Tahitian language

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Reo Tahiti
Reo Mā’ohi
Native toFrench Polynesia
Ethnicity185,000 Tahitians
Native speakers
68,260, 37% of ethnic population (2007 census)[1]
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1ty
ISO 639-2tah
ISO 639-3tah
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Tahitian (Tahitian: Reo Tahiti, part of Reo Mā’ohi, languages of French Polynesia)[2] is a Polynesian language, spoken mainly on the Society Islands in French Polynesia. It belongs to the Eastern Polynesian group.

As Tahitian had no written tradition before the arrival of the Western colonists, the spoken language was first transcribed by missionaries of the London Missionary Society in the early 19th century.


Tahitian is the most prominent of the indigenous Polynesian languages spoken in French Polynesia (reo mā’ohi).[2][3] The latter also include:[4]


When Europeans first arrived in Tahiti at the end of the 18th century, there was no writing system and Tahitian was only a spoken language. Reports by some early European explorers including Quirós[5] include attempts to transcribe notable Tahitian words heard during initial interactions with the indigenous people of Marquesa. Aboard the Endeavour, Lt. James Cook and the ship's master, Robert Molyneux, transcribed the names of 72 and 55 islands respectively as recited by the Tahitian arioi, Tupaia. Many of these were "non-geographic" or "ghost islands" of Polynesian mythology and all were transcribed using phonetic English spelling.[6] In 1797, Protestant missionaries arrived in Tahiti on a British ship called Duff, captained by James Wilson. Among the missionaries was Henry Nott (1774–1844) who learned the Tahitian language and worked with Pōmare II, a Tahitian king, and the Welsh missionary, John Davies (1772-1855), to translate the Bible into Tahitian. A system of five vowels and nine consonants was adopted for the Tahitian Bible, which would become the key text by which many Polynesians would learn to read and write. John Davies's spelling book (1810) was the first book to be printed in the Tahitian language. He also published a grammar and a dictionary of that language.


Tahitian features a very small number of phonemes: five vowels and nine consonants, not counting the lengthened vowels and diphthongs. Notably, the consonant inventory lacks any sort of phonemic dorsal consonants.

Tahitian consonants
Labial Alveolar Glottal
Plosive p t ʔ
Nasal m n
Fricative f v h
Trill r

There is a five-vowel inventory with vowel length:

Tahitian vowels
Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a

When two vowels follow each other in a V1V2 sequence, they form a diphthong when V1 is more open, and as a consequence more sonorant, than V2. An exception to this rule is the sequence /eu/, which never becomes the diphthong [eu̯]. Two vowels with the same sonority are generally pronounced in hiatus, as in [no.ˈe.ma] 'November', but there is some variability. The word tiuno 'June' may be pronounced [ti.ˈu.no], with hiatus, or [ˈtiu̯.no], with a diphthong.[7]

Next follows a table with all phonemes in more detail.

Tahitian phonemes
letter name pronunciation notes
IPA English
a ’ā /a/, /aː~ɑː/ a: opera, ā: father
e ’ē /e/, /eː/ e: late, ē: same but longer
f /f/ friend becomes bilabial [ɸ] after o and u
h /h/ house becomes [ʃ] (as in English shoe) after i and before o or u
i ’ī /i/, /iː/ as in machine may become diphthong ai in some words like rahi
m /m/ mouse
n /n/ nap
o ’ō /o~ɔ/, /oː/ o: nought, ō: same but longer
p /p/ sponge (not aspirated)
r /r/ - alveolar trill, may also be heard as a flap [ɾ]
t /t/ stand (not aspirated)
u ’ū /u/, /uː/ u: foot, ū: moo strong lip rounding
v /v/ vine becomes bilabial ([β]) after o and u
’eta /ʔ/ uh-oh glottal stop

The glottal stop or ’eta is a genuine consonant. This is typical of Polynesian languages (compare to the Hawaiian ʻokina and others). See Typography below.

Tahitian makes a phonemic distinction between long and short vowels; long vowels are marked with macron or tārava. For example, pāto, meaning "to pick, to pluck" and pato, "to break out", are distinguished solely by their vowel length. However, macrons are seldom written among older people because Tahitian writing was never taught at school until 1981.[8]

In rapid speech, the common article te is pronounced with a schwa, as [tə].[9]

Also in rapid speech, /tVt/ sequences are dissimilated to [kVt], so te tāne 'man, male' is pronounced [kə taːne], te peretiteni 'president' becomes [tə perekiteni]. Intervening syllables prevent this dissimilation, so te mata 'eye' is never pronounced with a [k].[9] While standard Tahitian only has [k] as a result of dissimilation, the dialects of the Leeward Islands have many cases of [k] corresponding to standard Tahitian [t].[10] For example, inhabitants of Maupiti pronounce their island's name [maupiki].[9]

Finally there is a toro ’a’ï, a trema put on the i, but only used in ïa when used as a reflexive pronoun. It does not indicate a different pronunciation. Usage of this diacritic was promoted by academics but has now virtually disappeared, mostly because there is no difference in the quality of the vowel when the trema is used and when the macron is used.

Tahitian syllables are entirely open, as is usual in Polynesian languages.[11] If a content word is composed of a single syllable with a single vowel, its vowel must be long. Thus, every Tahitian content word is at least two moras long.[12]


Stress is predictable in Tahitian. It always falls on one of the final three syllables of a word, and relies on the distinction between heavy and light syllables. Syllables with diphthongs or with long vowels are both considered to be heavy. Other syllables are considered to be light. Heavy syllables always bear secondary stress.[13] In general main stress falls on the penultimate syllable in a word. However, if there is a long vowel or diphthong in the last syllable, that syllable receives main stress. If there is a long vowel in the antepenultimate syllable, and the penultimate syllable is light, the antepenultimate syllable receives main stress.[14]

There is another type of words whose stress pattern requires another rule to explain. These include muta’a 'first', tia’a 'shoe', ari’i 'king', all of which are stressed on the antepenultimate syllable. In all these words, the last two vowels are identical, and are separated by a glottal stop. One can posit that in such words, the last syllable is extrametrical, and does not count towards stress assignment.[15] This extrametricality does not apply in the case of words with only two syllables, which remain stressed on the penultimate syllable.[16]

In compound words, each morpheme's stressed syllable carries secondary stress, and the stressed syllable of the last morpheme carries primary stress. Thus, for example, manureva 'airplane', from manu 'bird' and reva 'leave', is pronounced [ˌmanuˈreva]. Tahitian has reduplication as well. The endings of some verbs can be duplicated in order to add a repetitive sense to the verb. For example, reva becomes revareva, ha’aviti 'do quickly' becomes ha’avitiviti, and pīhae 'to tear' becomes pīhaehae. In reduplicated verbs, the final verb ending bears main stress while the earlier ones bears secondary stress.[17]

When suffixes are added to a word, primary and secondary stresses in the root word are maintained as secondary and tertiary stresses, and a new primary stress is calculated for the word. Tertiary and secondary stress are often merged. The suffix does not always carry main stress. For example, when the nominalizing suffix -ra’a is applied to verbs, regular stress assignment results in the last syllable of the root verb being stressed. This is due to the destressing of the V1 in /V1ʔV2/. To give an example, the word orara’a 'life', from ora 'to live' and -ra’a, is pronounced with antepenultimate stress.[18]

Prefixes added to a root word do not carry primary stress. For example, ’ōrama 'vision', related to rama 'vision', is stressed on the second syllable, and not the first, even though it has a long vowel. This can also be seen with the verb ta’a 'to be understood'. When combined with the causative prefix fa’a-, it becomes fa’ata’a, which is stressed on the penultimate syllable.[19]


’Eta letter forms
Tahitian ʻeta The ʻeta (currently encoded as the ʻokina), as it appears in the Lucida Sans font.

In former practice, the glottal stop used to be seldom written, but today it is commonly spelled out, although often as a straight apostrophe ([citation needed], see below) instead of the turned curly apostrophe used in Hawaiian. Alphabetical word ordering in dictionaries used to ignore the existence of glottal stops. However, academics and scholars now publish text content with due use of glottal stops.

Although the use of ’eta and tārava is equal to the usage of such symbols in other Polynesian languages, it is promoted by the Académie tahitienne and adopted by the territorial government. There are at least a dozen other ways of applying accents. Some methods are historical and no longer used.[20] At this moment, the Académie tahitienne seems to have not made a final decision yet whether the ’eta should appear as a normal letter apostrophe (U+02BC ʼ MODIFIER LETTER APOSTROPHE) or a turned letter apostrophe (U+02BB ʻ MODIFIER LETTER TURNED COMMA, called ʻokina in Hawaiian).

As the ASCII apostrophe (U+0027 ' APOSTROPHE) is the character output when hitting the apostrophe key on a usual French AZERTY keyboard, it has become natural for writers to use the punctuation mark for glottal stops, although to avoid the complications caused by substituting punctuation characters for letters in digital documents, the saltillo (U+A78C LATIN SMALL LETTER SALTILLO) may be used instead.[citation needed]

Today, macronized vowels and ’eta are also available on mobile devices, either by default or after installing an application to input vowels with macron as well as the ’eta.


In its morphology, Tahitian relies on the use of "helper words" (such as prepositions, articles, and particles) to encode grammatical relationships, rather than on inflection, as would be typical of European languages. It is a very analytic language, except when it comes to the personal pronouns, which have separate forms for singular, plural and dual numbers.

Personal pronouns[edit]

Like many Austronesian languages, Tahitian has separate words for inclusive and exclusive we, and distinguishes singular, dual, and plural.


  • Au (Vau after "a", "o" or "u")[1] I, me: ’Ua ’amu vau i te i’a I have eaten the fish; E haere au i te farehaapi’ira ānānahi I will go to school tomorrow.
  • ’Oe you: ’Ua ’amu ’oe i te i’a You have eaten the fish; ’Ua tu’ino ’oe i tō mātou pere’o’o[2] You damaged our car.
  • ’Ōna/’oia he, she: ’Ua ’amu ’ōna i te i’a He/she ate the fish; E aha ’ōna i haere mai ai? Why is she here/why did she come here?; ’Aita ’ōna i ’ō nei He/she is not here.


  • Tāua (inclusive) we/us two: ’Ua ’amu tāua i te i’a We (us two) have eaten the fish; E haere tāua[3] Let's go (literally 'go us two'); ’O tō tāua hoa tēi tae mai[4] Our friend has arrived.
  • Māua (exclusive) we/us two: ’Ua ’amu māua i te i’a We have eaten the fish; E ho’i māua ’o Titaua i te fare[5] Titaua and I will return/go home; māua tera fare That is our house.[6]
  • ’Ōrua you two: ’Ua ’amu ’ōrua i te i’a You two ate the fish; A haere ’ōrua[7] You (two) go; ’ōrua teie puta This book belongs to both of you.
  • Rāua they two: ’Ua ’amu rāua i te i’a They (they two) have eaten the fish; Nō hea mai rāua? Where are they (they two) from?;[8] ’O rāua ’o Pā tei fa’aea i te fare[9] He/she and Pa stayed home.


  • Tātou (inclusive) we: ’O vai tā tātou e tīa’i nei? Who are we waiting for/expecting?,[10] E ’ore tā tātou mā’a e toe There won't be any of our food more left.
  • Mātou (exclusive) we, they and I: ’O mātou ’o Herenui tei haere mai[11][12] We came with Herenui; ’Ua ’ite mai ’oe ia mātou You saw us/you have seen us.
  • ’Outou you (plural): ’A haere atu ’outou, e pe’e atu vau You (all) go, I will follow;[13] ’O ’outou ’o vai mā tei haere i te tautai?[14] Who went fishing with you (all)?
  • Rātou they/them: ’Ua mārō rātou ia Teina[15][16] They have quarrelled with Teina; rātou te pupu pūai a’e[17] They have the strongest team.

Word order[edit]

Typologically, Tahitian word order is VSO (verb–subject–object), which is typical of Polynesian languages. Some examples of word order are:[21]








tē tāmāꞌa nei au


"I am eating"













ꞌua tāpū vau ꞌi te vahie

PFV chop I O the wood

"I chopped the wood"















ꞌua hohoni hia ꞌoia e te ꞌūrī

PFV bite PAS he by the dog

"He was bitten by the dog"

[*e mea marō te ha’ari – "Are thing dry the coconut", "The coconuts are dry"] [*e ta’ata pūai ’oia – "Is man strong he", "He is a strong man"]


Definite article[edit]

The article te is the definite article and means the. In conversation it is also used as an indefinite article for a or an.[22] ‒ for example:

  • te fare – the house; te tāne – the man

The plural of the definite article te is te mau ‒ for example:

  • te mau fare – the houses; te mau tāne – the men

te alone (with no plural marking) can also encode an unspecified, generic number ‒ for example:

  • te ta’ata – “the person” [specific singular] or “people” [generic singular in Tahitian, generic plural in English]


  • te mau ta’ata – “the people” [specific plural]

Indefinite article[edit]


The indefinite article is e

For example;

  • e ta’ata - a person [18]

The article e also introduces an indefinite common noun.

For example;

  • e ta’ata – a person
  • e vahine – a woman
  • e mau vahine – (many) women

In contrast, te hō’ē means a certain. [19]

For example;

  • te hō’ē fare – a certain house


The article ’o is used with proper nouns and pronouns and implies it is.

For example;

  • ’O Tahiti – (It is) Tahiti
  • ’O rātou – (It is) they

Aspect and modality markers[edit]

Verbal aspect and modality are important parts of Tahitian grammar, and are indicated with markers preceding and/or following the invariant verb. Important examples are:

  • e: expresses an unfinished action or state.
E hīmene Mere i teie pō: [20] ""Will sing Mary tonight", "Mary will sing tonight"
  • ’ua: expresses a finished action, a state different from a preceding state. [21] [’ua does not indicate surprise]
’Ua riri au : "Angry I", "I am angry" [22]
  • tē ... nei: indicates progressive aspect.
Tē tanu nei au i te taro: "planting I [dir. obj. marker] the taro", "I am planting the taro"


E tāere ana ’ōna "Always is late he", "He is always late"
  • i ... nei indicates a finished action or a past state.
’Ua fānau hia ’oia i Tahiti nei "Was born she in Tahiti", "She was born in Tahiti"
  • i ... iho nei indicates an action finished in the immediate past.
I tae mai iho nei ’ōna "He just came"
  • ’ia indicates a wish, desire, supposition, or condition.
’Ia vave mai! "Hurry up!"
  • ’a indicates a command or obligation.
’A pi’o ’oe i raro! "Bend down!"
  • ’eiaha indicates negative imperative.
’Eiaha e parau! "Do not speak"
  • ’Āhiri, ’ahani indicates a condition or hypothetical supposition.
’Āhiri te pahī i ta’ahuri, ’ua pohe pau roa īa tātou "If the boat had capsized, we would all be dead"
  • ’aita expresses negation.
’Aita vau e ho’i mai "I will not return"

Taboo names – pi’i[edit]

In many parts of Polynesia the name of an important leader was (and sometimes still is) considered sacred (tapu) and was therefore accorded appropriate respect (mana). In order to avoid offense, all words resembling such a name were suppressed and replaced by another term of related meaning until the personage died. If, however, the leader should happen to live to a very great age this temporary substitution could become permanent.

In the rest of Polynesia means to stand, but in Tahitian it became ti’a, because the word was included in the name of king Tū-nui-’ē’a-i-te-atua. Likewise fetū (star) has become in Tahiti feti’a and aratū (pillar) became arati’a. Although nui (big) still occurs in some compounds, like Tahiti-nui, the usual word is rahi (which is a common word in Polynesian languages for 'large'). The term ’ē’a fell in disuse, replaced by purūmu or porōmu. Currently ’ē’a means 'path' while purūmu means 'road'.

Tū also had a nickname, Pō-mare (literally means 'night coughing'), under which his dynasty has become best known. By consequence (night) became ru’i (currently only used in the Bible, having become the word commonly in use once again), but mare (literally cough) has irreversibly been replaced by hota.

Other examples include;

  • vai (water) became pape as in the names of Papeari, Papeno’o, Pape’ete
  • moe (sleep) became ta’oto (the original meaning of which was 'to lie down').

Some of the old words are still used on the Leewards.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tahitian at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ a b Reo Mā’ohi correspond to "languages of natives from French Polynesia," and may in principle designate any of the seven indigenous languages spoken in French Polynesia. The Tahitian language specifically is called Reo Tahiti (See Charpentier & François 2015: 106).
  3. ^ "Les Langues Polynésiennes". Académie Tahitienne. Retrieved 1 August 2010.
  4. ^ Charpentier & François (2015).
  5. ^ Thompson, Christina (5 March 2020). Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific. Glasgow, Scotland: William Collins. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-00-833905-0.
  6. ^ Thompson, Christina (5 March 2020). Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific. Glasgow, Scotland: William Collins. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-00-833905-0.
  7. ^ Bickmore (1995:414)
  8. ^ Gabillon, Zehra; Alincai, Rodica (2015). "Multilingual primary education initiative in French Polynesia". Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 174: 3597. Retrieved 19 August 2021.
  9. ^ a b c Blust, Robert (2004). "*t to k: An Austronesian Sound Change Revisited". Oceanic Linguistics. 43 (2): 365–410. doi:10.1353/ol.2005.0001. ISSN 0029-8115. JSTOR 3623363.
  10. ^ Charpentier & François (2015): 93).
  11. ^ Tryon (1970:5)
  12. ^ Bickmore (1995:412)
  13. ^ Bickmore (1995:417)
  14. ^ Bickmore (1995:420)
  15. ^ Bickmore (1995:422)
  16. ^ Bickmore (1995:423)
  17. ^ Bickmore (1995:423–425)
  18. ^ Bickmore (1995:425–432)
  19. ^ Bickmore (1995:433–435)
  20. ^ "Graphie et graphies de la langue tahitienne". Académie tahitienne (in French). 2003-01-06. Archived from the original on 2003-11-05.
  21. ^ Tryon (1970:32–40)
  22. ^ Tryon (1970:9)


External links[edit]