Polynesian languages

Polynesian peoples live all across the Pacific: New Zealand, Tonga, Tuvalu, Samoa, Cooks Islands, French Polynesia as far up as Hawaii–apparently the ‘Lapita’ culture initally started out from an area around Taiwan and slowly discovered the Pacific islands eastwards.

Once the discoverers settled down on the far stretched island groups they still had trading connections, but over the centuries they lost contact. Nowadays Polynesians from different areas can still communicate, basic words like ‘water’ (vai) have remained the same, but the languages have evolved and diversified. Some areas nowadays have an ‘r’ (but no ‘l’) (NZ, Cooks, French Poly), others have an ‘l’ but no ‘r’ (Hawaii, Samoa), etc.

Even within French Polynesia several languages exist. They were long suppressed by the colonial power–missionaries tried to get rid of the old religion, culture and languages and even in the 1980s speaking Polynesian languages was still forbidden at school… As a linguist I tried to get some insights as we were visiting the different islands and picked up some phrases:

- The language of the Marquesas sounds quite harsh (the greeting is “Ka oha!” and thank you ‘Kou tau’) and thanks to the cultural revival there since the 1980s it is used by most people.
- The Tahitian language (reo Tahiti) is much softer–it has lost its ‘k’ and replaced it with a glottal stop. The outrigger canoe that is pronounced vaka in in the Marquesas (as well as in the Gambier and Cook Islands) becomes a va’a. Listening on the streets of Tahiti, French seems to be the predominant language (often in a mix with reo Tahiti), but with TV programs, radio shows and classes at school reo Tahiti is still quite alive. The greeting is ‘ia orana’ and thank you ‘mauru’uru’ (pronounced maruru).
- The Paumotu of the Tuamotu islands contains a ‘k’ and a soft, nasal ‘ng’ (as can still be seen in island names like Fakarava and Rangiroa), but the young people speak a mix of French and ‘reo Tahiti’–only old people still speak pure Paumotu (and people look at you surprised when you greet them with the traditional “Kura ora!”).
- The Mangarevan language of the Gambier Islands sounds very pretty, but there the active supression of culture was very successful. Only some old people still speak pure Mangarevan, others mix it with French and reo Tahiti and kids seem to speak mainly French. Mangarevan contains a ‘k’ and a soft, nasal ‘ng’ and we were surprised to hear a very similar sounding language in the Cook Islands. The traditional greeting is ‘Ena koe!’ for one person, Ena korua for two and Ena kotou for more and to thank somebody you say maro’i.
- The languages of the Austral Islands are similar to Reo Tahiti, but walking around Raivavae we first thought we hadn’t understood quite right, when people greeted us with ‘Ia ogana’ instead of Ia orana. One person might have a speech impediment, but several? It turns out that here ‘g’ is pronounced whenever an ‘r’ is written in Reo Tahiti. So it’s not just Ia ogana, but maugu’ugu, the main village Rairua is called Gaigua and the island itself is called Gaivavae! A truly funny dialect.
- The remotest island Rapa Iti (or Oparo in the local language) has quite a distinct language that contains ‘k’ as well as ‘ng’. People greet you with ‘aronga’ and ‘tongia’ means thank you.

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