Polynesian languages

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Linguistic classificationAustronesian
The Central Pacific languages
Olive-Green: East Fijian-Polynesian Languages (not shown: Rapa Nui)
Pink: Western Fijian-Rotuman Languages

The Polynesian languages form a genealogical group of languages, itself part of the Oceanic branch of the Austronesian family.

There are 38 Polynesian languages, representing 7 percent of the 522 Oceanic languages, and 3 percent of the Austronesian family.[1] While half of them are spoken in geographical Polynesia (the Polynesian triangle), the other half – known as Polynesian outliers – are spoken in other parts of the Pacific: from Micronesia to atolls scattered in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands or Vanuatu. The most prominent Polynesian languages, in number of speakers, are Tahitian, Samoan, Tongan, Māori and Hawaiian.

The ancestors of modern Polynesians were Lapita navigators, who settled in the Tonga and Samoa areas about 3,000 years ago. Linguists and archaeologists estimate that this first population went through common development during about 1000 years, giving rise to Proto-Polynesian, the linguistic ancestor of all modern Polynesian languages. After that period of shared development, the Proto-Polynesian society split into several descendant populations, as Polynesian navigators scattered around various archipelagoes across the Pacific – some travelling westwards to already populated areas, others navigating eastwards and settling in new territories (Society Islands, Marquesas, Hawaii, New Zealand, Rapa Nui, etc.).

Still today, Polynesian languages show strong similarity, particularly cognate words in their vocabulary; this includes culturally important words such as tapu, ariki, motu, fenua, kava, and tapa as well as *sawaiki, the mythical homeland for some of the cultures.[2]

Internal classification[edit]

Phylogenetic classification[edit]

Polynesian languages fall into two branches, Tongic and Nuclear Polynesian. Tongan and Niuean constitute the Tongic branch; all the rest are part of the Nuclear Polynesian branch.[3]

History of classification[edit]

The contemporary classification of the Polynesian languages began with certain observations by Andrew Pawley in 1966 based on shared innovations in phonology, vocabulary and grammar showing that the East Polynesian languages were more closely related to Samoan than they were to Tongan, calling Tongan and its nearby relative Niuean "Tongic" and Samoan and all other Polynesian languages of the study "Nuclear Polynesian".[5]

Previously, there had been only lexicostatistical studies[6][7] that squarely suggested a "West Polynesian" group composed of at least Tongan and Samoan and that an "East Polynesian" group was equally distant from both Tongan and Samoan. Lexicostatistics is a controversial tool that can identify points in languages from which linguistic relations can be inferred[clarify]. Since Pawley's 1966 publication, inferring the ancient relationships of the Polynesian languages has proceeded by the more diagnostic findings of studies employing the comparative method[clarify] and the proofs of shared innovations.

Pawley published another study in 1967.[8] It began the process of extracting relationships from Polynesian languages on small islands in Melanesia, the "Polynesian Outliers", whose languages Pawley was able to trace to East Futuna in the case of those farther south and perhaps to Samoa itself in the case of those more to the north.

Except for some minor differentiation of the East Polynesian tree, further study paused for almost twenty years until Wilson[9] published a study of Polynesian pronominal systems in 1985 suggesting that there was a special relationship between the East Polynesian languages and all other Nuclear Polynesian but for Futunic, and calling that extra-Futunic group the "Ellicean languages". Furthermore, East Polynesian was found to more likely have emerged from extra-Samoan Ellicean than out of Samoa itself, an astonishing suggestion given the long assumption of a Samoan homeland for the origins of East Polynesian. Wilson named this new group "Ellicean" after the pre-independence name of Tuvalu and presented fine-grained evidence for subgroups within that overarching category.

Marck,[10] in 2000, was able to offer some support for some aspects of Wilson's suggestion through comparisons of shared sporadic (irregular, unexpected) sound changes, e. g., Proto-Polynesian and Proto-Nuclear-Polynesian *mafu 'to heal' becoming Proto-Ellicean *mafo. This was made possible by the massive Polynesian language comparative lexicon ("Pollex" – with reconstructions) of Biggs and Clark.[11]

Despite the relative low number of Polynesian languages, and the relative abundance of data already available on many of them, the comparative method was often reduced to comparisons of vocabulary, shared sporadic sound changes and, as Wilson had done in 1985, comparison of pronominal systems, which is perhaps the second most commonly described aspect of "minor" languages often available for comparison after the lexicostatistical lists. Wilson has a forthcoming work[12] providing further evidence of fine grained subgroups within Ellicean and a consideration of other recent work[13][14] on the matter of Ellicean internal relations. Wilson's new work brings the matter to the approximate limits of current data available, incorporating much data unknown to most other researchers.

Returning to lexicostatistics, it must be emphasised that the method does not make the best possible use of its short word lists of 100 or 200 words. Dyen's[15] massive lexicostatistical study of Austronesian, for instance, showed a great deal of (lexicostatistical) diversity in the Austronesian languages of Western Melanesia. This was sometimes on par with the lexicostatistical distance of Taiwan Austronesian languages from other Austronesian including Taiwan Austronesian languages from each other (Taiwan now definitively known to be the homeland of the language family itself). But the low lexicostatistical agreement of many Western Melanesian Oceanic languages with other Oceanic Austronesian can be easily dismissed as of little subgrouping interest because those languages are nevertheless full of diagnostic innovations of Oceanic Austronesian in their sound systems and vocabulary, including many Oceanic lexical innovations found in the 100 and 200 lexicostatistical word lists (and the deadly conclusive evidence of the shared phonological innovations of those low-scoring groups with all other Oceanic Austronesian). The Western Oceanic Melanesian "diversity" of lexicostatistical studies was never of any interest in terms of attributing any special time depth or subgrouping significance to it. They are just languages with accelerated loss of vocabulary, sometimes, in the Western[clarification needed] Oceanic case, because they involve certain more ancient peoples of the region shifting to Oceanic speech after Oceanic-speaking peoples arrived.[16]

Internal correspondences[edit]

Partly because Polynesian languages split from one another comparatively recently, many words in these languages remain similar to corresponding words in others. The table below demonstrates this with the words for 'sky', 'north wind', 'woman', 'house' and 'parent' in a representative selection of languages: Tongan; Niuean; Samoan; Sikaiana; Takuu; Rapanui language; Tahitian; Cook Islands Māori (Rarotongan); Māori; North Marquesan; South Marquesan; Hawaiian and Mangarevan.

Tongan Niuean Samoan Sikaiana Takuu Rapanui Tahitian Rarotongan Māori North Marquesan South Marquesan Hawaiian Mangarevan
sky /laŋi/ /laŋi/ /laŋi/ /lani/ /ɾani/ /ɾaŋi/ /ɾaʔi/ /ɾaŋi/ /ɾaŋi/ /ʔaki/ /ʔani/ /lani/ /ɾaŋi/
north wind /tokelau/ /tokelau/ /toʔelau/ /tokelau/ /tokoɾau/ /tokeɾau/ /toʔeɾau/ /tokeɾau/ /tokeɾau/ /tokoʔau/ /tokoʔau/ /koʔolau/ /tokeɾau/
woman /fefine/ /fifine/ /fafine/ /hahine/ /ffine/ /vahine/ /vaʔine/ /wahine/ /vehine/ /vehine/ /wahine/ /veine/
house /fale/ /fale/ /fale/ /hale/ /faɾe/ /haɾe/ /faɾe/ /ʔaɾe/ /ɸaɾe/ /haʔe/ /haʔe/ /hale/ /faɾe/
parent /maːtuʔa/ /motua/ /matua/ /maatua/ /matuʔa/ /metua/ /metua/ /matua/ /motua/ /motua/ /makua/ /matua/

Certain regular correspondences can be noted between different Polynesian languages. For example, the Māori sounds /k/, /ɾ/, /t/, and /ŋ/ correspond to /ʔ/, /l/, /k/, and /n/ in Hawaiian. Accordingly, "man" is tangata in Māori and kanaka in Hawaiian, and Māori roa "long" corresponds to Hawaiian loa. The famous Hawaiian greeting aloha corresponds to Māori aroha, "love, tender emotion". Similarly, the Hawaiian word for kava is ʻawa.

Similarities in basic vocabulary may allow speakers from different island groups to achieve a significant degree of understanding of each other's speech. When a particular language shows unexpectedly large divergence in vocabulary, this may be the result of a name-avoidance taboo situation – see examples in Tahitian, where this has happened often.

Many Polynesian languages have been greatly affected by European colonization. Both Māori and Hawaiian, for example, have lost many speakers to English, and only since the 1990s have they resurged in popularity.[17][18]

Grammatical characteristics[edit]

Personal pronouns[edit]

In general, Polynesian languages have three numbers for pronouns and possessives: singular, dual and plural. For example, in Māori: ia (he/she), rāua (they two), rātou (they 3 or more). The words rua (2) and toru (3) are still discernible in endings of the dual and plural pronouns, giving the impression that the plural was originally a trial (threesome) or paucal (a few), and that an original plural has disappeared.[19] Polynesian languages have four distinctions in pronouns and possessives: first exclusive, first inclusive, second and third. For example, in Māori, the plural pronouns are: mātou (we, exc), tātou (we, inc), koutou (you), rātou (they). The difference between exclusive and inclusive is the treatment of the person addressed. Mātou refers to the speaker and others but not the person or persons spoken to (i.e., "I and some others, but not you"), while tātou refers to the speaker, the person or persons spoken to, and everyone else (i.e., "You and I and others").

a and o possession[edit]

Many Polynesian languages distinguish two possessives. The a-possessives (as they contain that letter in most cases), also known as subjective possessives, refer to possessions that must be acquired by one's own action (alienable possession). The o-possessives or objective possessives refer to possessions that are fixed to someone, unchangeable, and do not necessitate any action on one's part but upon which actions can still be performed by others (inalienable possession). Some words can take either form, often with a difference in meaning. One example is the Samoan word susu, which takes the o-possessive in lona susu (her breast) and the a-possessive in lana susu (her breastmilk). Compare also the particles used in the names of two of the books of the Māori Bible: Te Pukapuka a Heremaia (The Book of Jeremiah) with Te Pukapuka o Hōhua (The Book of Joshua); the former belongs to Jeremiah in the sense that he was the author, but the Book of Joshua was written by someone else about Joshua. The distinction between one's birth village and one's current residence village can be made similarly.

Numerals in Polynesian languages[edit]


English one two three four five six seven eight nine ten
Proto-Polynesian *tasi *rua *tolu *fa *rima *ono *fitu *walu *hiwa *haŋafulu
Niuean taha ua tolu fa lima ono fitu valu hiva hogofolu
Tongan taha ua tolu fa nima ono fitu valu hiva hongofulu
Samoan tasi lua tolu fa lima ono fitu valu iva sefulu
Tuvaluan tasi lua tolu fa lima ono fitu valu iva agafulu
Nanumea tahi lua tolu lima ono fitu valu iva toa
Tokelauan tahi lua tolu fa lima ono fitu valu iva hefulu
Wallisian tahi lua tolu nima ono fitu valu hiva hogofulu
Pukapuka tayi lua tolu wa lima ono witu valu iva laugaulu
Rennellese tahi ŋgua toŋgu ŋgima ono hitu baŋgu iba katoa
Pileni tasi rua toru lima ono fitu valu iva kʰaro
Tikopia tasi rua toru fa rima ono fitu varu siva fuaŋafuru
Anuta tai rua toru paa nima ono pitu varu iva puangapuru
West Uvea tahi ƚua toƚu fa lima tahia-tupu luaona-tupu toluona-tupu faona-tupu limaona-tupu
Emae tasi rua toru fa rima ono fitu βaru siβa ŋafuru
Mele tasi rua toru fa rima ono fitu βaru siβa siŋafuru
Futuna-Aniwa tasi rua toru fa rima ono fitu varo iva tagafuru
Sikaiana tahi lua tolu lima ono hitu valo sivo sehui
Ontong Java kahi lua kolu lima oŋo hiku valu sivo sehui
Takuu tasi lua toru fa rima ono fitu varu sivo sinafuru
Kapingamarangi dahi lua dolu haa lima ono hidu walu hiwa mada
Nukuoro dahi ka-lua ka-dolu ka-haa ka-lima ka-ono ka-hidu ka-valu ka-siva ka-hulu
Rapa Nui tahi rua toru ha rima ono hitu vaʼu iva ʼahuru
Tahitian tahi piti toru maha pae ōno hitu vaʼu iva hōeʼahuru
Penrhyn tahi lua tolu lima ono hitu valu iva tahi-ngahulu
Rarotongan taʼi rua toru ā rima ono ʼitu varu iva ngaʼuru
Tuamotuan tahi rua toru rima ono hitu varu iva rongoʼuru
Maori tahi rua toru whā rima ono whitu waru iwa tekau (also ngahuru)
Moriori tehi teru toru tewha terima teono tewhitu tewaru teiwa meangauru
Mangareva tahi rua toru ha rima ono hitu varu iva rogouru
Marquesan e tahi e úa e toú e fa e íma e ono e fitu e vaú e iva ónohuú
Hawaiian ‘e-kahi ‘e-lua ‘e-kolu ‘e-hā ‘e-lima ‘e-ono ‘e-hiku ‘e-walu ‘e-iwa ‘umi


Written Polynesian languages use orthography based on Latin script. Most Polynesian languages have five vowel qualities, corresponding roughly to those written i, e, a, o, u in classical Latin. However, orthographic conventions for phonemes that are not easily encoded in standard Latin script had to develop over time. Influenced by the traditions of orthographies of languages they were familiar with, the missionaries who first developed orthographies for unwritten Polynesian languages did not explicitly mark phonemic vowel length or the glottal stop. By the time that linguists trained in more modern methods made their way to the Pacific, at least for the major languages, the Bible was already printed according to the orthographic system developed by the missionaries, and the people had learned to read and write without marking vowel length or the glottal stop.

This situation persists in many languages. Despite efforts at reform by local academies, the general conservative resistance to orthographic change has led to varying results in Polynesian languages, and several writing variants co-exist. The most common method, however, uses a macron to indicate a long vowel, while a vowel without that diacritical mark is short, for example, ā versus a. Sometimes, a long vowel is written double, e.g. Maaori.

The glottal stop (not present in all Polynesian languages, but, where present, one of the most common consonants) is indicated by an apostrophe, for example, 'a versus a. Hawaiʻian uses the ʻokina, also called by several other names, a unicameral consonant letter used within the Latin script to mark the phonemic glottal stop. It is also used in many other Polynesian languages, each of which has its own name for the character. Apart from the ʻokina or the somewhat similar Tahitian ʻeta, a common method is to change the simple apostrophe for a curly one, taking a normal apostrophe for the elision and the inverted comma for the glottal stop. The latter method has come into common use in Polynesian languages.

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Polynesian languages". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History..
  2. ^ Hīroa, Te Rangi (1964). Vikings of the Sunrise. New Zealand: Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd. p. 69. ISBN 0-313-24522-3. Retrieved 21 August 2010.
  3. ^ Lynch, John; Malcolm Ross; Terry Crowley (2002). The Oceanic languages. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon. ISBN 978-0-7007-1128-4. OCLC 48929366.
  4. ^ Marck, Jeff (2000). "Topics in Polynesian languages and culture history" (PDF). Pacific Linguistics. Canberra.
  5. ^ Pawley, Andrew, 1966, Polynesian languages: a subgrouping based upon shared innovations in morphology. Journal of the Polynesian Society 75(1):39–64. JSTOR 20704348.
  6. ^ Elbert, Samuel H. (July 1953). "Internal Relationships of Polynesian Languages and Dialects". Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. 9 (2): 147–173. doi:10.1086/soutjanth.9.2.3628573. ISSN 0038-4801. JSTOR 3628573.
  7. ^ Emory, Kenneth P. (1963). "East Polynesian relationships: settlement pattern and time involved as indicated by vocabulary agreements". The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 72 (2): 78–100. ISSN 0032-4000. JSTOR 20704084.
  8. ^ Pawley, Andrew, 1967, The relationships of Polynesian Outlier languages. Journal of the Polynesian Society 76(3):259–296. JSTOR 20704480.
  9. ^ Wilson, William H., 1985, Evidence for an Outlier source for the Proto-Eastern-Polynesian pronominal system. Oceanic Linguistics 24(1/2):85-133. doi:10.2307/3623064. JSTOR 3623064.
  10. ^ Marck, Jeff (2000), Topics in Polynesian languages and culture history. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
  11. ^ Biggs, Bruce (1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994) and Bruce Biggs and Ross Clark (1996), Pollex: Comparative Polynesian Lexicon (computer data base). Auckland: Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland.
  12. ^ Wilson, William H., 2012, Whence the East Polynesians? Further linguistic evidence for a Northern Outlier Source. Oceanic Linguistics 51(2):289–359. JSTOR 23321860.
  13. ^ Kirch, Patrick Vinton; Green, Roger (2001). Hawaiki, ancestral Polynesia : an essay in historical anthropology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-511-06700-3. OCLC 57218655.
  14. ^ Pawley, Andrew (2009) Polynesian paradoxes: subgroups, wave models and the dialect geography of Proto-Polynesian. Unpublished paper delivered at the 11th International Conference on Austronesian Linguistics. Aussois, France.
  15. ^ Dyen, Isidore (1965). A lexicostatistical classification of the Austronesian languages. OCLC 641979453.
  16. ^ Ross, Malcolm (2008). "The integrity of the Austronesian language family: from Taiwan to Oceania". In Sanchez-Mazas, Alicia; Blench, Roger; Ross, Malcolm; Peiros, Ilia; Lin, Marie (eds.). Past Human Migrations in East Asia : Matching Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics. Taylor & Francis. pp. 161–181. ISBN 978-0-203-92678-9. OCLC 476179063.
  17. ^ Eleanor Ainge Roy (28 July 2018). "'Māori has gone mainstream': the resurgence of New Zealand's te reo language". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 September 2020.
  18. ^ Sara Kehaulani Goo (22 July 2019). "The Hawaiian Language Nearly Died. A Radio Show Sparked Its Revival". NPR. Retrieved 22 September 2020.
  19. ^ Indeed Fijian, a language closely related to Polynesian, has singular, dual, paucal, and plural; and even there we may see the paucal replacing the plural in generations to come, as the paucal currently can be used for a group from 3 up to as many as 10, usually with some family, workgroup or other association.
  20. ^ "The Numbers List". www.zompist.com. Retrieved 2022-09-20.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]