Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Niuē-fekai (or Savage) Island and its People


page 178


By S. Percy Smith.

The language spoken by the people of Niuē, or, as it was called by Captain Coek, Savage Island, is a dialect of the Great Polynesian Language. Situated as the island is, some 250 miles from the Tonga group, and a little further from Samoa, we may naturally expect to find the dialects of all three groups somewhat akin. This is so, but only to a limited extent. The dialect differs very much in vocabulary and idiom from those of Eastern Polynesia, with which the Maori dialect is very nearly akin, and is more like Tonga and Samoa notwithstanding the existing differences. It seems at first sight that the people belong to the Tonga-Fiti division of the race, that occupied Fiji many centuries ago, and it is probably from them they derive the Melanesian element in their dialect, as well as the traces of Melanesian blood in their physique. There have been probably two distinct elements, or migrations, distinguished by themselves as the Motu and Tafiti people—the former occupying the northern part of the island, the latter the southern. In process of time these two migrations have become so mixed that there is now no possibility of distinguishing them one from another, though the distinctive names are still current.

The first thing that strikes one on becoming acquainted with the dialect, is the infrequency of the use of the passive form of the verb. It is used, but not nearly to so great an extent as in Eastern Polynesia or in Maori. They overcome the difficulty largely by the use of the particle ai, after the verb, and use this same particle in a sense different to that common to the Maoris. The common causitive, Maori whaka in the shape of Faka, is of frequent use, but its addition to a verb often very much alters the sense of it, so much so, that the combination may be looked on frequently as another word. The dialect has not the flexibility of Maori in consequence. In the few page 179 songs that have been collected, it is noticed that the passive form is of more frequent use, and is therein applied to words which no longer possess it, which seems to show that the dialect has been gradually changing in this respect, for the songs referred to are very old, and probably represent the ordinary language as spoken when they were composed.

Another thing that foreibly strikes one, is, the change that words common to both Maori and Niuē have undergone in meaning. Tiaki in Maori, is to take care of; in Niuē it is to cast away, reject.

It is thus never safe to use a Maori word when in want of one to fill up a gap in one's stock of Niuē, or quite a wrong impression may be left on the mind of the hearer.

The personal pronouns show a Melanesian element in them, as will be seen as follows:—

Au = I. me Au = I, me
Koe = thou Koe = thou
Ia = he, &c. Ia = he, &c.
Taton = we (inclusive) Tantolu = we (inclusive)
Matou = we (exclusive) Mautolu = we (exclusive)
Koutou = ye Mutolu = ye
Ratou = they Lautolu = they
Taua = we two (inclusive) Taua = we two (inclusive)
Maua = we two (exclusive) Maua = we two (exclusive)
Raua = they two Laua = they two
Korua = you two Mua = you two
Possessive Pronouns.
Tuna, tona = his Hana * = his
Taku, toku = my Haku, hoku = my
Tau, tou = thy Hāu, hou = thy
Ta, to = his, theirs, yours Ha = his, theirs, yours
(before the pronoun) (before the pronoun)

The transition from ‘t’ to ‘h’ in tana, tona, &c., is, at first sight very strange, but the key to it is probably the following: In old Maori poetry, the above two words become tahaku and tohoku—and in some old Niuē chants I find the same forms. Hence the Maori has dropped the ha and ho, whilst the Niuē people have dropped the ta and to in these cases, leaving tana, tona, hana, &c.

There is very little distinction drawn by the Niuē people, in what may be called the active and passive forms of the possessive pronouns, though a few are rarely used. Of the letter changes, there are a great many, but they generally follow the common rule, to the effect that a, e, o may interchange, equally with i, u, but the two series rarely change with one another. The illustration of these would take us too far at present.

page 180

The Niuē dialect seems to have an objection to the Maori ae, which is usually expressed by ē. the accent being strong as a rule. Thus:—

Atea = wide, spaceous Ata = wide, spaceous
Ac = yes E = yes
Waewac = foot, leg Ve = foot, leg
Hea or whea = whence Fe = whence
Rae = forehead Le = forehead
Hachae = to tear, rend Hēhē = to tear, rend
Marae = plaza Malē = plaza
Matarae = forehead Matalē = forehead
Pae = drifted ashore = drifted ashore
Paepae = flat-form, &e. Pēpē = flat-form (of stone)
Tae = filth = filth

In many words the Niuē people drop the ‘r,’ in which they are like the Marquesians, and one of the South Island tribes of New Zealand. Thus:—

Mauri,mouri = seat of life Moui = life
Rua = two Ua = two
Ruku = dive Uku = dive
Marama = light Maama = light
Turi = knee Tui = knee
Rama-ika = to fish with torch Ama-ika = to fish with torch
Maro = hard Maē = hard
Muri = last Mui = last
Taura,toura = rope Toua = rope
Rakau = tree Akau = tree

In many words of Niuē an ‘h’ is introduced, that is not found in Maori, or most other Polynesian dialects. Thus:—

Mouku = a fern Mohuku = a fern
Kaokao = side Kahokaho = side
Ua = rain Uha = rain
Uira = lighting Uhila = lighting
Whakau = to give suck Fakahuhu = to give suck
Hia = how many Fiha = how many
Hoe = a paddle Fohe = a paddle
U = breast Huhu = breast
Moe = sleep Mohe = sleep
Mamae = pain Mamahi = pain
Tai = sea Tahi = sea
Teina = younger brother or sister Tehina = younger brother or sister
O = food Oho = food
To = to drag Toho = to drag
Iho = down Hifo = down

The accent in Niuē, is like the Samoan, Tahitian, Hawaiian and to a less extent the Rarotongan, on the penultimate syllable, not as is page 181 generally the rule in Maori, on the first syllable. There are variations to this of course, but it is the general rule.

In the names of the trees and plants there is often an identity of name with those of the Maori, though sometimes the plants themselves differ widely. Thus Kalāka (M. Karaka), Maile (M. Maire), Pilīta, (M. Pirita), Tara (M. Tawa), Kafīka (M. Kahika), Mohūku (M. Mouku).

We notice—as might be expected—the entire absence of a whole vocabulary of Maori words applying to topography, for the island possesses no running water, no mountains, and practically no hills, if we except the ascent from the reef to the first and second terraces.

There are some very interesting words in the Niuē dialect, which probably contain a history in them. Their name for a sister is Mahakitanga, and not the universal one of Tuahine. An elder brother and elder sister is Taokete, the Maori word for brother-in-law.

Tangaloa is a rainbow, though they had also a god of that name; Māui is an earthquake, and a foreigner; Tangēta Tonga is also a foreigner, in which Tonga is not necessarily the island of that name, but means any foreign country.

In addition to the dialect ordinarily spoken by the people, there is a “chiefs' language,” as in Samoa and Tonga, composed of words which are only used in speaking to or of the Patu-iki or King (socalled). The words are not numerous, however—our common Maori word, haere, to go, is one of them—no one else but the Patu-iki does haele, everyone else either does fano, go, or hau, come. The face of an ordinary person is mata, that of the Patu-iki is fufunga. The Patu-iki's residence is his haeleanga, whilst an ordinary person dwells at a kaina or house, whilst a village is termed a mānga.

The people have many polite expressions; on meeting they never omit to ask you how you are, “ne malolo kia a koe?.” in which kia is the Maori equivalent of koia, ne being the sign of the perfect tense—the Maori kua. They also have words for thanks, one! one-tulou!—wanting in Maori. Like the Samoans and Tongans they have a word denoting reciprocity of action, fe. Ex.: rangahau, to talk; fe-rangahauaki, to talk together.

Like the Maoris of old, they have distinctive names for every plant that grows, for every fish and shell, and these are known to the little urchins that spend most of their time in playing cricket.

The people talk with great rapidity, and apparently run their words into one another very much, so that it is very difficult for a stranger to understand them. In speech-making they raise the voice several notes at the end of a sentence, and frequently pause in the middle of a sentence, as if they had not made up their minds as to the appropriate words to conclude it with.

page 182

They make little use of the common word tapu, except as applied to strictly sacred (in the European sense) things; fono appears to be their equivalent, both for tapu and rahui (to preserve), at the same time it means a council, no doubt from the same root as the Maori word hono, to join.

The language has a peculiar pronunciation of the letter ‘t’ whenever it is followed by i or e, when it sounds as if an ‘s’ had been introduced after the ‘t.” Thus tiale is pronounced tsiale, titi = tsitsi, &c. In this sibilant sound the dialect approaches both Tonga and Moriori. The ‘n’ before ‘g’ is never written, ex.: Rangi becomes lagi; tangata, tagata; &c. The extremely common Maori directive particles mai, atu, ake, iho, are rarely used in comparison to their frequency in other dialects, but the Niuē people have an additional word, directive in meaning not found in any other dialect of Polynesia except that of Tonga, i.e., aye, (ange), and it is directive in meaning in relation to a third person. Ex.: tă-mai, give me; tă-atu, give you; tă age, give him. The ordinary sign of the plural is tau, which is probably the Eastern Polynesian te au with the e elided. Na is very rarely used as a plural, and denotes a few things only,—e na tama hana—his children. The formation of the plural in possessive pronouns as in Maori (taku, aku; toku, oku; tana, ana; tona, ona; &c.) is quite unknown.

It is hoped that a somewhat extensive vocabulary and grammar of the Niuē dialect will be published shortly.

* Hana, is also used in the same manner as the Maori possessive pronoun. nana.