Language of the Fenua across the seas
Reo Tahiti (The Language of Tahiti), or Tahitian,is part of the Reo Mā’ohi, a term for the ensemble of indigenous languages spoken in French Polynesia. There are five main indigenous languages: Tahitian (Reo Tahiti), Tuamotuan (Pa’umotu), Marquesan (Reo Nu’uhiva), Rurutu-Tupuai (Reo Tuha’a pae), Mangarevan (Reo Mareva).
Composed of 118 islands and atolls scattered throughout a territory that is roughly the size of Metropolitan France itself, French Polynesia has both French and Tahitian as official languages. While French is the institutional and educational language, the Reo Tahiti is a vernacular that is most commonly used at home. More than half of the French Polynesian population is bilingual, speaking French and at least one other Reo Mā’ohi, and with about 125,000 speakers concentrated in the Society Islands, the Reo Tahiti is the most spoken indigenous language of the region (Peltzer & Tuheiava-Richaud, 2011).
However, it is, to some extent, spoken across all of French Polynesia and by diasporic groups in Vanuatu, New Caledonia, France, and other territories. This typically refers to Tahitian peoples having left Tahiti and French Polynesia for various reasons (to work abroad, to study, etc.), who maintain strong cultural links with the culture of their homeland.
Originally the language of the Mā’ohi peoples before the successive waves of evangelization and of colonization (in that order) that started in the 19th century and continued through the 20th century, the Tahitian language travelled across the various archipelagos of French Polynesia (Tuamotus, Austral islands, Gambier islands, Marquesas, Bass islands) and branched out into other dialects. If their common origin links the indigenous languages of French Polynesia to the Reo Tahiti, they are all invariably distinct.
Note: “Fenua” means land in Tahitian. It generally bears affective connotations to the Mā’ohi peoples who use it to refer to their homeland in French Polynesia.
In thirteen letters
As is often the case with languages, theReo Tahitiis very sensitive to pronunciation. Good grammar skills won’t take you very far if your pronunciation is lacking. As a matter of fact, the Tahitian alphabet only contains thirteen letters: eight consonants (f, h, m, n, p, r, t, v) and five vowels (a, e, i, o, u). Not surprising then that so much comprehensibility lies on Phonology’s thin shoulders.
Be careful about the “u” which sounds like the “oo” in “foot”. The “h” is heard, just like in English. The pronunciation of the vowels can vary. They can either be short (a, e, i, o, u) and unstressed, or long (ā, ē, ī, ō, ū) and stressed upon. For example, [i] would be pronounced as in “city”, while [ī] would be closer to “teem”. One important sound, eta, is symbolized by a reversed comma ʻ and corresponds to a glottal pause; the airflow is blocked in the vocal tract. It is so important, in fact, that it is considered a separate consonant.
Let’s see with a few examples of why pronunciation is key. Oftentimes, the vowels (long or short) or the etaare the only distinctions between two or three words with spellings that look traitorously similar but with different meanings.
|ʻaʻo (animal fat)||ao (day, world)||aʻo (advice, teaching)|
|iʻa (fish)||ʻīʻā (to overflow)||ʻiʻa (to coat)|
|ʻāvaʻe (moon, month)||ʻāvae (leg)||ʻavae (sugar cane)|
The incongruity of written orality
Languages are in constant process of evolution; they’re changing, adapting, getting influenced and being remodeled. Before the first contact with European missionaries and navigators, theReo Tahiti, like most languages, was submitted to its own internal variations (Vernier, 1948: 59). Then the Europeans accosted. The Protestant missionaries of the London Missionary Society came to Tahiti in the early nineteenth century, converted the main ariki (chiefs), and initiated a dramatic change in the practice of the Reo Tahiti, notably by translating the Bible into Tahitian (undefined).
The language officially went from purely spoken to scribbled and penned. A way to save the language, to immortalize the words? Possibly. But some Mā’ohi scholars and writers argue that this spoken-to-written transition instead contributed to the weakening of the Tahitian tradition of orality.
Tahitian poet and educator Flora Devatine blames colonialism and the transition to writing for muting Polynesian orality (2009: 13). By defining it as “the foundation, the support, the construction and the boat that guides the navigation of one’s thoughts” (2009: 10), she underscores its significance for the speakers and for the cultural traditions of the region. In the same vein, Polynesian author Chantal Spitz, whose famous novel L’île des Rêves Écrasés was first published in 1991, deplores the “hegemony of writing over orality” (my translation, Sultan, 2011: 65). Chantal Spitz’s controversial masterpiece was translated by Anderson Jean under the English title “Island of Shattered Dreams” and published by Huia in 2007. But both these authors’ literary pieces, infused with Tahitian orality and Reo Tahiti words, show how French Polynesian writers manage to turn this aspect of the language into a cultural, literary strength.
Relations of power
Reo Tahiti is not spared the indigenous linguicide imposed by the rise of super-global languages. In spite of its institutionalization and of its inclusion in the French Polynesian school curriculum in 1981, the Tahitian language sees its number of speakers decline. Worse yet, a recent sociolinguistic study suggests that the Tahitian language has been reduced to basic and extremely simple communication phrases and expressions in the mouths of the youngest generations of speakers (Salaün et al., 2016).
Several factors can explain this intergenerational decline in linguistic practices.
One of them is the general ban of the Reo Tahitiby French schools and administrations that lasted over a century, roughly until the 1980s. Speaking Tahitian was not just frowned upon, it was forbidden. In an interview, author Chantal Spitz shares her anecdote of the Tahitian language interdiction at school when she was young. Whenever a child was heard speaking the Reo Tahiti, he was given a seashell. If he were lucky, another child would be caught speaking the forbidden language and would become the stigmatized offender in his place. Otherwise, as bearer of the seashell, he would be pulling weeds after school as punishment.
Later, as the interdiction was progressively lifted, parents were still strongly advised not to speak Tahitian to their children. The general idea was that speaking the indigenous language at home would hinder their children’s learning of French at school. Studies in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics have since refuted this claim, and they even advertise the benefits of exposure to multiple languages (Fan et al., 2015). But undoing a century of linguistic censorship and uprooting an erroneous belief that has embedded itself deeply into the collective consciousness is harder said than done.
Add globalization into the mix, and the Reo Tahiti appears more and more like a street vendor about to be swallowed by a multinational fast-food chain.
A cultural wake-up call
Facing risks of extinction in the long run, the Reo Tahiti has no choice but to voice its own warning. Tahitian linguists and artists call for a re-appropriation of the language by the younger generations, for a cultural and linguistic awakening, as letting theReo Tahiti turn into an unspoken dialect would mean losing a part of the Mā’ohi culture. Steve Chailloux, Tahitian instructor at the University of Manoā in Hawaii, encourages people to try out the language, no matter their levels of proficiency (Chameau, 2016).
With 2019 being credited the “Year of Indigenous Languages” by UNESCO, an acknowledgement of the increasing threat of extinction hanging over the indigenous languages, but also of the cultural resonance that such languages sustain, what better time to start learning (or re-learning) the Reo Tahiti?
The best time is now…
Say hello to your friends… ʻIa ora na!
Ask them how they are… ʻE aha te huru?
Impress them by toasting in Tahitian… Manuia!
Tell your beloved “I love you”… Ua here vau ia oe
Or that he/she is beautiful… Mea purotu roa oe
Say that you’re fed up… Fiu pei!
Or that you don’t mind…ʻAita e’pe’a pe’a.
Say thank you… Māuruuru.
And goodbye… Nana!
Want more? Check out the Tahihi Tourism website for common expressions in Tahiti and Steve Chailloux’s Youtube channel E Reo Tō ‘Oeto hear Tahitian:
Chameau, Christine (2016, December 17). “Reo Tahiti, enquête sur une langue qui se meurt.” Telerama. https://www.telerama.fr/television/reo-tahiti-enquete-sur-une-langue-qui-se-meurt,151553.php
Devatine, F (2009). “Written Tradition, Oral Tradition, Oral Literature, Fiuriture.” Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures 3(2), 10-14.
Fan, SP, Liberman, Z, Keysar, B, & Kinzler, KD. (2015). “The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication.” Psycho Sci 26(7), 1090-7.
Peltzer, L, Tuheiava-Richaud, V. S (2011). Tahitien de poche. Assimil France.
Salaün, M, Vernaudon, J, Paia, M (2016). “’Le Tahitien c’est pour dire bonjour et au revoir’: paroles d’enfants sur une langue autochtone en sursis.” Enfances, Familles, Générations: Revue Interdisciplinaire sur la Famille Contemporaine, n.25, 1-64.
Sultan, P. (2011). La scène littéraire post-coloniale. Paris: Editions Le Manuscript.
Vernier, C (1948). “Les variations du vocabulaire Tahitien avant et après les contacts européens.” Journal de la Société des Océanistes, Paris: 57-85.