The Wayback Machine -
The Languages of Oceania

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As Captain James Cook's ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, sailed along the coast of Kauai, on the afternoon of January 19, 1778, the first canoe loads of Hawaiians paddled out from the shore to visit the strange vessels. To the Europeans the appearance, the clothing, and the canoes of these natives indicated clearly that they were close kin to the people of the Society Islands, more than 3,200 km to the south. But, in the words of James King, second lieutenant of the Resolution, "what more than all surprised us, was our catching the sound of Otaheite words in their speech; and on asking them for hogs, breadfruit and yams in that dialect, we found we were understood."

For the first time the extraordinary geographical spread of the Polynesian peoples was fully apparent to Europeans, and it was the similarity of language that most strikingly marked their kinship. 



The first inhabitants of Oceania came out of Africa some 25,000 to 40,000 years ago. They brought with them a language that was fundamentally African. These first settlers moved along the Melanesian archipelago from Papua and Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and eventually to Fiji. During this time, the language evolved and became fragmented until it developed into the present day languages of Melanesia.

The migration thousands of years later of the present day Polynesians out of Asia brought with it languages and dialects that were essentially Asian in origin and which developed into the present day languages of Polynesia.

What Lieutenant King of the Resolution described has now become known as Polynesia in the geographical sense - a roughly triangular area with vertices at Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island. He correctly surmised that the few islands within the area that remained to be discovered would also turned out to be linguistically Polynesian. These include the best known and most thoroughly studied members of the family: Maori, Hawaiian, Tahitian, Samoan, and Tongan. It was already known in King's time, however, that Polynesian languages were not confirmed to the triangle. On his second voyage, Cook had heard the language of Futuna in the Southern New Hebrides and found that it was exactly the same as that spoken at the Friendly Islands. By the end of the 19th century a whole series of small Polynesian speaking community had been discovered in Melanesia and Micronesia, from the Loyalty Islands to the Central Carolines. They are now referred to as the Polynesian outliers. 

One of the earliest records of the evidence of Polynesian languages deriving from Asia was that of the missionary, John Williams, who, in 1840, published a range of Polynesian words along with their Asian origins. In his book, Missionary Enterprises In The South Sea Islands published in London by John Snow in 1840, William ponders in Chapter XXIX on the origins of the South Sea Islands. He draws the distinction between the characteristics of the Melanesians and those of the Polynesians which he considered had Malay characteristics and Indian social structure. These he took as clear indications of the Asiatic origin of the Polynesian people. He said, however, that the language spoken by the Malays and the Polynesians was clear evidence of the origins of the Polynesians. William gives the following examples of language similarities.

English Rarotongan Malay
The eye mata mata
Food manga mangan
Dead mate mate
A bird manu manu
Fish ika ika
Water vai vai

 Williams also indicated that the Polynesians employ the Malay numerals with scarcely any variations; but, as the Samoa Islanders frequently insert the s and the l into their words, these are most like the Malay. The following is given as an example.

English Tahitian Rarotongan Samoan Malay
Ten ahuru ngauru safulu safulu
Moon marama marama malama malama

In addition, in Chapter XXX, Williams drew comparisons between the words used in different parts of Polynesia with the following table giving an indication of the similarity of many of the words in use throughout Polynesia by comparing the different dialect with that used in Tahiti.

In this respect, the study of Polynesian language has been a valuable source of information in determining the timing and progression of Polynesian voyaging throughout Oceania. Indeed, the study of the evolution of Polynesian languages has been a valuable field of research for linguists. It is important to remember that, historically, there has been no written language to record the culture, customs, traditions, etc. of our Oceania people. The one exception to this has been the Rongorongo of Easter Island - a series of petroglyphs which, up until recently, appear to have defied logical explanation.

One of the first efforts to translate an Oceania language was that of Reverend Hiram Bingham who, in 1864, translated and published the Bible into the Gilbertese (Kiribati) language. The Gilbertese, however, were not used to see their language in a written form and, consequently, needed to be taught how to read their own Gilbertese words.

In translating the Bible into the local vernacular, considerable difficulty was experienced with the use of some words. For example, in the case of a Bible reference to "mountainous" Bingham adopted maungaunga while the Catholic selection was tabukibuki. The word maungaunga is derived from the Kiribati maunga which has the sense of "high" or "elevated" and may ultimately be traced to prehistoric contacts with Samoans. The Catholic use of tabukibuki suggests an understanding that because mountains do not exist in the low coral islands of Kiribati, a word that means "hilly" in the local dialect would be grasped more quickly.

The Protestants spelled the name of Jesus as Iesu while the Catholics opted for Ietu. Such differences in spelling were resolved in later years when the Catholics agreed in general to conform to Bingham's language usage. 

Kiribati is an interesting case study on the impact of English on the local people. On the outer islands, the Kiribati language is not in any immediate danger of being lost as a consequence of influences from foreign countries nor is it faced with serious linguistic problems as a result of introduced technologies from developed and industrial nations. It is interesting to note that in the outer islands differences in the use of the language have evolved over many years due largely to the geographical separation of many of the Kiribati islands. Examples of the dialectical differences between the outer Kiribati islands are as follows:

English Makin-Butaritari Other Islands
What is your name? Nanta aram? Antai aram?
What is it? Teikara? Tera?
I can't hear (you) I aki n ongo I aki ongo
Come here, you Kuriko naerea Nakomai nao
They/them (those people) Nakekea Nakekei
These people Takam Nakai
Yes Aeng Eng

In central Kiribati, most people tend to converse in a mixture of Kiribati and English. The older people are against this trend and have a strong resentment towards change in the language. Despite their efforts to discourage young people from misuse of words and incorrect grammar, many new words or slang terms of non-Kiribati origin are being introduced. A great number of these are borrowed from the English language and also from neighbouring Pacific Island vernaculars but some seem to be completely new inventions by local youth.

Presently, Pacific Island communities are undergoing enormous changes as a result of western influences brought about by churches, videos and improved communications. English language education is transforming our traditional island society in a way that our forefathers could never have predicted.

Typically, it is not uncommon for an extended Pacific Island family to have grandparents who are fluent in their indigenous language, children who are fluent in both English and their indigenous language and grandchildren who are fluent only in English. The indigenous languages are slowly being lost.

Sadly, not only are the indigenous languages being lost, but the English language is now fusing itself onto the indigenous language with many people speaking, writing and thinking concurrently in both languages.

The traditional concept of the culture and values of our island people being handed down from one generation to the next, both in the stories and the music, is now seriously under threat, and it is important that those things such as culture, anthropology, ethnology and the traditional knowledge that define people by telling them who they are, where they come from, and link them to their past be retained. Retaining the traditional indigenous languages is an important step in this process. 

Polynesian is a small subgroup of the language family now commonly known as Austronesian. With well over 500 daughter languages, this is numerically the largest and most well established language family in the world. The geographic extent of its territory is also one of the largest. The Austronesian speaking area includes the islands of Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, Indonesia, Madagascar, the Philippines, and Taiwan as well as continental enclaves in Indochina and the Malay Peninsula. Within this territory, virtually the only non-Austronesian languages are found on the mainland of New Guinea and parts of some of the adjacent islands (Eastern Indonesia, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomon Islands, and the Santa Cruz Group). These non-Austronesian languages are often called "Papuan", but they are not members of a single family.


The Oceania subgroup include almost all the Austronesian languages of the Polynesian-Melanesian-Micronesian island world, the exception being at the western edges - some languages at the far western end of New Guinea, and Palauan, Chamorro, and possibly Yapese in Micronesia. The Oceania subgroup divides into a number of subgroup with the one of interest for our purposes being eastern oceanic. This subgroup includes, in addition to the languages of Melanesia, those of the southeast Solomons as well as the Central and Northern New Hebrides along with nuclear Micronesia and Rotuma.

The Polynesian family itself is very well defined which suggests that the proto-Polynesian speech community underwent a long period of isolated developments after its separation from proto-Fijian. One of the most important and original features of this category is the nuclear Polynesian subgroup which includes all members of the family except Tongan and Niuean. The nuclear Polynesian hypothesis implies that the first split of the proto-Polynesian speech community separated the linguistic ancestors of the present Samoan and Tongan. Accordingly, a likely location of the proto-Polynesian homeland would be the area including Tonga, Samoa, and the nearby isolated islands. All the Polynesian islands east of 165 degrees west longitude, as swell as New Zealand, derived their languages from a single ancestor, proto-East Polynesian. This single original colony in East Polynesia must have remained a coherent and isolated community for several centuries during which only a single migration to Easter Island succeeded in establishing a separate language tradition.

To be continued ....

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