The Tuvaluan Language: A Beginner’s Perspective

What started as a genuinely-hearted journey to find more about “sinking islands” turned into an entirely new passion. While I am still a beginner in Tuvaluan and have been for the past month, I have been capable of communicating with simple sentences and even quite able to understand a handful of songs!

In honor of Tuvaluan Independence Day, I thought I should answer a few questions:

  • Why Tuvaluan?
  • What should I get to learn it?

First off, a bit about my background. Earlier this year I had a Benny-Lewis style Fijian mission on location in Fiji (which I deemed a modest success). Prior to that my only deep interests in Oceania were with the creoles of Melanesia in addition to some knowledge of Kiribati and Palauan.

You’ve probably noticed that within these is a lot of representation of the Pacific but no Polynesian Languages (except for Tuvaluan) listed thus far (okay, I had a phase with Tongan about a year ago but didn’t get too far with it).

Truth be told, the languages of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia are, together with languages like Malay, Indonesian, various languages of the Philippines and even Malagasy, classed under the “Austronesian Language Family”, or the languages of the isles of the south. Much like the Indo-European Languages can be classed into several families (e.g. Germanic, Celtic, Slavic), so too can the Austronesian Languages. As with human family members, language family members share characteristics amongst themselves and are also affected by “friendships” with other members outside the group. (An example would include Bantu and French loan words in Malagasy as well as English loan words in languages like Fijian or Kiribati).

Now what does this have to do with Tuvalu?

The language has acted a bit like a sponge, in a sense, being influenced by other languages both close to it (such as Samoan due to influence from Christian preachers from Samoan), Kiribati (due to cultural exchange between Tuvaluans and the Gilbertese-speakers) and English (due to being a former British colony. And Tuvalu has a central location:

tuvalu yay

What this has to do with language learning is the fact that Tuvaluan meshes a lot of characteristics in it that make it a befitting “gateway” to any of the other Polynesian Languages. (My understanding is that it would be similar to, let’s say, Slovak among the Slavic Languages—that due to its central location, it is the Slavic Language that represents most of the qualities of the family as a whole).

Tuvalu is a small country of around 11,000 inhabitants and the third smallest by population. You’re probably curious as to why such an investment would be a wise idea to begin with.

The fact is, due to a lot of music production and expatriate communities in New Zealand and elsewhere, not also to mention their “global” outlook within the Pacific, Tuvaluan music and culture has extended well beyond its borders, although on a small scale.

Or IS it so small? I once told a friend of mine (and Facebook) that my knowledge of Tuvaluan had caused me to “understand things like Pokémon Games and Disney Movies on a deeper level”

And the thing is, I wasn’t joking. Pokémon Sun and Moon takes place in Alola (a Hawaii-inspired region) and featured snippets of Hawaiian place names that I could understand via Tuvaluan cognates. Moana also featured Tokelauan songs—which is very close to Tuvaluan.

True to any small language that I’ve learned so far, the Tuvaluan community does offer “insider privileges” and respect to those who learn the language to any degree. In fact, the word for foreigners in Tuvaluan is “fakaalofa” which actually refers to “people who need love” (also a greeting in Niuean, but I digress).

Also a lot of the materials are very clearly written, although rare. For one, this grammar page is extremely thorough: http://www.tuvaluislands.com/lang-tv.htm

In addition to that, Geoffrey and Jenny Jackson’s Tuvaluan Dictionary is available at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. It also features a lot of sample sentences that are actually more useful than meets the eye. The dictionary is extremely good, and if it has one flaw, it is the fact that profanity isn’t covered (it is written by missionaries, so fair enough). But even “You Swear Dot Com” doesn’t even feature Tuvaluan profanity so as of now a definitive guide doesn’t exist anywhere (as far as I know).  I have heard that the Jacksons also wrote a textbook but it wasn’t stocked at the USP bookstore (there are excerpts on it on Google Books and it is VERY good…what I can see of it, that is.)

Glosbe also features cross-translated sentences in Tuvaluan from its translation memory—these are godsends from anyone learning rare languages anywhere.

Lastly, check out and subscribe to the MusicTuvalu channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOvs1-AGk-idOZhScjEu3qQ As well as the Memrise Courses that are incomplete but very well done regardless.

Speaking of which, I’m going to record myself speaking some Tuvaluan right now!

The Tongan Way

It was my life’s dream to begin learning languages of the Pacific since I was a kid. The fact that I haven’t done so for decades is confusing to me, but perhaps one reason I started it this late was because I needed to hone my techniques and confidence, both of which are required in greater depth if you want to take on languages that virtually no one you know of is likely to learn or speak.

Granted, I have been speaking Tok Pisin since 2014 and Bislama and Solomon Islands Pijin since 2016. What I mean when I say “Pacific Languages” are those truly indigenous to the region, and this year brought me into the arms of three of them specifically: Palauan, Tongan and Kiribati / Gilbertese. I’ve been extremely fascinated by all of them (and I would say at this juncture that Palauan is the hardest and Kiribati the easiest).

But today I’m going to talk about Tonga, because today is Tonga National Day.

Tonga is a country that continues to hold very strongly to its traditions, being an absolute monarchy even today, as well as one in which Christian identity is taken very seriously. What’s more I would venture that most people learning the Tongan Language might be doing so because they are missionaries.

The language itself is fascinating on every level and works unlike any other language I’ve seen. Let’s hop in!

The pronunciation, like many Austronesian languages (or “Languages of the Southern Islands” which stretch all the way from Madagascar to Easter Island / Rapa Nui) is extremely straightforward. You have a, e, i, o and u, pronounced virtually the EXACT same way as they would be pronounced in Spanish. If you see a line over any of these vowels, hold it a little bit longer. This principle, thanks to Finnish (which employed lengthened vowels very similarly but uses “aa” instead of “ā”, was not foreign to me.

Tongan also has a glottal stop, noted as the “ ‘ “ character. This is trickier, and it is pronounced with something like the breathing sound in the middle of “uh-oh”. (In singing this is extremely difficult to hear!)

Now let’s introduce you to what is probably the most commonly known Tongan word abroad, an interjection that literally serves ALL purposes (surprise, joy, anger, excitement), “ ‘oiaue!” Yup, all of the vowels and a glottal stop. Also super fun to say!

The consonants will not be slurred and, much like in a language like Hebrew, always have the exact same pronunciation! Given how similar they are to English that’s not something you need to worry about.

One aspect in which Tongan has really caused me to enter a word of mental gymnastics is the fact that, instead of indicating a tense with changing a verb, you use a “tense marker”.

Let’s give an example. “ ‘oku” is a present tense marker, so if you see it, a verb that follows it will be in the present tense. And PRONOUNS also change with tenses accordingly!

 

Ou -> present “I”

Ku -> past “I”

U -> future “I”

 

‘oku ou -> I am (lit. present-marker I-present)

Na’a ku -> I was (lit. past-marker I-past)

Te u -> I will be (lit. future-marker I-future)

 

You put verbs afterwards

Now there’s yet ANOTHER version of “I”, one that is utilized when it goes at the end of the sentence after a verb. “au”

 

‘Oku ‘alo ki kolo ‘a au. = I am going to town.

Present-marker go all-purpose-preposition town verb marker I-post-verb-version

 

The various pronouns in Tongan are all calibrated in various ways according, complete with exclusive and inclusive versions “we” as well as a singular / dual / plural system.

 

Much like some other languages, Tongan also has an interesting way of asking “what” you ask “Ko e hā e meʻa” = “what is the thing …”

It can be set up in other ways:

 

Ko e hā e lea faka-Tonga ki he _____?

What is the Tongan Word for _____?

 

The word “ko” is translated in so many ways and used is so many constructs that it’s dizzying to even think about how I would begin to describe it on paper. After all, I just got into Tongan a few months ago.

But you probably noticed something about “faka-Tonga”, which translates to “the Tongan Way”, something that is, obviously, at the center of the country’s national identity. Lea faka-Tonga, speaking in the Tongan Way, refers to the Tongan Language (of course).

Faka- as a prefix can also turn any noun into an adjective of the noun. Tonga is, of course, the Kingdom we all know and love (or, at least, we NOW know it and love it!). faka-Tonga turns it into an adjective. Not just Tongan, but an adjectival word that encapsulates everything that is the Tongan Way.

Another thing I didn’t find on the internet so far was how to say “why” in Tongan. That would be “ko e hā … ai” (and it is a sentence construction, with the thing you are asking the “why” about goes in the area with the three dots).

In summary:

  • Pronunciation is extremely easy
  • Verbs don’t really change but you note the tense of a sentence with a word that indicates tense.
  • Pronouns also change for tense too, they also can change depending on sentence structure (there are four forms of the word “I” covered above suited for different situation)
  • I didn’t touch upon it here, but possessives come in two classes. Read more about it on Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongan_language#Possessive_pronouns
  • Idiomatic differences and learning what constitutes a “natural” construct will be your biggest obstacle in learning Tongan (more than anything else would be.

 

What’s more, Tongan also (unsurprisingly) has a lot of English Loan Words, and much like in Japanese, they will be adopted to local spelling conventions. This includes NAMES sometimes!

 

David – Tēvita

Mary – Mele

Science / Scientist – Saienisi

 

Tonga has great music that makes you feel as though you’re on an island (no, REALLY!) as well as a history that features it on center stage locally many times (it has been described as “expansionist”). Pieces of Tongan culture have been featured on the global stage, with the national drink, Kava, having its name COME from Tongan, as well as having costumes from Disney’s Moana / Vaiana modelled after the dress from the Tongan Royal Family, not also to mention it having been a playable mini-civilization in a mode of Civilization V (No joke!!!)

Polynesia as a whole (not to mention the Pacific Island cultures as a group) has been featured in many aspects of both American and Japanese popular culture (it was the colonial frontier for both of them!) As a result, many aspects of any of these cultures will be oddly familiar to you, given how both American and Japanese popular culture have impacted the world.

I have a long way to go with speaking the Tongan way, but it’s been SUPER fun (as well as challenging!) and I can’t wait to see how well I speak Tongan in a year’s time!

And now a song that will get stuck in your head!

Happy Tonga Day, world!

LEA FAKA TONGA