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

Reo ma’ohi
1. Practical
e oui yes
aita non no
ia ora na  bonjour hello
nana  au revoir bye
mauruuru merci thanks
mauruuru roa merci beaucoup thanks a lot
e aha te huru ? comment ca va ? how are you ?
maita’i bien well
maita’i roa très bien very well
maeva ! manava ! bienvenue welcome
manuia ! santé ! cheers !
aita pe’a pe’a pas de problème no problem
tama’a maita’i bon appétit enjoy your meal
tama’a, ma’a manger, nourriture to eat, meal
inu boire to drink
pia bière beer
ta’oto dormir to sleep
himene chanter to sing
parau parler to talk
haere aller to go
tapu interdire to forbid
va’a pirogue canoe
poe perle pearl
poe rava perle noire black pearl
fenua terre, pays land, country
manureva avion plane
poti bateau boat
titeri billet ticket
muto’i policier policeman
taote médecin doctor
ra’au médicament medecine
moni argent money
nui grand big
iti petit small, little
api nouveau new
vitiviti vite hurry up
tane homme man
vahine femme woman
tamarii enfants children
fa’a’amu adopter (un enfant) adopting
hoa ami friend
mea truc thing
toa magasin shop
heiva fête de juillet July feast
te here nei au je t’aime I love you
popa’a européen European
tinito chinois Chinese
marite américain American
tapone japonais Japanese
ma’ohi polynésien Polynesian
2. Places
fare hotera hotel hotel
fare inura’a bar bar
fare iti toilettes toilets
fare moni banque bank
fare taote cabinet médical doctor’s office
fare ra’au pharmacie chemist shop
fare purera’a église church
fare muto’i commissariat police station
fare oire mairie City Hall
fare rata poste post office
matete marché market
tei hea … ? Où ca ? Where about ?
3. Nature
motu île island
reva, ra’i ciel sky
tiare fleur flower
fetia étoile star
moana ocean ocean
miti mer, rivière sea, river
pape eau water
ava passe reef pass
mahana soleil, jour sun, day
manu oiseau bird
‘aute hibiscus hibiscus
one sable sand
pupu coquillage seashell
ma’o requin shark
4. Week days
monire lundi Monday
mahana piti mardi Tuesday
mahana toru mercredi Wednesday
mahana maha jeudi Thursday
mahana pae vendredi Friday
mahana ma’a samedi Saturday
tapati dimanche Sunday
‘ahuru ma ho’e
‘ahuru ma piti
piti ‘ahuru
toru ‘ahuru
hanere ma ho’e
piti hanere

Sources :
– Ministery of Culture – French Polynesia
– Parler Tahitien, by D.T Tryon

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