Tuamotuan language

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Reʻo Paʻumotu
Reko Paʻumotu
Native toFrench Polynesia
Regionthe Tuamotus, Tahiti
Ethnicity15,600 (2007 census?)[1]
Native speakers
4,000 in Tuamotu (2007 census)[2]
many additional speakers in Tahiti[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3pmt

Tuamotuan, Paʻumotu or Paumotu (Tuamotuan: Reʻo Paʻumotu or Reko Paʻumotu) is a Polynesian language spoken by 4,000 people in the Tuamotu archipelago, with an additional 2,000 speakers in Tahiti.[4]:76

The Tuamotu people today refer to their land as Tuamotu, while referring to themselves and their language as Paʻumotu. Paʻumotu is one of five Polynesian languages spoken in French Polynesia, the other four languages being Tahitian, Marquesan, Mangarevan, and the language of the Austral Islands.[4]

The Paʻumotu alphabet is based on the Latin script.[5]

History and culture[edit]

The Tuamotus were evidently settled c. AD 1000, not long after this entire chain of atolls emerged from the sea around AD 900,[6][better source needed] by people from the Society Islands. Archaeologists have identified remains of coral marae platforms on almost every atoll in the archipelago.[7] Due to the vast extent and position of the Tuamotus, they have been described as the Crossroads of East Polynesia, for pre-European links to neighbouring archipelagos remain evident today in basalt adze heads, the source quarries for which can be traced back to the Society Islands, Austral Islands, Pitcairn Island, and even the Hawaiian Islands.[8]

Europeans first discovered the islands in 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan reached them while sailing across the Pacific Ocean. Subsequent explorers visited the islands over the centuries, including Pedro Fernández de Quirós, Willem Schouten and Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian ethnographer who sailed the Kon-Tiki expedition across the Pacific in 1947.

The effects of early European visits were marginal as they had no political effects. The language, however, was ultimately affected by the Tahitian language, which was itself affected by European expansion. The eventual arrival of European missionaries in the 19th century also led to loanwords, including the creation of new vocabulary terms for the Tuamotuan's new-found faith, and the translation of the Bible into Tuamotuan.[9]

The original religion of the Tuamotus involved the worship of a higher being, Kiho-Tumu or Kiho. Religious chants have been preserved and translated that describe the attributes of Kiho and how he created the World.[10]

In more recent times, the Tuamotus were the site of French nuclear testing on the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa.


Paʻumotu is a member of the Polynesian group of Oceanic languages, itself a subgroup of the Austronesian family.[2]

Some foreign influence is present.[11]

Geographic spread[edit]

A rough map of the Tuamotuan Archipelago

Paʻumotu is spoken among the atolls of the Tuamotuan Archipelago, which amount to over 60 small islands. Many of the former inhabitants have moved to Tahiti, causing the language to dwindle.[9]

In the 1970s, there were a number of Tuamotuans living in Laie, O'ahu, Hawai'i, as well as other locations on the island of O'ahu. Some were reported to live in California and Florida. There were also a number of people living in New Zealand who were reportedly Tuamotuans, although they came from Tahiti.[9]


Paʻumotu has seven dialects or linguistic areas: covering Parata, Vahitu, Maraga, Fagatau, Tapuhoe, Napuka and Mihiro.[4][12] The native Tuamotuan people are somewhat nomadic, shifting from one atoll to another and thereby creating a wide variety of dialects.[13] The natives refer to this nomadic tendency as "orihaerenoa", from the root words "ori" (meaning "to wander around"), "haere" (meaning "to go") and "noa" (meaning "non-restriction").[13]

Paʻumotu is very similar to Tahitian, and a considerable amount of "Tahitianization" has affected Paʻumotu.[13][4]:101–108 Primarily due to the political and economical dominance of Tahiti in the region, many Tuamotuans (especially those from the Western atolls) are bilingual, speaking both Paʻumotu and Tahitian.[9] Many young Tuamotuans who live on atolls nearer to Tahiti speak only Tahitian and no Paʻumotu.

An example is the Paʻumotu use of a voiced velar nasal sound such as "k" or "g", which in Tahitian-Tuamotuan (a blending of the languages) is rather a glottal stop. For example, the word for "shark" in plain Paʻumotu is "mago", but in the blending of the two languages it becomes "ma'o", dropping the voiced velar nasal consonant "g". The same is true with words such as "matagi"/"mata'i" and "koe"/" 'oe". [13]

These differences in dialect lead to a split between "Old Tuamotuan" and "New Tuamotuan". Many younger Tuamotuans do not recognize some words that their forebears used, such as the word "ua" for rain. Younger Tuamotuans use the word "toiti" to describe rain in contemporary Tuamotuan.


No systematic grammar has been published on the Tuamotuan language. Current Tahitian-Tuamotuan orthographies are based upon the Tahitian Bible and the Tahitian translation of the Book of Mormon.[9]

An available source for Tuamotuan-English comparatives is "The cult of Kiho-Tumu", which contains Tuamotuan religious chants and their English translation. [10]


(a) Consonants:

Labial Labio­
Alveolar Velar Glottal
Plosive p t k (ʔ)
Fricative f
Nasal m n ŋ ⟨g⟩
Rhotic r

Glottal stop is found in a large number of Tahitian loanwords. It's also found in free variation with /k/ and /ŋ/ in a number of words shared between Tuamotuan and Tahitian. Epenthetic glottal stop may be found at the beginning of monophthong-initial words.[14]

(b) Vowels:

Tuamotuan Vowel Phonemes[13]
front unrounded central unrounded back rounded
high /i/ /u/
mid /e/
low /a/ /o/[15]

Short vowels contrast with long vowels and vowel length is thereby phonemic. A number of non-identical vowel pairs appear in Tuamotuan, and long vowels are interpreted as pairs of identical vowels and written by doubling the vowels in all cases.[13] In non-stressed position, the distinction between long and short may be lost. The position of stress is predictable. Primary stress is on the penultimate vowel before a juncture, with long vowels counting double and semi-vocalized vowels not counting as vowels. One out of every two or three vowels is stressed.. that is, the minimum domain for assigning stress is two vowels, and the maximum is three. When a long vowel is stressed, the stress falls on the entire vowel, regardless of which mora is penultimate, unless the long vowel is word-final. No more than one unstressed vowel/mora can occur in a row, but, when the first of two vowels is long, there is no stresses mora between them. Morphemes of a single short vowel cannot be stressed.[16]


Naturally, a lot of similarity between other Polynesian languages can be seen in the vocabulary of Paʻumotu. Woman, for example, is "vahine", very close to the Hawaiian "wahine". Another example is "thing", which in Paʻumotu is "mea", and is the same in Samoan.

Paʻumotu speakers utilize fast deliberate speech, slow deliberate speech, and normal speech patterns. They apply phrase stress, which can be phonemic or morphemic, and primary stress, which is not phonemic.[17]

Endangerment status[edit]

According to UNESCO, Paʻumotu is "definitely endangered"[18] Indeed, since before the 1960s, many of the Tuamotu islanders have migrated to Tahiti for education or work opportunities;[4] this rural flight has strongly contributed to the weakening of Paʻumotu, which is sometimes described as a "dying language".[19]

Since the 1950s, the only language used in education in French Polynesia was French. No Tahitian or Tuamotuan is taught in schools.[20]


  1. ^ Tuamotuan language at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ a b c Tuamotuan at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Tuamotuan". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ a b c d e See Charpentier & François (2015).
  5. ^ "Ethnologue".
  6. ^ Crowe, Andrew (2018). Pathway of the Birds: The Voyaging Achievements of Māori and their Polynesian Ancestors. Auckland, New Zealand: Bateman. p. 96. ISBN 9781869539610.
  7. ^ Crowe, Andrew (2018). Pathway of the Birds: The Voyaging Achievements of Māori and their Polynesian Ancestors. Auckland, New Zealand: Bateman. p. 96–99. ISBN 9781869539610.
  8. ^ Crowe, Andrew (2018). Pathway of the Birds: The Voyaging Achievements of Māori and their Polynesian Ancestors. Auckland, New Zealand: Bateman. p. 231. ISBN 9781869539610.
  9. ^ a b c d e Kuki, Hiroshi (1971). The place of glottal stop in Tuamotuan. Gengo Kenkyu: Journal of the Linguistic Society of Japan.
  10. ^ a b Stimson, John Francis (1933). The cult of Kiho-tumu. Honolulu, HI: The Bishop Museum.
  11. ^ Tregear, Edward (1895). A Paumotuan dictionary with Polynesian comparatives. Wellington, New Zealand: Whitcombe & Tombs.
  12. ^ Carine Chamfrault (26 December 2008). "L'académie pa'umotu, "reconnaissance d'un peuple"" [The Pa‘umotu Academy, “recognition of a people”]. La Dépêche de Tahiti (in French). Archived from the original on 5 September 2012. Retrieved 4 November 2010.
  13. ^ a b c d e f Kuki, Hiroshi (1970). Tuamotuan Phonology.
  14. ^ Kuki (1973), p. 104
  15. ^ Kuki (1973), p. 103
  16. ^ Kuki (1973), p. 104–105, 108–112.
  17. ^ Kuki, Hiroshi (March 1973). "Predictability of Stress in a Polynesian Language: Stress Patterns in Tuamotuan". Gengo Kenkyu (Journal of the Linguistic Society of Japan).
  18. ^ Wurm, Stephen (2001). "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing (2001)". unesco.org.
  19. ^ Stimson, J. Frank (1965). "A Dictionary of Some Tuamotuan Dialects of the Polynesian Language". American Anthropologist. 67. doi:10.1525/aa.1965.67.4.02a00210.
  20. ^ Vernaudon, Jacques (2015). "Linguistic Ideologies: Teaching Oceanic Languages in French Polynesia and New Caledonia" (PDF). The Contemporary Pacific. 27 (2): 433–462. doi:10.1353/cp.2015.0048.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]