missions of various denominations began spreading their influence throughout the islands of Vanuatu. Depending on the particular denomination, the reaction of the churches to the consumption of kava by the local people ranged from tolerance to total prohibition. When the mechanisms of formal government were set up in Vanuatu with the establishment of the Anglo-French Condominium in 1906, the colonial governments joined with the missions in discouraging the drinking of kava (Mangnall 1990:19).

The result of these pressures was that, by the time that Vanuatu achieved its independence in 1980, kava-drinking had completely stopped in some areas, and had been sharply reduced in others (while other areas had resisted these pressures quite successfully all along). In one village on the island of Paama where I stayed for approximately a year in 1976-77, I remember kava - 8 being prepared on only three or four occasions, all being weddings. On those occasions, it was only drunk by older married men. Younger men, while free to partake, for the most part declined, expressing disgust at the smell, appearance and taste, and concern about what the residue would do to their insides if they drank it. For them, the only drinks that were of interest at a party to celebrate a marriage were beer or red wine (which were quite expensive in comparison with people's earning power, especially when compared with the kava, which cost nothing, as well as being probably a lot worse for their insides in the quantities that were sometimes consumed).

The Independence Renaissance

In opting for alcoholic drinks over kava, the young people of Paama (as well as in many other parts of Vanuatu) were following preferences they or their friends and relatives had acquired in the towns of Vila and Santo. The Hotel Rossi and Cookie Bar on Thursday and Friday nights and Saturday all day, and Tahiti Nui nightclub (later Solwota Klab) on weekend nights were usually rowdy, and sometimes rough. During the late 1970s, it was common to see drunken young men in the streets of Vila and Santo staggering home on weekends and on public holidays, sometimes causing minor mayhem on the way. Alcohol was also involved with some of the violence that was engendered by the political tensions associated with the coming independence in the late 1970s.

Vanuatu gained its independence in 1980, after a somewhat acrimonious struggle against the colonial powers and those who acted in their interests in attempting to secede from the new nation. The late 1970s and early 1980s was a period of intense debate, with the Melanesian people of the Anglo-French Condominium attempting to define themselves politically, economically and socially as a united Melanesian people, who were citizens of the new Republic of Vanuatu. This meant questioning the role of European powers, and also some European practices. In the constitution that was finally drawn up after lengthy debate, Vanuatu did not go along the same path as nearby Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Fiji in accepting English, the language of the colonisers, as the de facto national language. Vanuatu opted instead for Bislama, the home-grown English-lexifier pidgin language which had become the major medium for political debate during the 1970s, as a way of avoiding the divisive choice between English and French.

Immediately after Independence, Vanuatu experienced a period of rapid inflation, caused in part (and some say deliberately) by the French Government's control of the exchange rate between the French franc and the New Hebrides franc (which remained in circulation for some time after Independ- - 9 ence until the establishment of the Vanuatu vatu (vt) in early 1982 (Bevan et al. 1990:222)). This inflation affected the prices of all imported goods, including the price of beer and cheaper wines, which constituted the basis of alcohol consumption for most ni-Vanuatu (as against the more expensive wines and spirits favoured by expatriates). Table 1 indicates the cost per litre for import duty purposes of both beer and cheaper categories of wine in the lead-up to and the immediate aftermath of Independence: 2

  Beer (vt/l.) Wine (vt/l.)
1979 37.05 21.94
1980 40.43 47.57
1981 60.44 126.17
1982 63.05 120.21
Table 1: Beer and wine costs 1979-82

It was in this context of political redefinition and dramatically rising prices in the early 1980s that kava suddenly hit the urban scene in Vila. An enterprising businessman from Pentecost put up a makeshift construction in a part of Vila that was almost exclusively populated by ni-Vanuatu, imported kava roots from his home island, and prepared kava which people could come and pay for by the shellful. This turned out to have been an extremely astute business move as this establishment, known as Mauna, became an instant hit. The shells of kava cost 100 vatu (or about one US dollar), and for most people, three shells was sufficient to produce a feeling of relaxation and well-being. Although the effect of kava and alcohol on the system must be calibrated on two completely different scales, everybody agreed that 300 vatu worth of beer would hardly even get you started, let alone put you happily on your way home.

Similar sorts of establishments rapidly spread to other parts of Vila. A lighted diesel wick flickering on the roadside outside of someone's house came to signify that this was a location where any member of the public was free to enter the backyard and buy prepared kava in a shelter specially constructed for this purpose. When the kava ran out, the wick was extinguished, but a stroll or a drive through any of the predominantly Melanesian areas in Vila revealed wicks burning by the dozen every evening from just after sunset. The sale of kava in Vila had become such big business by the mid-1980s that the Government imposed a special licence on people oper- - 10 ating such establishments. This certainly did not slow things down, nor was it intended to, as it was purely a regulatory and income-generating strategy. The latest report indicates that in Vila today, there are about 140 commercial kava outlets, in a town with a population of about 18,000, i.e. one kava-bar for approximately each 130 head of population (Mangnall 1990:18). In the densely populated area known as Seaside in Vila, there are six kava-bars in one street within a distance of about 200 metres, and there is a similar density in other nearby streets as well.

Similar developments have also taken place in the second town, Santo, though the trend has been slower, and somewhat less dramatic. In 1988, there were about half a dozen kava outlets in Santo, a town of about 5,000 people, while today this number has increased by about a further dozen, i.e. one outlet for approximately every 275 people. Even in Nouméa, the capital of neighbouring New Caledonia, there are now two commercial kava outlets, selling kava made from kava roots air-freighted in every week from Vila. The main customers there are ni-Vanuatu working in Nouméa, of whom there are about 1,000, and ex-New Hebrides mixed race settlers who have re-established themselves there since Independence in Vanuatu. Such is the demand for kava in Nouméa that people are prepared to pay 500 francs for a shell (or about four US dollars), which makes kava even more expensive than beer there. Wages are high in New Caledonia, however, so money appears to be no object, and there is clearly a preference among some individuals to drink kava instead of beer.

Continuity and Innovation in the Culture of Kava-drinking

In many respects, the drinking of kava in these commercial establishments in town represents a direct continuation of ancient customs. The kava outlets are always dimly lit as dictated by custom, and noise is kept to a minimum. The kava can be drunk according to whatever local custom one feels most comfortable with. It is always drunk in one gulp, as required by tradition everywhere in Vanuatu. People from the north, however, will often squat to drink their shellful, according to local custom, while people from the central and southern islands will generally stand, but apart from and with their backs turned to everybody else. As is the case with traditional kava-drinking, having swallowed one's shellful, one is almost expected to spit throatily and loudly. Kava outlets run by people from Tanna will often have young (but circumcised) boys who have never been with women serving the kava, because kava served by more “experienced” males is believed to lose its effect. The atmosphere of a kava-bar can vary according to the island of origin of the owner - 11 and the clientele. In an outlet frequented by Tannese people, conversation will often be in the quietest of whispers, with loud hawking being the only sound to break the silence. A Pentecost clientele, however, is often regarded by people from other islands as positively raucous. (The raucousness is relative, however, as a Pentecost kava-bar is still very subdued when compared with a hotel bar full of people having a good time.)

The culture of kava-drinking in the urban context today is a rapidly evolving one. Even within the decade that kava has undergone this renaissance in Vila, the physical manifestations of the trade have changed. In the early 1980s, most kava outlets indicated the availability of kava by lighting a diesel wick by the roadside. Today, diesel wicks have almost all been replaced by hurricane lights, and in some cases now by a low wattage electric light (generally with a coloured bulb of some kind, to distinguish it from an ordinary household light). With increasing competition, some vendors have taken to advertising. One popular kava-bar features a hand-painted picture of a man sitting pensively with the following irresistible — almost orgasmic — caption:

Mi harem kava i kam we i kam.
‘I can feel the kava really having an effect on me.’

Another outlet advertising by the roadside - aimed at a primarily Tannese clientele - guaranteed that the boys serving the kava were genuine virgins.

Another change involved the size of the shells. The 100 vatu shells of kava that I referred to earlier proved to be too much for some people. For those who preferred to take things a bit more slowly, half-shells (for 50 vatu) also became available as an added option. Adventurous young men also discovered that a beer or two after a few shells of kava provided quite a dramatic rush, and this has become an increasingly common habit. In fact, a few kava outlets now even sell cold beer as well as kava on weekend nights (though not week nights). However, people who drink beer after kava in this way are expected to respect the quietness of the kava-bar and not behave boisterously as they might in a bar. They will be shushed if necessary, and asked to leave if they do not comply, with the reminder that they should respect those who are drinking kava.

Comparing traditional rural and modern urban practices in kava-drinking, there are many respects in which there has been a break with tradition, however, as well as continuity. Kava has even been elevated to semi-official status as the “national drink”, if the 45 vatu stamp issued in 1990 is any guide, - 12 featuring as it did an illustration of a kava plant, with the inscription “The National Plant ”. 3 Kava-drinking has now come to be more or less established as part of official ceremonies of welcome for visiting overseas dignitaries. While this is widely practised as a Fijian and Polynesian custom, kava-drinking in Vanuatu was traditionally much less formalised, with people generally drinking for purely recreational purposes, as a chance for a relaxing chat in a friendly setting, or to commune with the spirits. However, visiting heads of state, heads of government, and representatives of foreign governments are now often greeted by participating in a kava ceremony at the airport, in which the kava is often served from a carved wooden bowl that has been imported from Fiji. (In more informal contexts, kava in Vanuatu is generally served from a rather less elegant bucket or a large kettle.)

Some of the more recent developments in kava-drinking are regarded rather negatively by some. Members of the National Council of Chiefs have recently publicly expressed their concern that traditional values are presently being compromised in the way that kava is being drunk in the towns today. Quite apart from the fact that the exchange of cash is now involved whereas before this was not the case, urban nonceremonial kava-drinking differs from traditional practices in a number of significant respects. For one thing, women were in most cases traditionally not allowed to drink kava at all, and on some islands women could even be put to death for catching sight of a man drinking kava. Nowadays in Vila, it is not uncommon for women, alone or in groups, and occasionally in the company of men, to drink kava in a kava-bar. This still shocks some traditionalists and newcomers from the outer islands, and some kava-bars do subtly make women feel unwelcome, but this is becoming increasingly uncommon. Women's money is, after all, just as good as men's money.

Another development of the 1980s was the change in the age breakdown of the kava-drinking public. In some parts of Vanuatu such as Tanna, a young man is not supposed to drink kava until he has been introduced to it by his maternal uncle, yet many young men are sneaking out to a nakamal and drinking kava on the sly before they are properly supposed to, to the despair of older men. As I mentioned above, on Paama in the 1970s, young men disdained kava, whereas today it is difficult to find a man in his early 20s in Vila who does not drink at least from time to time, and many drink several times a week.

Kava and National Identity

Alcohol consumption in Vila has decreased dramatically since Independence. Figures supplied by the National Statistics Office 4 indicate that the - 13 annual average importation of beer between 1980 and 1989 was only 56.5% that of 1979, while the importation of cheaper wines during the same period was only 60.4% that of 1979. If you go to the Hotel Rossi at the weekend now, you are likely to find only Australian accountants (some of whom probably drink kava themselves occasionally as well). Ni-Vanuatu who really want to get drunk now are likely to have a few shells of kava early in the evening, then have a quick hit with a beer or two afterwards. Several cheap bars with snooker tables owned by ni-Vanuatu businessmen and aimed at a ni-Vanuatu clientele have, rather astutely, recently been opened in areas where there are significant concentrations of kava-bars (such as Seaside and the area known as Lasmet). Previously, in order to get drunk enough to have a good rage at the disco, one had to spend a lot of money and a lot of time drinking beer first at the somewhat more classy bar at the Rossi.

Thus, partly as a way of achieving a cheaper high, and partly as a way of expressing one's “Melanesianness”, kava-drinking has become an established part of the emerging national, as against local or regional, identity, as a kind of “neo-tradition”. Kava-drinking can now be considered both “modern” and “trendy”, and it is therefore a respectable — even necessary — thing for young guys wearing jeans and Reeboks to be engaging in.


I have referred elsewhere (Crowley 1990a:358-65) to the youth of Vila and Santo as being a linguistically innovative group, coining and spreading a huge number of instantaneously popular slang expressions in Bislama. These expressions cover a wide range of urban and youthful experiences, concentrating in areas of financial hardship, physical confrontation, and sexual adventurism. Being such an essential ingredient of modern urban life in Vanuatu, a lexicon of kava-drinking terminology has of course also evolved.

Old Kava Terminology

Obviously, some kava-drinking terminology has been in use in Bislama for some considerable time. The word kava itself is attested in written sources from very early on. There are other kava-related words of overseas origin that can only have entered the language under conditions of social contact that were operative a century ago. For instance, the word tambil (and its occasional alternant natambia) referring to a wide iron pipe welded to a solid metal base in which the kava roots can be pounded apparently has a Solomon Islands source (Paul Geraghty, personal communication). Possible loci in which this word could have been transferred into Bislama are late 19th - 14 century Fiji and Samoa when ni-Vanuatu plantation labourers worked alongside Solomon Islanders. Manu ‘kava sieving cloth’, of possibly Polynesian origin, is a little used word in modern Bislama, but the word mano was attested as meaning ‘dress’ or ‘cloth’ a century ago (Crowley 1990a: 135). Pupu ‘rinse mouth after drinking kava’ has a Samoan source, and probably therefore goes back to the late 1800s when there were relatively small numbers of ni-Vanuatu labourers working on plantations in Samoa.

There has probably also been a vocabulary in Bislama derived from English (or inherited from early South Seas Jargon) to express kava-related activities for at least a century, possibly including such terms as the following: rama ‘length of iron used to pound kava’ (from “rammer”), sef ‘filtering cloth’ (from “sieve”), sevem/pasem ‘filter (kava) through cloth’, kakae ‘masticate (kava)’, sperem/ramem ‘pound (kava)’. Many of these words are also used in other contexts and are not just associated with kava-drinking or preparation. Names for different kinds of kava, classified according to relative maturity, strength or appearance also predate the Independence upsurge in kava-drinking, e.g. tude ‘kava with effect that lasts two days’, fode ‘kava with effect that lasts four days (or at least, a very long time)’, yangkava ‘kava that has only just matured’, yelokava/kava kari ‘kava with yellowish coloured flesh’, waetkava ‘kava with greyish coloured flesh’. The word makas ‘ground kava after the liquid has been squeezed out’ probably dates back to Queensland plantation days as it derives from the English “bagasse” (i.e. crushed cane) in its Queensland variant of “megass”. (The word makas also refers to chewed sugarcane, sawdust, or any kind of residue or leftovers, and does not refer specifically to kava.) Some expressions describing the effect of kava are probably also fairly old, reflecting as they do widespread vernacular metaphors. Both lisin long kava (literally “listen to the kava”) and harem kava (literally “feel/hear the kava”) refer to the quiet contemplation of the pleasant effect that the kava has on the system. Because kava-drinking was until the last decade largely conducted in the rural areas in local languages rather than in Bislama, words such as these were probably restricted to multilingual plantation contexts where kava may have been drunk, whereas they probably had no currency in town. Now, of course, these words have also become part of the everyday lexicon of town-dwellers.

Neologisms and Kava-drinking

Because kava-drinking has now become such an omnipresent part of the urban scene, with the younger segment of the population also being heavily involved, it was probably inevitable that there should be an explosion of - 15 specialist terminology to express this activity in Bislama in the towns. One of the earliest of these new kava terms to have evolved in town in the 1980s is the word nakamal. Up to the end of the 1970s, a nakamal in most varieties of Bislama referred only to a communal meeting-house in a village in the rural areas. These buildings were used for a variety of purposes, including airing village problems, holding feasts, greeting visitors, and for casual relaxation. In the southern islands of Vanuatu, a nakamal is not a building at all, but a clearing under a banyan tree where the men from a village congregated in the early evening to drink kava (Tanna being one of those islands where the missionaries never succeeded in suppressing kava-drinking). When I went back to Vila in 1983, the Mauna establishment which I mentioned earlier was already referred to as nakamal blong ol man Pentekos. Literally, this would have meant ‘the Pentecost people's meeting-house’, but the word had extended its meaning in this case to refer to a commercial kava outlet, or, more concisely, ‘kava-bar’. This usage has continued, to the point where members of the National Council of Chiefs felt in 1990 that they had to publicly deplore this “incorrect” use of the traditional term, insisting that people refer to these purely commercial kava outlets instead as kavaba. So ingrained was the new usage of nakamal that the recommendation of the chiefs appears to have been all but universally ignored.

Because drinking kava is now very much perceived as a fun thing to do of an evening, much of the vocabulary that is used in association with its consumption by youth falls into the category of slang. Before I go on to examine in more detail the development of such terminology, a brief excursus on slang is necessary. The term ‘slang’ is surprisingly difficult to define, so I shall assume that what slang is and what it is not is sufficiently clear to readers for me not to have to essay more than a characterisation here. Basically, slang is an especially informal usage, generally based on some kind of semantic twist from a word with a related meaning such that people perceive it as being funny, or stylistically enjoyable to use. Slang relies on novelty for its effect, so slang is often one of the more transient aspects of the lexicon of a language, with one period's slang either moving into the mainstream lexicon or disappearing from use altogether.

The Rise and Fall of Slang in Bislama

The study of slang in Vila is particularly interesting because in such a small place it is sometimes possible to trace the history of a slang term back to a particular person or to a particular event. One of the most noticeable things about the development of slang terms is the rapidity with which they can spread. In September 1990, Radio Vanuatu began a campaign to - 16 promote the breastfeeding of babies over bottle-feeding, and in one of the spots was the line:

Tata botel! Titi hem i nambawan!
‘Goodbye bottle! Breasts are best!’

Within two months, by November of the same year, it had become all the rage to take one's leave of someone else not by using the normal gudbae or tata, but by saying tata botel, with everyone, of course, bursting out in gales of laughter. It is too early to say whether tata botel is going to become well established enough that we can regard it as having genuinely entered the slang lexicon, but it seems to be close.

Slang terminology associated with kava can also spread very rapidly from a single original source. The Independence holiday in July in Vila is always celebrated with stalls along the sea-wall in town where people sell food and drink, operate games of chance and skill, and sell prepared kava. The operator of one such stall in the Independence celebrations of July 1989 was trying to lure customers his way with the call:

Kam dring kava long ples ia. Wan sel nomo, bae fowil antap.
‘Come and drink kava here. Just one shell and you'll have four wheels up in the air.’
to which a passer-by responded with:
Wanem, trak bakegen?
‘Is that a car or what?’

This exchange was immediately passed on all around Vila. It is a typical Melanesian joking technique to repeat a joke such as this whenever one has the chance, and even if one has heard it 20 times before, one is still expected to scream with laughter. This joke then became abbreviated, and by the end of the year, the phrase fowil antap had become sufficiently well established with the meaning ‘be strongly affected by kava’ that I included it as an entry in a published dictionary of Bislama (Crowley 1990b:82).

Twelve months later, the expression appeared to be spreading into other contexts as well. A group of Christian singers — from an anti-kava-drinking sect — who were singing hymns of praise to the Lord in disturbing proximity to a nakamal were castigated in a voice loud enough for other kava-drinkers to hear (but not loud enough for the singers to hear) with the following: - 17

Atasiong, mi kam longwe, bae yufala i fowil antap!
‘Watch out, if I go over there, you'll all be laid out flat.’

The fact that the expression is expanding its area of reference is probably a sign of its vitality and that it is now firmly established in the lexicon.

Slang, of course, is often short-lived, disappearing after its initial amusement value has worn off. One term that did not survive was the term lima. When half-shells of kava, selling for 50 vatu, first appeared in the mid-1980s, it was possible for a while to use the slang word lima to refer to these. This word derived from a widespread vernacular word meaning ‘five’ (because old people will often say “five shillings” instead of “fifty vatu”). However, if one were to ask for a lima in a nakamal now, 10 years later, one would almost certainly receive a blank look.

Some other kava terminology has disappeared from use not because it has lost its novelty value, but because the practice with which it was associated only had a brief flowering. Also in the mid-1980s, some kava outlets offered customers two options: ordinary kava, or a special under-the-counter kava that would be served to customers on special request. This service was only available to regulars because one had to know about it first if one wanted to ask for daerek. This was kava for those who didn't want to muck about, providing a guaranteed direct hit on the first shell. However, I know of no kava-bars that offer a daerek service any more, and the word seems to have withered with the demise of the service. Now that there is such a huge number of kava outlets in Vila, it is usually possible to choose one's preferred strength instead according to the nakamal, as particular outlets often specialise in particular strengths.

Sources of Kava-drinking Terminology

What is particularly interesting about the development of kava terminology in Bislama in the 1980s is that the process has been an entirely Melanesian one. Much of the lexical expansion in other semantic fields in Bislama since Independence has involved direct borrowing from words in English (and, to a lesser extent, French). Thus, we find such English-derived political terms as the following are now well established in the lexicon, though they were unattested before the 1970s: palemen ‘parliament’, demokrasi ‘democracy’, rebol ‘rebel’, eleksen ‘election’, vot ‘vote’. While there is now a sizeable coterie of European kava-philes haunting the kava-bars of Vila, obviously neither French nor English has proved to be viable as sources of kava-related vocabulary in Bislama. For the most part, ni-Vanuatu have had to rely on their own linguistic creativity in coming up with - 18 the necessary new terminology.

It is true that some terminology has been incorporated direct from English, though generally with some kind of semantic twists to bring the words squarely into the semantic field of kava. I have already referred to the short-lived daerek, and in this category we can also include the word redimed. Although this derives from the English “ready-made”, it is — at least so far — only used in Bislama as a noun to refer to kava, with the specific meaning of ‘kava that has been made for sale in a nakamal as against kava which one makes for one's own consumption’ (and also sometimes to the kava-bar itself that supplies such kava). On the whole, however, both English and French have proved to be lexically grossly impoverished in kava terminology and therefore not viable as source languages.

Deliberately created words seldom succeed in any language unless they already have some basis in usage, 5 and the same is true in Bislama. Thus, none of the kava-drinking terminology that is in general usage has been deliberately created. There is, however, one possible exception to this, and that is the word neskava. Over the past few years, the Vanuatu Commodities Marketing Board has been exploring the possibility of extracting the active ingredient from kava in water-soluble form. Scientists have now achieved success, and, although the product is not yet commercially available, an experimental supply occasionally reaches Vila. It is possible to mix a teaspoon of a fine grey powder in a glass of cold water much as one mixes a cup of instant coffee, and to get quite a tolerable hit at the same time (minus, it might be added, some of the unpalatable taste of kava made the traditional way). Although this is not yet public knowledge, those in the know refer to this as neskava. This word was apparently a deliberate coinage by the then director of the Commodities Marketing Board, and it stands a good chance of catching on because of the amusing play on words with neskafe, which in Bislama is a generic term for ‘instant coffee’. 6

A more logical possible source for new vocabulary would have been local vernaculars, and this possibility has indeed been exploited to some extent. I have already referred to the short-lived term lima ‘half-shell of kava’. To this we can add the recently introduced word tamafa ‘incantation said with deep throaty spit after final mouthful of kava to ward off unwanted happenings’, as in:

Tamafa i go mo ren i stop tu.
‘Now that the incantation has been said, the rain has stopped.’

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(This is not, however, a slang term, but a word with completely serious connotations.) As the practice of uttering an incantation with a spit is typically associated with Tannese kava-drinkers, it should not be too surprising to find that tamafa is derived from Tannese languages, where it occurs in this shape, or a variety of similar shapes.

Some other kava terms of vernacular origin that are sometimes heard in Bislama are namalok and novunu. Namalok occurs with the same, or a similar, shape in a large number of central and northern Vanuatu languages. The vernacular words from which namalok is derived simply mean ‘kava’. This borrowing was therefore not strictly necessary in Bislama, as kava itself is a well-established Bislama word. However, while namalok also means ‘kava’ in Bislama, it has acquired jocular connotations, and its use will often produce a laugh. One young girl brought the house down when she called her father, who was a heavy kava-drinker, Papa Namalok.

The word novunu is a synonym for the older term pupu ‘rinse mouth with kava after drinking kava’. This term is also used almost exclusively by people from the southern islands, especially Erromango, instead of the term pupu, which is more commonly encountered of Efate and other central islands.

Most new kava terms and expressions, however, derive from pre-existing Bislama terms (whether ultimately of English, French or local vernacular origin) which originally had meanings that had nothing to do with kava. Frequently, ordinary Bislama words have been semantically extended to refer to a new concept associated with kava-drinking or preparation. Dakdak ‘duck’ can now also mean ‘person drunk from kava’, referring to the rather unsteady way that such a person walks. A regular and heavy drinker of kava can be referred to as a kruba or as a baramin (from French barre à mine), both originally just meaning ‘crowbar’; the point of similarity is the iron bar (rama) that is used to pound kava in the pipe(tambil/natambia). Someone who can put away a larger then average number of shells of kava in one evening is a pubel (from French poubelle), which originally just meant ‘rubbish tin’, or a kontena, which originally referred only to a large shipping container. Kava which does not do the job required of it is referred to deprecatingly as wota ‘water’:

Kava long ples ia i wota nomo.
‘The kava here is really insipid.’

The word kale (derived from French caler) was originally both a noun meaning a ‘chock’ or a ‘wedge’ and a verb meaning ‘to shore up something’ - 20 or ‘to insert a wedge’. In the early 1980s, people started using this word to refer to the habit of drinking one or two beers after a few shells of kava, or to the beer itself, e.g.

Mi dring fo sel kava, sapos wan kale i go naoia bae mi jas harem gud.
‘I've had four shells of kava and if I were to have a beer now I'd be feeling great.’

The connection, people explained, was that the beer “shores up” the kava, effectively lifting the drinker higher than he would otherwise have been.

Boxing terminology has been exploited as a valuable source of semantic extensions to talk about kava. Both nokaot (from ‘knocked out’) and tikeo (from TKO ‘technical knock out’) have come to be used also as statives to describe kava that is especially strong. When kava that is nokaot begins to have the desired effect, the drinker can express this by using the intransitive verb faet ‘fight/box’. The violent metaphor is maintained with the more frequently used — but illegal in boxing — kik ‘kick’. Thus:

Kava ia i nokaot, mi harem i kik finis.
‘This kava is really powerful, I can already feel its effect.’

There is one variety of particularly strong kava that is referred to by some people as kating, after the champion Vanuatu boxer Philip Kating, who never wins on points but always by knock-out. A strong punch in Bislama (as well as a strong kick in football) is known as a kano (from the French slang canon ‘fantastic’, derived from the non-slang meaning ‘canon’), and kava that is nokaot can also be referred to as kano. Thus, compare the following:

Mi lego wan kano long fes blong baga ia.
‘I gave that guy a strong punch to the face.’
Kava long pies ia i kano, yu dring bae fowil antap.
‘The kava here is really powerful, if you drink it you'll be laid out flat.’

Some new vocabulary goes beyond semantic extension, involving instead the compounding of pre-existing stems, or the formation of phrasal lexical items. An example of a newly created compound is the term woklet referring to a particular variety of kava which is so strong that it causes the drinker to sleep in and be late for work. A recently coined phrasal item in the semantic field of kava is wota blong pig, referring to kava, but with pejorative overtones. If you are feeling a bit down from having drunk too much kava - 21 the night before, you might be challenged sarcastically:

Hu i talem se bae yu go stap fakem wota blong pig?
‘Whose idea was it to go on the kava then?’

It was mentioned above that a person drunk on kava can be referred to as a dakdak ‘duck’, and waddling home when one is drunk on kava can be expressed by the newly evolved phrase wokbaot dakdak, i.e. ‘to duck-walk’.


In this paper, I have presented a range of examples illustrating how new terminology relating to kava-drinking and its preparation has evolved among predominantly young urban ni-Vanuatu. While the renaissance of kava-drinking in town was partly a response to purely economic factors, there has also been a significant political content to the changes, in that kava has become one of the main ways in which a national as against a purely regional or local identity has come to be expressed in independent Vanuatu. As cultures evolve, so too do languages, which develop means of expressing what is important to members of that culture. In Vanuatu, as kava has become an important part of the daily life of town-dwellers, so too has newly developed kava terminology become an important part of day-to-day speech in the language that expresses this national culture, i.e. Bislama.

  • Bevan, Stuart et al., 1990. Vanuatu: 10 Yia blong Indipendens/10 Years of Independence/10 ans del'indépendance. Rozelle (Australia): Other People Publications.
  • Crowley, Terry, 1990a. Beach-la-Mar to Bislama: The Emergence of a National
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  • Language in Vanuatu.Oxford Studies in Language Contact. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • —— 1990b. An Illustrated Bislama-English and English-Bislama Dictionary. Vila: Pacific Languages Unit and Vanuatu Extension Centre, University of the South Pacific.
  • Mangnall, Karen, 1990. A New Direction: Vanuatu changes course a decade later. Pacific Islands Monthly 60:9 (September): 18-21.
1   Paper presented originally at the ‘Power of Kava’ symposium at the Pacific Sciences Congress on Honolulu, 27th May - 2nd June 1991.
2   Based on figures from the Statistics Office gathered by Elizabeth Qualao.
3   The 45 vt denomination was the value required at the time for postage throughout the South Pacific, as well as Australia and New Zealand, so this was presumably how Vanuatu wished to be seen by recipients of airmail letters in these areas. Note also the reference to kava as the “national drink” in Pacific Islands Profile No.7 (January 1991, page 24).
4   And kindly gathered by Elizabeth Qualao.
5   Unless, of course, there is some provision for their dissemination through official channels, such as the education system.
6   The word neskava has now appeared in print in an English text, but surrounded by inverted commas (Pacific Islands Profile No.7, p.24, January 1991).