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Ethnology of Tongareva



The Tongarevan language is a distinct dialect of the Polynesian tongue. Reading and writing have been taught by native pastors, who have been trained by the London Missionary Society in Rarotonga. The Bible has been translated into the Rarotongan dialect, and the alphabet taught is that compiled for Rarotonga. This alphabet is quite inadequate for the recording of the Tongarevan speech, for not only has the h sound been omitted from Rarotongan, but it has no l, s, or w, all of which are present in Tongarevan speech. The vowels consist of the usual Polynesian five, a, e, i, o, and u. The Rarotongan consonants used consist of seven, k, r, m, n, p, v, and ng. The early missionaries who drafted the alphabets for the various Polynesian dialects had extreme difficulty in distinguishing between the sounds of l and r and of v and w. These and other doubtful sounds were settled for the usage of the Hawaiian alphabet by a committee which, as recorded by Spaulding (25, pp. 32, 33), took the votes of nine missionaries. Though the English language contained all the letters, the missionaries have standardized the Polynesian dialects by restricting them to one sound of a doubtful pair, though both sounds were evidently in use. Some of the difficulty arose because subdialectical differences occurred in different localities of the same group of islands and standardization was felt to be necessary for page 11 printing the Bible and other religious literature. Thus in Hawaii the original k sound had been dropped and was represented in speech by the glottal closure. Later, the k sound began to displace the original t sound, but the process was by no means complete. The committee settled the matter by adopting k and discarding t and thus arbitrarily completing the transition. The difficulty with the l and r and also with v and w is that probably the original sounds were intermediate.

In time the tendency was to go in one or the other direction. Thus, in New Zealand the l-r sound became definitely r and the v-w sound became w, so that the dialect became standardized in the sounds by the Maoris themselves. In Samoa, the l-r sound became definitely l and the v-w sound became v, so that the dialect also standardized itself in these two sounds. In the Cook Islands, however, and probably other areas such as Hawaii the process of the sharper definition of the uncertain sounds went in both directions. With regard to the assumed l-r sound, in some words the tongue reached the palate with more pressure and produced the distinct l sound, and in others the tongue was kept away from the palate and produced the r sound. Similarly, in the v-w sound in some words the lips contracted in and produced the w sound, whereas in others the closure of the buccal orifice was produced by the upper teeth touching the lower lip so that a v sound resulted.

The proper method of exact study would have been to watch and inquire as to the movements of the mouth and tongue in order to supplement the sense of hearing. Each word should then have been recorded phonetically and an alphabet compiled to meet the needs of the dialect. As it was, the compilers of the alphabets, with few exceptions, did not adequately represent the sounds of the Polynesian dialects. Table 1 gives the alphabets and sounds of some dialects for comparison with those of Tongareva.

If the s, which I doubt, l-r, v-w, and f-wh are treated as original consonant sounds, the total number of original consonant sounds is eleven. Of these Tongareva has maintained ten, but the f-wh sound is represented by h. There are thus no dropped sounds or glottal closures in the dialect. Furthermore, by duplicating the original l-r and v-w sounds into distinct l, r, v, and w, the dialect has added two more consonants and thus totals twelve consonant sounds. In the number of consonants it is only equalled by Manihiki. Tongarevan is more nearly allied with Rarotongan in consonant sounds, however, for, though Tongareva has the s, both are without the f-wh sound, and there is thus but one positive difference. Manihiki, by not having the s and having the wh sound, has two points of difference. In Tahiti the absence of the ng increases the difference from Tongareva. The presence page 12 of the s in Samoa is offset by the presence of the f and the dropping of the k and the standardization of l-r and v-w into l and v, which is opposite to the tendency in Tongareva. Tongarevan has also the distinct sibilant sound of ch which will be dealt with under the letter t.

Table 1. Polynesian Consonants
Original sound Tongareva Manihiki Rarotonga Society Islands New Zealand Hawaii Samoa
1. H h h h H H H (sorf)
2. K K K K ' K ' '
3. L l l L
R R R r
4. M M M M M M M M
5. N N N N N N N N
6. P P P P P P P P
7. T T T T T T (K) T
8. V V V V V v
W w w w W
9. Ng Ng Ng Ng ' Ng (N) Ng
10. F Wh (as F)
(h) wh (h) F (h) F
Wh Wh
11. S(?) S (h) (h) (h) (h) (h) S
11 12 12 10 8 11 9 9

Capital letter = Present in alphabet.

Small letter = Present in speech but not in alphabet.

( ) = Sound absent, but represented by letter in brackets.

Hamzah' = Sound dropped, but represented by glottal closure.

Rarotongan h, probably more correctly represented by the hamzah, is inserted for comparative purposes.

The h sound in Tongarevan is distinct. In a few words Tongareva follows the same usage as Rarotonga and New Zealand. In the following tables the h is inserted in Rarotongan words, though it is not included in the alphabet. The Samoan h is replaced by s or f.

Tongareva Rarotonga New Zealand Samoa Meaning
Tahuhu Tahuhu Tahuhu ('au'au) ridgepole
Aroha Aroha Aroha Alofa love
Hakiri ? Hakiri Sa'ili (to seek) to throw away

This h also appears in hanga, which forms the noun ending to verbs as surahanga (the turning over) from sura (to turn).

In most words, however, the h represents the wh of New Zealand and the f of Tahiti and Samoa. In this, it follows the Rarotongan usage.

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Tongareva Rarotonga New Zealand Tahiti Samoa Meaning
Hare Hare Whare Fare Fale House
Hara Hara Whara (Astelia) Fara Fala Pandanus
Haka- Haka- Whaka- Fa'a Causative Prefix
Hari Hari Whiri Firi Fili To braind
Hariki ? Whariki Fari'i To place under

The Tongarevan k resembles that of Manihiki, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand and distinguishes the dialect from Tahitian, Hawaiian, and Samoan, in which the k has been dropped and is represented by the glottal stop (').

The distinct l is present in such words as talanga (story), talolo (messenger between lovers), and alelo (tongue).

The presence of the r was noted in such words as waru (to scrape), roro (coconut cream) and Rangi-saruru (an ancestor). Lamont (15) uses the r in several native words and never the l. It is probable that some words are in the intermediate stage, but on the whole the r is more common than the l.

The m, n, and p require little comment, except that n generally replaces ng in na for nga, the plural of the definite article, “the.”

The s, except in a few words, takes the place of the pure h of the Cook Islands and New Zealand and in this usage resembles Samoa. The following are examples.

Tongareva Rarotonga New Zealand Samoa Meaning
Saruru Haruru Haruru Salulu (to blow) to sound
Sape Hape Hape Sape mistake, club foot
Sere Here Here Sele to tie, to snare
Vavasi Vavahi Wawahi to break
Songi Hongi Hongi Songi to press noses
Sosore Hohore Hohore to peel off
Kaso Kaho Kaho 'aso part of house frame
Asu Ahu Ahu Asu to heap up, to bail out

Lamont (15) seems to have heard and sh sound, for he writes sarasara (to wave the hands) as “sharashara” and Hakasusa as “Haka Shusha.”

The t sound has undergone a curious modification in the sibilant sound of tch. The tip of the tongue is not so far forward against the incisor teeth as it is when producing the usual Polynesian t sound. The sibilant sound is more marked before the vowels i and e. Thus the line of the song, “Titia mai to titi maire” (Gird on your sweet-scented kilt) sounds like “Tchitchia mai to tchitchi maire.” The phrase “Taku ate” (my liver), used as a cry of alarm or anger, is sounded as “Taku atchě.” In the phrase quoted the t before e becomes sibilant, but the t before a is sounded as an ordinary t. Before o the t sound is unchanged, as in to (a spear), pro- page 14 nounced to. Before u there seems to be a tendency to use the sibilant, for, though in all the island names commencing with “Motu” the t seemed to be distinctly sounded, Mr. Wilson, the resident government Agent, held that Motukohiti was pronounced “Motchukohitchy.” Lamont, on the other hand, who wrote the sibilant t as ch wrote the same word as “Mutagohichy.”

The sibilant t does not occur in Samoa, but in Niue the t before i and e is sounded as s, which shows a similar tendency in sibilant change. Williams (32, p. 418) quotes the method in Tonga of variously representing the pronunciation of t when it is followed by i, j, or s. The nearest approach to the Tongarevan t appears to be in the Chatham Islands where the t undergoes a change in sound before all the vowels except o. As quoted by Williams (32, p. 418), Shand represented the sound by writing tch, tchi, tche or tc for t. The peculiar pronunciation also occurred with k before a and with h before a or o. Williams remarks that in producing the sound “the tongue appears to be somewhat arched into the palate and the letter uttered with a slight emission of breath which not infrequently produces the effect of a suppressed I, or sometimes E, sound before the proper vowel of the word.” Handy (8, p. 9) points out that in the Marquesan dialect, “In combination with different vowels there is a variation from a simple h sound to a distinct German ch, through sch to s, with a w sound often included.” The resemblance of the Marquesan treatment of h to that of the Chatham Islands further supports the contention of Williams (32, p. 420) that of the affinities he discovered between the Chatham Islands dialect and other Polynesian dialects that with the Marquesan dialect figures most frequently.

The v sound is present in such words as velo (canoe stern) and mataki-vikivi (to turn aside); the w sound in such words as wananga (teaching), waka (canoe), wahine (woman). In spelling native words Lamont uses oa as in oaka (canoe) and niu oara (grated coconut). The word for canoe must be either waka or vaka. If oaka, waka, and vaka are carefully pronounced, and the position of the mouth, lips, and teeth noted for each, it will be evident that Lamont's oa was meant to represent wa and could not represent va. The same applies to niu oara which was meant for niu waru, the oa again representing the w sound. In recording Polynesian words for the first time I have often failed to distinguish between the sounds oa and wa and have had to repeat the word slowly to get the correct sound. Lamont uses other words such as “oahine” (wahine), showing that before the advent of the Rarotongan alphabet the sound that he heard was w. Lamont did not use the letter v in any native word. This does not signify that the v was not present in the dialect, but only it was not present in the few words that Lamont used. Thus, the tendency with the v-w sound was more toward the w than the v, just as the l-r sound was more inclined toward the r.

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The ng sound is present as in the Cook Islands, New Zealand, and Samoa as contrasted with Tahiti, where it is represented by the glottal stop, and with Hawaii, where it is represented by n.

The affinities in dialect given above are based entirely on the sounds. My impression from the vocabulary acquired during my brief stay was that there was more affinity with Rarotonga and New Zealand than with Samoa. The compilation of a complete vocabulary for the Tongarevan dialect may disclose other closer affinities. With a knowledge of the Maori and Rarotongan dialects I had no difficulty in speaking and understanding Tongarevan, whereas I experienced much more trouble with Samoan and Tahitian.