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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



The Tokelau alphabet contains five vowel sounds, a, e, i, o, and u, and the twelve consonant sounds, f, h, k, l, m, n, ng, p, s, t, v, and wh. Hale (11) adds w, but it is no longer heard in the present-day speech. The relation of this alphabet to those of other Polynesian dialects is shown in the accompanying table adapted from Hiroa (29). The dialect uses interchangeably the consonants h and s, f and wh (a sound intermediate between h and f), and formerly used v and w.

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There are apparently two dialects in Polynesia, an older one using h and wh, and a later and intrusive one using f and s (30). The presence of these two pairs of consonantal sounds as interchangeable in the Tokelau dialect suggests that the two Polynesian dialects have been brought to these islands, and that one has never entirely supplanted the other. If we take one mode of Tokelau speech which uses h and wh, the closest parallel to it is the Manihiki-Rarotongan dialect, which also has both the v and w. If we replace the h and wh by s and f, the dialect corresponds with that of Vaitupu of the Ellice Islands. (It is this form of the dialect which is more commonly spoken today and which has been used throughout this study in spelling native names and words.) The Tokelau dialect has its closest parallels in one form to an island to the east, and in its other form to an island directly to the west. The dialect of Samoa, geographically the closest, is more divergent from that of the Tokelau Islands than are the dialects of these two islands and also Tonga.

The Polynesian sound wh (as in where) can not be detected in the present-day speech; however it was clear to Hale (11) before the Samoan missionaries and school teachers had influenced the dialect. He writes: “The utterance of the people was very indistinct. The f frequently became a sound like the wh in where, and sometimes, particularly before o and u, a simple h.”

Since Hale's visit there has been a tendency to give an f value to the former wh sound. It is gently breathed with the oral passage closed, and the lower teeth brought near the upper lip, giving a slight fricative sound but not a distinct f and the end of the enunciation of h. That this sound is cognate with the true Polynesian wh seems apparent from a change taking place in the Maori dialect, which is noted by Williams (35) in his dictionary:

Wh represents the voiceless consonant corresponding with w and is produced by emitting the breath sharply between the lips. It is a mistake to assimilate the sound of that of f in English, though it has become fashionable in recent years with some of the younger Maoris.

The pure h, usually strongly aspirated, is interchangeable with s. H often becomes hi or hy before a, o, or u, especially in Atafu dialect. This same peculiarity is also found in the Manihiki dialect. Thus “to come” is rendered hiau instead of hau. The roughly aspirated h sometimes becomes sibilant but with a light stress on the s. Hau and hiau are heard as shau, a variation also recorded by Lamont (29, p. 13), an early visitor at Tongareva.

K is sometimes sounded as g as in higi, hiki, Miga, Mika. Hale heard k sounded like t in some words. Although Samoan is taught in the schools, widely spoken, and read, the Tokelau people never drop their k's.

The l is consistently used, but becomes quite liquid in some words.

The sounds m, n, ng, p, t, and v are always constant in the present-day speech.

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The vocabulary of Tokelau resembles that of Samoa very closely, and nearly all the words collected during my stay are in Pratt's “Dictionary of the Samoan language”. However, there are words, such as pahu (sharkskin covered drum) and tuluma (wooden fishing box), which are names of articles not found in Samoa, and a few words such as fano (to go) which have another origin. The definite articles te and ta are not Samoan. Many old songs contain words of which the meaning is now forgotten.

Many place names are identical with names found on neighboring islands. For example, Pangai on Fakaofu is a common name in Tonga, meaning “meeting place”. Rapa is given by Bryan (3) as the name of a small island near Fakaofu although the r is absent in Tokelau speech. (The same island is called Lapa in the Report of the Administrator of Western Samoa.) Vaitupu and Niutao, Pukapuka, and Futuna are names found on Nukunono.

Table 1. Polynesian Consonants
Sound Tokelau Manihiki Tongareva Tonga Samoa Society Islands New Zealand (Maori) Vaitupu (Ellice)
H H(or F,S) h h H (s or f) H H (s or f)
hi hi hi hi(some) hi(some)
K K K K K ' ' K K
L 1 1
P P P P P(or B) P P P P
W w w w
Ng Ng Ng Ng Ng Ng ' Ng Ng
F F Wh(as F) F
wh (h) F F F
Wh wh(as hf) Wh
S S(or H) (h) S S S (h) (h) S

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 hamzah, is inserted for comparative purposes.

Tongan B, probably modern adoption from Fijian and not an original sound.