Pukapukan language

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RegionPukapuka and Nassau islands, northern Cook Islands; some in Rarotonga; also New Zealand and Australia
Native speakers
450 in Cook Islands (2011 census)[1]
2,000 elsewhere (no date)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3pkp

Pukapukan is a Polynesian language that developed in isolation on the island of Pukapuka in the northern group of the Cook Islands. As a "Samoic Outlier" language with strong links to western Polynesia, Pukapukan is not closely related to any other languages of the Cook Islands, but does manifest substantial borrowing from some East Polynesian source in antiquity.

Recent research suggests that the languages of Pukapuka, Tokelau and Tuvalu group together as a cluster, and as such had significant influence on several of the Polynesian Outliers, such as Tikopia and Anuta, Pileni, Sikaiana (all in the Solomon Islands) and the Takuu Atoll in Papua New Guinea. There is also evidence that Pukapuka had prehistoric contact with Micronesia, as there are quite a number of words in Pukapukan that appear to be borrowings from Kiribati (K. & M. Salisbury conference paper, 2013).

Pukapukan is also known as "te leo Wale" ('the language of Home') in reference to the name of the northern islet where the people live. The atoll population has declined from some 750 in the early 1990s to less than 500 since the cyclone in 2005. Literacy in the Pukapukan language was introduced in the school in the 1980s, resulting in an improvement in the quality of education on the atoll.

The majority of those speaking the language live in a number of migrant communities in New Zealand and Australia. A bilingual dictionary was started by the school teachers on the island and completed in Auckland within the Pukapukan community there.[2][3] An indepth study of the language has resulted in a reference grammar (Mary Salisbury, A Grammar of Pukapukan, University of Auckland, 2003 700pp.). The most significant publication in the Pukapuka language will be the "Puka Yā" (Bible), with the New Testament expected to be completed for publishing in 2019.


Pukapukan, also known as Bukabukan, is the language spoken on the coral atoll of Pukapuka, located in the northern section of the Cook Islands (Beaglehole 1906–1965). Pukapukan shares minor intelligibility with its national language of Cook Islands Maori, and bears strong links to its neighboring Western Polynesian cultures specifically Samoa. The island of Pukapuka is one of the most remote islands in the Cook Islands. There is evidence that humans have inhabited the atoll for about 2000 years, but it is not clear whether it has been continuously inhabited. It may be certain that a final settlement took place around 1300 AD from Western Polynesia. Local oral tradition records that huge waves generated by a severe cyclone washed over the island and killed most of the inhabitants except for 15–17 men, 2 women and an unknown number of children. Recent interpretation of genealogies suggests that this catastrophe occurred about 1700 AD. It was from these survivors that the island was repopulated.

The island was one of the first of the Cook Islands to be discovered by the Europeans, on Sunday 20 August 1595 by the Spanish Explorer Álvaro de Mendaña.


The language of Pukapukan is not only spoken on the island of Pukapuka but on the neighboring Cook Islands as well as New Zealand and Australia. Today the population of Pukapuka has diminished with only a few hundred native speakers. From a 2001 census there were only about 644 speakers on Pukapuka and its plantation island of Nassau. As of a 2011 census, there are now only 450 speakers due to a devastating cyclone that hit the island of Pukapuka in 2005. There are a total of 2,400 speakers worldwide, including those who live on Pukapuka and the 200 speakers on Rarotonga, the most populous island of the Cook Islands.


Pukapukan is an Austronesian language of the Nuclear Polynesian branch.[4] Though grouped with the Cook Islands the language shows influence from both Eastern and Western Polynesia.

Sound system[edit]


There are 15 letters in the Pukapukan alphabet – five vowels and 10 consonants. The digraph 'ng' occurs in the place that G occupies in the English alphabet. a, e, ng, i, k, l, m, n, o, p, t, u, v, w, y


The consonant phonemes in Pukapukan are: / p, t, k, v, w, θ, m, n, ŋ, l / (Teingoa 1993).

The letters ‘y’ and ‘w’ are not in the Cook Islands Maori language but are additions to Pukapukan. The semivowel /w/ and the palatalised dental spirant /θʲ/, in general, regularly reflect *f and *s, respectively. The ‘y’ sound in Pukapukan actually acts somewhat differently and is difficult for non native speakers to pronounce. It is pronounced like ‘th’ in English "this, other".

  • wano, go
  • wou, new
  • wawine, woman
  • yinga, fall over
  • iyu, nose
  • tayi, one


The vowels in Pukapukan are respectively /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/. All vowels have two sounds, a long sound and a short sound. A vowel's length is indicated by writing a macron above each vowel.

  • papa, rock
  • papā, European
  • pāpā, father
  • pāpa, crewcut (hairstyle)

In Pukapukan it is safe to say that every syllable ends with a vowel, every vowel is pronounced, and there are no diphthongal sounds.


Basic word order[edit]

Pukapukan uses the two distinctive word orders of verb-subject-object and Verb-Object-Subject, although it is clear that VSO is used more commonly. Adjectives always follow their nouns in Pukapukan. Waka- is often used as a causative prefix in Austronesian languages, but in Pukapukan it has various functionalities. Due to Rarotongan influence ‘waka-’ is shortened to ‘aka-’, whereas ‘waka-’ is seen to be more formal (Teingoa 1993). Nouns prefixed by waka- become verbs with similar meanings:

  • au, peace; waka-au, to make peace
  • lā, sun; waka-lā, to put in the sun to dry
  • ela; wedge; wakaela, to wedge

Adjectives prefixed by waka become transitive verbs:

  • yako, straight; waka-yako, to straighten
  • kokoi, sharp; waka-kokoi, to sharpen

Some verbs prefixed by waka- have specialized meanings that become somewhat difficult to predict from the base meaning.

  • yā, sacred; waka-yā, to observe as sacred
  • pono, to be sure; waka-pono, to decide to finalize


Like many other Polynesian languages, Pukapukan uses a lot of full and partial reduplication, some times to emphasize a word or to give it new meaning.

  • kale, wave/surf; kale-le, undertow of the sea (waves coming in and others receding)
  • kapa, to clap hands in rhythm; kapa-kapa, to flutter


tayi “one” lua “two” tolu “three” wa “four” lima “five” ono “six” witu “seven” valu “eight” iva “nine” katoa/laungaulu “ten”

Pukapukan uses two different counting systems in the language; the ‘one unit’ and the ‘two unit’. Numeral classifiers are also used as prefixes for numbers over ten and different objects. The ‘one unit’ uses its word for ten ‘laungaulu’ and adds the ‘one unit’ number (Teingoa 1993).

  • 18 - laungaulu ma valu (ten and eight)

For numbers above nineteen the single unit numbers are used.

  • 30 - lau tolu (two three)
  • 40 - lau wa (two four)

The ‘two unit’ is derived from the ‘one unit’.

Demonstratives and Spatial Deictics[edit]

Different form classes[edit]

Demonstrative pronouns[edit]

Much like other Oceanic languages, Pukapukan has a three-way distinction of positional demonstrative particles that relate to the position of the speaker and addressee.[5] In Pukapukan, these include nei ‘near to the speaker,’ ‘near to addressee and ‘away from both the speaker and addressee.’ Pukapukan also has the demonstrative particle ia meaning ‘aforementioned.’ [6] These demonstrative particles form compounds with the singular articles te and e and with the preposition ki ‘to.’ [7]

The definite demonstrative pronouns are formed by adding the singular specific article te-. For example, when adding te-, nei becomes tēnei ‘this (by me),’ becomes tēnā ‘that (by you),’ becomes tēlā ‘that (over there)’ and ia becomes teia ‘this (being demonstrated or mentioned previously).’ These demonstrative pronouns only occur as subjects of nominal predicates and as represented below can be equated with personal pronouns (example 1), pronouns (examples 2-3) or definite common noun phrases (examples 4-5). [7]

(1) Ko oku tenei ko Vakayala.
Prd I this Prd Vakayala
This is me, Vakayala.
(2) Ko koe koia tēnā na langaina toku kongá?
Prd you exactly that T uproot-Cia my place-Da
Was that indeed you who uprooted my garden?
(3) Ko ai tēlā e yaelé.
Prd Pro that T walk-Da
Who is that walking over there?
(4) Ko tona teina teia.
Prd his brother this
This is his brother.
(5) Ko te lili teia o te wī lōpā.
Prd A anger this P A all youth
This was [why] all the youths were angry.

The nonspecific article e and the positional demonstrative particles can also be combined to form indefinite demonstrative pronouns. These demonstrative pronouns constitute the nucleus of indefinite nominal predicates and are normally followed by their subjects.[8]

The demonstrative particles can also form compounds with the preposition ki- ‘to.’ These compounds can be used as a substitute (pro-form) for locational nouns. These type of demonstrative pronouns in Pukapukan include, kinea ‘to here,’ kinā ‘to there, by you,’ kilā ‘to over there’ and kiai ‘to there,’ in which kiai is an anaphoric form.[9]

These forms can also be used to substitute a noun phrase which has been marked for case by a preposition. For example:[9]

(14) Ka lōmamai ai ia Ngake ki kinei angaanga.
T come. Pl Pro A Ngake G here RR-work
The whole of Ngake will come here to work.
(15) Ko te tokatolu lā kilā
Prd A pre-three over there
The three of them over there.
Demonstrative modifiers[edit]

Pukapukan has several classes of modifiers.[10] In particular, the directional and positional modifiers help indicate spatial and temporal directions and positions from the speaker and/or addressee.[10]

Directionals [11]
mai 'towards speaker'
atu 'away from speaker'
ake 'upwards,' 'oblique to speaker'; 'please'
io '?downwards,' 'misfortune'

According to Clark (1976),[12] cognates of the directional particles of Pukapukan are found in all Polynesian languages.

The directional particles tend to modify verbs more frequently than nouns and are often associated with verbs that denote movement, as well as verbs that denote speech, perception, cognition and social interaction.[13]

Mai indicates real or implied movement in the direction of the speaker, for example:[14]

(16) Teketeke mai kai aku nei.
RR-move Dir G-A I here
Move a little closer to me.
(17) Auwē koe e tāpitāpi mai, ka yuyū toku kākawu.
Neg.Imp you T sprinkle Dir T wet my clothes.
Don't splash water on me in case my clothes get wet.

Atu can indicate physical movement away from the speaker, as in:[14]

(18) Yoloyolo atu koe ki te toe kaokao.
RR-move Dir you G A other side
Move away from me to the other side.

and for verbs of perception and communication can also indicate direction away from the deictic centre, for example:[14]

(19) Ko tātā atu iāna kia koe?
T write Dir he G-A you
Does he write to you?

Atu can also encode temporal progression away from the present.[14]

(20) Wea atu ai koe?
what Dir Pro you
What did you do then?

Mai and atu can co-occur when modifying the same verb, when one has a directional meaning and the other has a temporal or aspectual meaning.[15]

Ake mostly functions as a politeness marker, but the directional particle ake now has meanings 'upwards' and 'oblique to speaker,' which appears to be a one-particle combination of Proto-Polynesian's hake 'upwards' and aŋe 'oblique to speaker.'[13][16] Hence, it can function similar to atu and mai in term of denoting temporal and aspectual meanings. However, these forms are rarely used in present day.[16]

In saying that, io is found to be used even less. Reflexes of its Proto-Polynesian form have traditionally been glossed 'downwards,' but this meaning is hardly apparent in Pukapukan and is more often associated with meaning 'misfortune coming upon one.'[16]

nei 'near to speaker'
'near to addressee'
'away from both, 'intensifier'
-V definitive accent: 'away from both'
ia 'aforementioned'

The positional modifiers indicate location in space or time relative to the speaker or to the deictic centre of the discourse.

Nei 'near to speaker' can modify a noun in a noun phrase or a locative phrase. Doing so indicates that the entity encoded by the noun is within sight of or in the general locality of the speaker. For instance, in example 21 below, the speaker is likely pointing to a 'word' near them while asking the question.[17]

(21) E wea te ingoa nei?
Prd what A name here
What is this word?

'near to addressee' only occurs in noun phrases and can denote a position near to the addressee (example 22), something belonging to the addressee or a characteristic behavior pattern or inherent quality of the addressee (example 23) or, in long-distance communication can indicate that the addressee is anticipated to be in a certain place at the time of reading the letter or story or answering the phone call during the long-distance communication (example 24).[18]

(22) Aumai ake taku pāla nā.
bring Dir my knife there
Please pass my knife [that you have].
(23) Kokoto ake kōtou īmene ke langona.
R-grunt Dir P you song there C hear
Please start your song so [we] can hear [it].
(24) Auwā ko lelei wua kōtou i Wale nā.
probably T good just you L home there.
I hope you are all well there in Pukapuka [where you are].

'away from both speaker and addressee; intensifier' may only occur with a directional meaning in verb phrases, not in noun phrases. often modifies motion verbs and can take on the directional meaning of 'there, yonder.'[19] For example:

(25) Luku koe ki te watu.
dive there you G A stone
Dive down to the rock.
Demonstrative predicates[edit]

In Pukapukan, demonstrative predicates take on a number of roles and functions.

When denoting temporal location, demonstrative predicates may do this specifically or indirectly.

In narratives, demonstrative predicates may be used to set the scene for an imminent event, such as:

(28) Ēnei iki nā vaka
here carry A canoe
Here [they were] carrying the canoes.


Indigenous vocabulary[edit]

kāvatavata “noise made by snapping tongue” Pōiva “name of a deified ancestor” pulu “the calf of the leg” Yāmatangi “prayer for a fair wind”


Pukapukan is not closely related to other Cook Islands languages but it does show substantial borrowing from Eastern Polynesian languages, such as Rarotongan. In fact, because there is no ‘r’ in Pukapukan ‘l’ takes its place in Rarotongan borrowings (Teingoa 1993).

Pukapukan Rarotongan
Rarotonga Lalotonga Rarotonga
torch lama rama
hurry limalima rimarima
angry lili riri
pour lilingi riringi


Pukapukan uses many homophones in its vocabulary usually to give names to new words or items with similar origin meanings (Beaglehole 1906–1965).


  1. v. to clap hands in rhythm
  2. v. to cry loudly
  3. n. corner


  1. n. an emotional shock
  2. n. shadow
  3. n. Dawn
  4. v. to change color
  5. Verbal prefix: good at, skilled in


  1. v. to tie up
  2. n. Bundle, village, group, team
  3. n. Name of a taro preparation
  4. n. Name of a bird



There is a limited list when it comes to the language of Pukapukan. Although, today speakers of the language, locals of Pukapuka, and especially teachers on the island are working to put together books and resources dedicated to the teaching and structure of Pukapukan. Collaboratively the locals of the island are also working to bring back to their own community since the devastating Cyclone Percy in 2005. Since 2005 it has taken nearly 6 years to rebuild their communities (Pasifika 2009). Currently there are a select number of manuscripts and dictionaries on the language of Pukapukan, but their culture is kept alive through music and dance collaborations across the pacific and websites like YouTube.


According to Ethnologue Pukapukan is considered to be a threatened language and its “Intergenerational transmission is in the process of being broken, but the child-bearing generation can still use the language so it is possible that revitalization efforts could restore transmission of the language in the home.[20] Speakers of Pukapukan especially children are multilingual in English and Cook Islands Maori, but English is rarely spoken outside of schools and many classes are actually taught in Pukapukan. Today, revitalization efforts of Pukapuka and its language is underway (Pasifika 2009).

Per the Te Reo Maori Act, Pukapukan is deemed to be a form of Cook Islands Māori for legal purposes.

Glossary of Grammatical Abbreviations[edit]

Abbreviation Extended form[21]
- morpheme boundary
. gloss comprising two morphemes
2 dual
A article
Acc accusative case marker
Af aforementioned
-Cia ‘passive’ suffix
-Da definitive accent
Dir directional particle
G goal marker
Imp imperative
Int intensifier
L locative marker
Neg negative marker
P possessive marker
Pl plural
Prd predicate
pre- prefix
Pro anaphoric pronoun
Q question marker, question
RR- bimoraic reduplication
T tense-aspect-mood marker
Top topic marker

Further reading[edit]

  • Teingo, W. A. (1993). Introduction to the Pukapukan Language. Hamilton, N.Z. : Outrigger Publishers Limited.
  • Beaglehole, Ernest & Pearl (1992). Pukapukan dictionary/ manuscript. [Auckland] : Pukapuka Dictionary Project, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Auckland.
  • Crystal, David (2002). Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Unknown, T. P. [Tagata Pasifika]. (2009, 7 23). Pukapuka Cook Islands lack of population concerns Tagata Pasifika TVNZ New Zealand [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMPdKbqJiEo
  • Krauss, Michael. (1992). The world’s languages in crisis. Language 68(1):4-10
  • Buse, Jasper (1995). Cook Islands Maori dictionary with English-Cook Islands Maori finderlist. Rarotonga, Cook Islands : Ministry of Education, Government of the Cook Islands ; London : School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London ; Suva, Fiji : Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific ; [Auckland] : Centre for Pacific Studies, University of Auckland ; Canberra, ACT : Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University.
  • PAWLEY, Andrew 1966. “Polynesian Languages: A Subgrouping Based on Shared Innovations in Morphology.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 75:39-64.


  1. ^ a b Pukapukan at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Douglas, Briar (13 August 2013). "Pukapuka dictionary goes live". Cook Islands News. Retrieved 3 May 2019.
  3. ^ "Te Pukamuna - Pukapuka Dictionary". 2013. Retrieved 3 May 2019.
  4. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2020). "Pukapuka". Glottolog 4.2.1. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  5. ^ Lynch, J., Ross, M., & Crowley, T. (2002). The Oceanic Languages. Richmond UK: Curzon. p. 38
  6. ^ Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 261
  7. ^ a b Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 205
  8. ^ Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 206
  9. ^ a b Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 202
  10. ^ a b Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 235
  11. ^ a b Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 235
  12. ^ Clark, Ross. (1976). Aspects of Proto-Polynesian syntax. Te Reo Monograph. Auckland: Linguistic Society of New Zealand
  13. ^ a b Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 241
  14. ^ a b c d Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 242
  15. ^ Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 246
  16. ^ a b c Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 247
  17. ^ Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 261
  18. ^ Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 263
  19. ^ Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf. p. 275
  20. ^ "Pukapukan". Ethnologue. Retrieved 11 June 2020.
  21. ^ Salisbury, M. C. (2002). A Grammar of Pukapukan. http://pukapuka.world/archive/Pukapukan-Grammar_Web.pdf.