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Palagi (pronounced paalangi - singular) or papaalagi (plural) is a term in Samoan culture of uncertain meaning, sometimes used to describe foreigners. Tent and Geraghty (2001) comment that the origin of the Western Polynesian Papāalagi~Pālagi and the Fijian Vāvālagi~Pāpālagi remains a matter of speculation.
Papāalagi~Pālagi is a word in the Samoan language describing non-Samoans especially European westerners or Caucasians. In Samoa the term is used to describe foreigners. The word is both a noun e.g. a Palagi (European person) or an adjective e.g. Palagi house (non-traditional Samoan house). The word is a cognate in other Polynesian languages and has gained widespread use throughout much of western Polynesia, including in Tokelau, Tuvalu, 'Uvea and Futuna.
Use, meaning and origin of term
The etymology of the term Palagi is disputed. An explanation that emerged in the 19th century is that word is derived from the Polynesian rootwords "pa" (meaning: gates) and "lagi" (meaning: sky or heaven), hence the standard translation "gates of heaven" It has been suggested that the compound word comes from the Polynesian's reaction to seeing for the first time, European missionaries enter the country. Their skin being a different color made them think they were men sent from the gates of heaven. Tcherkézoff (1999) argues that such an interpretation is a European projection to explain Polynesian cosmology.
The explanation of Niuean word "Palagi", is that "pa" means bang such as that of a gun and "lagi" means sky, literally means bangs into the sky. In "Papa-lagi" "papa" means more than one bang or many bangs, and "lagi" means sky. In the olden days, Europeans who landed on Niue carried guns and often fired the guns into the sky, when they landed on the reef, to scare away potential trouble-making natives.
Jan Tent, a Macquarie University linguist, and Dr. Paul Geraghty, director of the Institute of Fijian Language and Culture in Suva, suggest that the word may have its origins in the travels of the Polynesians themselves. They believe that the Polynesian islanders may have encountered Malay travellers prior to contact with Europeans, and adopted the Malay word barang (meaning: imported cloth). These researchers also suggest another possible etymology - the Malay word for European, as used in the 17th and 18th centuries, was faranggi. However, they discount this possibility as the word palangi seems to have originally referred to cloth; only later was the word transferred to the people.
A possible alternative etymology for palangi is that is it derived from the Perso-Arabic term farangi, meaning "an outsider". The extent to which Arab traders explored the Pacific Islands, or that Pacific Island communities had contact with Muslim trades remains uncertain but Arab and Persian Muslim colonies were established in Indonesia and Malaysia starting around the 10th century AD. According to an unpublished paper by Prof. Bivar of the School of Oriental and African Studies, there is some textual evidence from Arab and Persian travelogues (cf. The Journeys of Sinbad in the One Thousand and One Nights) for contact between Muslim traders and Pacific islands prior to European discoveries and landfalls.
The specific origin of this term remains uncertain. The term has gained widespread use throughout much of western Polynesia including Tokelau, Tuvalu, 'Uvea and Futuna, etc., with the expansion of use of the term being though to have occurred in the 18th century when Tongans, and to lesser extent Samoans, regularly interacted with white sailors, beachcombers, convicts, missionaries, and whalers who clearly delineated ethnoracial boundaries between themselves (papalagi/papalangi) and the Polynesians they encountered.
Louis Becke after having worked and travelled in the Pacific from 1869 to 1885 uses papalagi to mean a white person in stories set in what is now Tuvalu, The Rangers of the Tia Kua, Kennedy the Boatsteerer in which appears "The last native girl who occupied the proud position of Te avaga te papalagi (the white man's wife) was a native of the island of Maraki"; Samoa, A Basket of Bread-Fruit, At a Kava-Drinking in which appears "alii papalagi (white gentleman)" and "this wandering papalagi tafea (beachcomber)", The Best Asset in a Fool’s Estate in which appears “the papalagi mativa (poor white)”; and the Tokelau, Challis the Doubter.
Largely because of the growing Pacific Islander culture in New Zealand, this word has been adopted by other Pacific cultures. Its usage in New Zealand's Pacific Islander media such as television and radio is common, and it is often used by the mainstream media to describe non-Samoans of European descent.
The term is now also used in New Zealand in a similar way to the Māori term Pākehā, but it is not restricted in referring to white people within Pacific-island surroundings. As with Pākehā, Samoans and Tongans initially applied palagi/palangi and papalagi/papalangi to whites of British derivation. Today, the Samoan term "gagana fa'a Palagi", the Tongan term "lea fakapālangi" and the Tuvaluan term "faka-Pālagi" still refer to the English language specifically, even though it is understood that many ethnic Europeans who are considered "palagi" do not speak English but rather German, French, Spanish, etc. While the term is generally applied to people of European ancestry as a means of differentiation or categorization, some feel the term is derogatory, especially when aimed pointedly toward half-caste Samoans or ethnic Samoans who were born and raised in western, metropolitan societies; "fia palagi" and "fie palangi" are commonly applied to ethnic Samoans and Tongans, respectively, who are viewed as favoring the "white man's" lifestyle or culture in lieu of traditional Polynesian modes of speech, dress, housing, interpersonal relations, etc.
Tcherkezoff (1999) comments,"Europeans are still called Papālagi in today's languages. In Samoan, it is an absolutely common everyday word, not in any way a metaphoric ceremonial expression used for special circumstances or used in [purely] derogatory/laudatory ways."
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