Nukuoro language

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Native toMicronesia
RegionWestern Nukuoro Island
Native speakers
700 (2016)[1]
140 in the U.S. (no date)[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3nkr

The Nukuoro language is a Polynesian outlier language, spoken by about 860 people on Nukuoro atoll and on Pohnpei in Pohnpei state within the Micronesia.



Nukuoro is a coral atoll and Polynesian outlier found within the Pohnpei District in the Federated States of Micronesia. Although Nukuoro is a Micronesian atoll, from a typological perspective Nukuoro is a Polynesian language that descends from the Austronesian node. The most immediate node is the Elliciean node. The language is most closely related to Kapingamarangi, Rennellese, and Vaeakau-Taumako showing lexical similarity (Carroll 1965). These languages are not mutually intelligible, but speakers can make themselves understand with a little difficulty. Bilingualism is not a common feature among the Nukuoro people, although the majority of the older Nukuoro population have a considerable amount of knowledge in Ponapean, sometimes know some German, Japanese, English, or another Micronesian language. This second language is usually reserved for the classroom, Bible reading, conversation with visitors, etc.

Nukuoro was colonized multiple times, by Germany, Japan, and by the United States. According to local legend, immigrants from Samoa first populated Nukuoro. Two canoes under the leadership of Chief Ko Wave and his priestly father Teakhu lead this movement (Newton).


The primary language spoken on the Nukuoro atoll is Nukuoro. In 1965 there were approximately 400 speakers. 260 of these speakers resided on the atoll, 125 lived on Ponape, the District Center, and a few others were spread out on the other islands in the District (Carroll 1965). The current population is estimated to be at about 1000 speakers. The Nukuoro people are very dependent on the sea. They have a strong respect for marine culture, and are very well known for their skillfully created wooden sculptures. These often are carved to represent marine animals.


The Nukuoro writing system was developed by Chief Leka in the 1920s, perhaps with the assistance of resident Europeans or missionaries in Ponape. It is known and used in some form by nearly all Nukuoro speakers, and has been the educational standard since its creation.[3] The Nukuoro orthography differs from other Polynesian orthographies in that voiceless stop phonemes /p t k/ are written using the letters b d g, a choice that probably stems from the fact that Nukuoro voiceless stops are unaspirated like English voiced stops.



There are 5 vowel qualities in Nukuoro: /a, e, i, o, u/. Vowel length is contrastive, and long vowels are represented by writing the vowel symbol twice. Long vowels are about twice as long as a short vowel, and are not rearticulated. The phonemic geminate /aː/ is often realized phonetically as [æ].[3]

Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a


There are 10 consonants in Nukuoro, each of which is contrastive for length. Geminate consonants are articulated for about twice as long as a singleton consonant, with the exception of stops and taps: geminate stops are articulated with increased aspiration, and geminate taps are articulated as a long, pre-voiced dental or retroflex stop.[3] Geminate consonants are typically found stem-initially, and are often created by reduplication.

Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Velar Glottal
Stop p p: t t: k k:
Fricative v v: s s: h h:
Nasal m m: n n: ŋ ŋ:
Tap ɾ ɾ:

Like many Polynesian languages, Nukuoro has only three stops in its phonemic inventory: /p/, /t/, and /k/. These stops are unaspirated and can be variably voiced, but are phonemically voiceless. The orthography of Nukuoro represents these voiceless stops with b, d, g. The alveolar tap /ɾ/ is represented in Nukuoro orthography using the letter l, although early records of Nukuoro (and in fact, the spelling of the language name itself) use r.

Since singleton /p/, /t/, /k/ are written with b, d, g, geminate /p/, /t/, /k/ are written with p, t, k. Geminated /m/, /n/, /s/, /h/, /ɾ/ are represented with double letters (mm, nn, ss, hh, ll), and geminated /ŋ/ is written as nng.[4]

Syllable Structure[edit]

Syllables take the shapes V, VV, VVV, CV, CVV and CVVV. All possible V and VV combinations occur. All possible CV combinations occur except /vu/. The first member of a diphthong is always the syllabic peak when the syllable is stressed; elsewhere there is little difference between members, the peak of sonority tending to occur on the most naturally sonorous vowel.[3]


Basic Word Order[edit]

The basic word order in Nukuoro is Subject-Object-Verb, but there are also cases of Verb-Subject-Object. An example sentence: Au ne gidee de gaago "I saw the chicken"


There are four types of reduplication. R1 appears in nouns, adjectives, and verbs, while R2, R3 and R4 appear only in adjectives and verbs. R1 is reduplication of the entire base. So, for example, gohu "dark" and gohugohu means "getting dark". R2 is reduplication of the first syllable of a base. For example, gai means "eat" and gagai means "the fish are biting". R3 is reduplication of the initial consonant of a base. For example, seni means "sleep" and sseni means "to sleep". R4 is reduplication of the initial vowel of a base. For example, malemo, which is a singular subject, and maalemo, which is plural subject



There are few solid resources for the Nukuoro language. The primary and probably most informative one is Vern Carroll's book An Outline of the Structure of the Language of Nukuoro. There is also a Nukuoro Lexicon that has English to Nukuoro and Nukuoro to English, as well as grammar notes.

In 2013, Gregory D.S. Anderson and K. David Harrison of Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages created the Nukuoro Talking Dictionary, a digital lexicon that includes sound recordings of Nukuoro words. This lexicon was initially populated with sound recordings from Nukuoro speakers Johnny Rudolph, Maynard Henry, and Kurt Erwin. This dictionary continues to be augmented by speakers and linguists and includes over 1000 audio tokens.


Nukuoro is listed as a developing language. Ethnologue states that this means it is in vigorous use but isn't yet widespread. It is being transmitted to children, and is used in schools, government, and daily life. After World War 2, there were already efforts to help preserve the language as the United States set up an elementary school taught completely in Nukuoro. The population of speakers also increased from 400 to 1000 since 1965, which shows positive growth.

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nukuoro at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
  2. ^ Nukuoro at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  3. ^ a b c d Carroll, Vern (1965). "An outline of the structure of the language of Nukuoro: Part 1". Journal of the Polynesian Society. 74(2): 192–226 – via JSTOR.
  4. ^ Carroll, 1965, p. 196

External links[edit]