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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May 1, 1937)


The spelling of the Maori language, which makes the tongue so easy and pleasant to learn, once the vowel values are understood, is a shining example to most of the written forms of the Polynesian languages. The spelling of the tongues of Samoa, Tonga, and Niue is particularly a matter of importance to New Zealanders, for we are constantly reading news items from these places and hearing various names pronounced, or mispronounced. The most notorious example of misspelling in the newspapers is “Pago Pago,” for Pango-pango, the American port on the island of Tutuila. Pangopango is the correct and Maori-like form; it is in fact a Maori name meaning dark, or gloomy, referring to the mountains that tower over the fiord harbour. It is phonetic in form; no one can go astray in its pronunciation. But “Pago Pago” is a travesty of the name, a form ugly as well as misleading. Naturally most people in their excusable ignorance call it “Pay-go-pay-go”; trans-Pacific passengers learn that aboard ship.

We shall be hearing a good deal about Pangopango, now that it is one of the stages on that modern miracle, the Pan-American clipper flight from San Francisco to Auckland. New Zealand would do well to rectify this misuse of a melodious and meaningful name. I was pleased to hear at least one man pronounce it properly; that was the National Broadcast announcer at 2YA. He gave it its rightful form and intonation.

It is strange indeed that this matter of spelling has not been rectified in Samoa and its neighbour countries long ago. The early missionaries blunder in making “g” the arbitrary written form for “nga” could easily be set right. Yet ugly and incorrect spellings like “tagitagi,” and “moega” and “Fagaloa” persist; and the new arrival in Samoa or Tonga cannot but think that the names as spelled look like a barbwire fence. It comes to the stranger as a glad surprise to find that the language is really soft and musical without a suspicion of a sharp “g” in it.

The moment is timely for a change in the official and popular misspelling of the Samoa and Niue tongues. Consistency is called for, throughout Polynesia, seeing that the Maori pronunciation is universal from Tonga to Easter Island. In Rarotonga and other Cook Islands fortunately the correct forms prevail. Imagine “Rarotoga” and “Magaia” and “Aoragi,” on the grotesque principle which gives us “Magiagi” — “Maggie-Aggie!” — in Samoa.