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The Coming of the Maori

The Alphabet

The Alphabet

The unwritten Polynesian language was reduced to writing by early missionaries in various island groups in the first half of the nineteenth century, with the Polynesian sounds represented by English letters. The vowels were readily identified as five and written as a, e, i, o, and u to represent the Polynesian sounds of ah, eh, ee, awe, and oo. The correct determination of the consonants proved a more difficult task. In New Zealand, the difficulties were satisfactorily overcome, for the wh sound as distinct from f was represented by the double letter wh and the ng sound by the other double letter ng. In French Oceania and western page 75Polynesia, the ng sound was represented by the single letter g to free the letter n for its own use and to utilize an otherwise useless g. In those early days, the type founts were limited, and the missionary printers are to be excused for trying to make their meagre stock go as far as possible. This economic device, however, has resulted in mistakes in pronunciation by those who do not know the arbitrary use of the letter g. Thus the naval station of Pago Pago in American Samoa has been pronounced as Pay-go-pay-go, Pag-go-pag-go, or anything except Pangopango.

In Hawaii, the missionary committee set up to draft the Hawaiian alphabet found difficulty in deciding between three pairs of consonant sounds; l and r, w and v, and k and t. Unconsciously perhaps, the committee attempted to reduce the sounds to as few symbols as possible. Finally l, w, and k were voted into the alphabet and r, v, and t, in spite of their claims to inclusion, were arbitrarily rejected. As the Hawaiians came from the Society Islands where r, v, and t are present, it is possible that the wrong members were elected by the vote. The difficulty in distinguishing between l and r, and w and v was probably due to the Polynesian sounds being intermediate between the pairs represented by the English letters. Hence to the Polynesian, the letters represent the sounds which he makes in speaking, whereas to the foreigner, they represent the sounds which he thinks he should hear.