Issue 9 |

Rapa Nui: Language of Easter Island

by on December 28, 2016

Known as one of the most remote locations on the planet, Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, conjures up images of desolation and large mysterious statues standing defiant against an unrelenting environment. These are perhaps a reflection of the people who built them, who have faced immense hardship and yet have always come back stronger. While much has been lost of their culture and heritage after centuries of exploitation, their language remains spoken by the community, and efforts are being undertaken to ensure that their words do not fade with the wind.

Descendants of the sea

The ancestors of the Rapa Nui people were great voyagers, in fact, the most accomplished in history before Europeans set out on their quest for new trade routes around the world. Their original homeland was thought to be somewhere in what is now Southern China or Taiwan. These Austronesians, or people of the Southern Islands, first spread to the Philippine islands and the rest of island Southeast Asia, using advanced vessels and navigating with the help of the stars. They thereafter journeyed across the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean, skipping from the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Samoa to Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Rapa Nui, none of which had previously been sighted nor inhabited by humans.

It is thought that this amazing feat of human exploration occurred within a relatively short period of time, as evidenced by the fact that the languages spoken from Aceh in Eastern Indonesia to Hawaii (a distance of more than 10,000 kilometres) are all from one single subgroup of the Austronesian languages—Malayo-Polynesian. Thus, words such as “fire” (apoy in Tagalog, ahi in Hawaiian and afi in Tuvaluan), “five” (lima in Malay, rima in Maori, and nima in Tongan), and “what” (apa in Javanese, aha in Hawaiian, and simply a in Tuvaluan) are instinctively familiar to most speakers of these languages.

The Rapa Nui people would have first flourished on the island which was originally full of lush flora and fauna before contact with Europeans. It is, however, thought that deforestation and overexploitation of the environment led to a reduction in the population, which was estimated to be around 6,000 to 10,000 people at its peak. This was further reduced after European diseases and savagery were inflicted upon the people around the middle of the 19th century. Due to outbreaks of smallpox and tuberculosis, as well as slave raids from Peru, the total population of the island was known to be as low as 111 people in 1877.

Chilean annexation in 1888 brought about another round of misery, especially during the military government of General Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990 where the practice of indigenous Rapa Nui culture and the use of the Rapa Nui language were restricted. While the population of the island has now risen again to about 4,000 people, much of the native culture and heritage has been lost irrevocably. The language, though, is resiliently resisting encroachment from modernity and other factors.

Language features

The Rapa Nui language has only a limited set of phonemes: 10 consonants and 5 vowels, which is a feature it shares with other Polynesian languages. Hawaiian for example has 13 phonemes and Tahitian 14. There are also no consonant clusters (for example, nothing like the English word break or stress) and no words that end in a consonant, as exemplified by the word hapaina or “glass”, which was borrowed from the English “half-pint”.

Also in keeping with its Austronesian roots, the Rapa Nui language makes extensive use of reduplication of words (as seen in “bye-bye” and “hush-hush” in English) in order to perform a variety of different functions. Reduplication can generally be the repetition of three forms:

(i) whole word
Reduplication of the whole word serves to form an adjective or to indicate multiple action. Thus, kihi or “dried sea salt” is reduplicated into kihikihi to mean “glistening grey white”, while ruku or “to dive” is reduplicated to rukuruku to mean “diving”.

(ii) only the first syllable
Reduplication of the first syllable in an adjective serves to reduce the intensity of the original word, thus memea—which means “reddish”—is the reduplicated form of mea, meaning “red”. Meanwhile, reduplication of the first syllable in a verb serves to indicate the plurality of the subject or object. For example, more, which means to cut (a single object), will be reduplicated to momore to indicate the cutting of multiple objects.

(iii) final syllables of a word that is made up of two or more syllables
Lastly, reduplication of the final syllables of a word with multiple syllables serves to indicate intensity. For the adjective ngoio—which means “ripe”—it will be reduplicated to ngoioio to show that something is very ripe. For the verb ka ha’aki—which means “to tell something”, reduplication to ka ha’aki’aki would change its meaning to “tell something in full”.
(du Feu, 2012)

However, while most other Polynesian languages have special forms of the first, second, and third person pronouns to mark for singular, dual, and plural, Rapa Nui does not mark the dual aside from the first person pronouns. (Here, the dual number for a pronoun is used when two people are specifically the subject or object of a conversation. For example, the dual second person pronoun would be used when a person is speaking to two people in particular.) These pronouns are listed in the table below.

Grammatical DefinitionsRapa Nui forms
1st persons singularau
2nd persons singularkoe
3rd persons singularia
1st persons dual (exclusive of person being spoken to)maua
1st persons dual (inclusive of person being spoken to)taua
1st persons plural (exclusive of person being spoken to)matou
1st persons plural (inclusive of person being spoken to)tatou
2nd persons pluralkorua
3rd persons pluralraua

(Source: Adapted from Wikipedia)


Rongorongo script written on a Pacific Rosewood plaque. (Source: CEIPP, Nouveau regard sur l’Île de Pâques. Moana Editeur, Saintry-sur-Seine. 1982:126, via

One of the most fascinating discoveries made in Rapa Nui was the presence of numerous glyphs written on wood, or in some instances, cut in stone, which appear to have been the Rapa Nui people’s attempts to record language in writing. These glyphs, or as the Rapa Nui call them, Rongorongo, have yet to be deciphered as all of the priests and nobles who previously were able to read them were either killed or kidnapped during the 19th century Peruvian slave raids (as with most places up to the modern age, literacy was something that was reserved for the religious and noble classes). What is known however, is that this is the only instance of writing or proto-writing ever found in Polynesia. If expectations that these were developed independently before the coming of Europeans are true, it would mark one of the only few instances in the world where such writing was independently developed by a civilisation, separate from the conventional centres of civilisation such as China, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica.

These glyphs are mostly in the form of stylised human, animal, or plant shapes, with depictions of birds and fish the most commonly found. Most of the shapes are oriented upright. It is thought that these glyphs were written with obsidian flakes or small shark teeth, which were a common material used by ancient Polynesians for weapons and tools. The direction of writing was also unique, in what is termed “reverse boustrophedon”, where readers began from the bottom left hand corner, read from left to right, and then turn 180 degrees to continue on the next line.

Example of how Reverse Boustrophedon was written. (Source: Kwamikagami)

Only 26 wooden tablets of Rongorongo are left surviving in the present day, and researchers are continuing to attempt to decipher these fascinating examples of a civilisation and way of life that is long gone from the earth. A small segment of one tablet has been shown to represent the lunar Rapa Nui calendar, but the vast majority of Rongorongo glyphs remain to be interpreted, with such efforts being complicated by the lack of documentation of the Old Rapa Nui language and the lack of context for the use of such glyphs.

Rapa Nui today

After more than a hundred years of annexation to Chile, which banned the use of the Rapa Nui language for a significant period and promoted the exclusive use of the Spanish language, Rapa Nui speakers are beginning to shake off the tribulations of the past and forge their own path once more. A Rapa Nui language newspaper, Tāpura Re’o, began publishing in 2010, and is given away freely to those who want to read it. There are also some Rapa Nui language learning materials online, which allows those interested in reclaiming their heritage to learn the language in their free time. There have also been some language activism on the island by elders in the community pushing for more usage of the language in official and formal situations. While many in the younger generations grapple with the creeping expansion of Spanish into all domains of life, and the Rapa Nui language itself remains endangered, the energy and zeal of the Rapa Nui people bodes well for the language’s future.


de Feu, Veronica (2012). Rapanui: A Descriptive Grammar. Abingdon-on-Thames, United Kingdom: Routledge.

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