Origin of the Polynesian languages
All Polynesian languages are derived from Indo-Malaysian also called today austronesian languages. The relation between Tahitian and Malaysian was established by European linguists in the 18th century thanks to the visit of Ahutoru, the first Tahitian brought back by Bougainville while traveling to Tahiti. The autronesian is divided into 2 branches :
- Easter Pacific languages (or Oceanian languages) : French Polynesia, Hawaii, Cook, New Zeland
- Western Pacific languages : Philipins, Indonesia
In French Polynesia, there is not one but several Polynesian languages due to large distances separating archipelagos. All of them are known under the generic term Reo ma’ohi (reo means language). The designation of these languages comes from the island’s name of the people speaking them. Thus, we can distinguish 5 different Polynesian languages, showing sometimes important differences :
- Society Islands : the Tahitian or reo tahiti
- Tuamotu islands : the Paumotu or reo pa’umotu
- Marquesas islands: the Marquesian or reo ‘enata
- Australs: Austral language or reo tuha ‘apae
- Gambiers: the Mangarevian or reo ma’areva
The most widely spoken language remains reo tahiti because of the strong Society islands demography (86% of the population). It is used as a communication language throughout French Polynesia.
Characteristics of Reo Tahiti
English missioners were the first to print books in Tahitian after they decided to use the occidental alphabet to write down Tahitian that was until then only spoken. On March 8th, 1805, a uniform alphabet proposed by John DAVIS (Welsh historian and linguist) is adopted by the missioners. It uses 8 consonants (f, h, m, n, p, r, t, v) and 5 vowels (a, e, i, o, u).
If the Tahitian language includes only 1,000 different words, its structure and pronunciation – very different from European languages – make it difficult to learn for foreigners. R’s are rolled, H’s are aspired, U’s are pronounced “oo”. Moreover, some Tahitian words are mixed with French like motu (islet), api (new), popa’a (Europeans), tinito(Chinese), poti marara (fishing boat), uru (bread fruit & trees), tane (man), vahine (woman), fare (house) ….
Remark : another language is used in Tahiti : the eye language ! Don’t be surprise, lifting eyebrows means yes or hello…
Reo Tahiti rehabilitated
In 1975, the Tahitian Academy composed of 20 members is created and after having been considered as a foreign language for over 40 years during the 20th century, Tahitian reappear in schools in 1982.
Actually, in 1980, the Territorial Assembly decides to consider Tahitian as an official language with the same status as French. But this decision was not included in the 1996-status of French Polynesia as the French Constitution does not allow to have several official languages on French territories. Consequently, from an official point of view, the Tahitian language can be considered only as a regional dialect.
Since 1999, reo ma’ohi language is celebrated every November 28th and it is now taught alongside with French.
Reo ma’ohi lexicon
|‘ahuru ma ho’e||
|‘ahuru ma piti||
|hanere ma ho’e||
– Ministery of Culture – French Polynesia
– Parler Tahitien, by D.T Tryon