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About Samoan Language

Sāmoan or Samoan language is the traditional language of Samoa and American Samoa and is an official language—alongside English—in both jurisdictions. It is a member of the Austronesian family, and more specifically the Samoic branch of the Polynesian subphylum. The Samoan language has a 'polite' and formal variant used in Samoan oratory and ceremony as well as in communication with elders, guests, people of rank and strangers.

Geographic distribution

There are approximately 370,000 Samoan speakers worldwide, 69% of whom live in the Samoan Islands. Thereafter, the greatest concentration is in New Zealand, where people of Samoan ethnicity comprise the fourth largest group after New Zealand European, Māori, New Zealander and Chinese: the 2006 New Zealand census recorded 95,428 speakers of the Samoan language, and 141,103 people of Samoan ethnicity. Among ethnic Samoans in New Zealand, 70.5 percent of the Samoan speakers (87,109 people) could speak Samoan. Samoan is the 4th most commonly spoken language in New Zealand after English, Maori and Chinese. The majority of Samoans in New Zealand (66.4 per cent) reside in the commercial capital, Auckland. Of those who speak Samoan, 67.4 percent live in Auckland and 70.4 percent of people who are both of Samoan ethnicity and Samoan speakers live in that city.

According to the 2006 census, there were 38,525 speakers of Samoan in Australia, and 39,992 people of Samoan ancestry.

First Samoan dictionary 1862

The first grammar and dictionary of the Samoan language, A Grammar and Dictionary of the Samoan Language, with English and Samoan Vocabulary, was authored by Reverend George Pratt in 1862. Pratt's valuable Samoan dictionary records many old words of special interest–specialist terminology, archaic words and names in Samoan tradition. It contains sections on Samoan poetry and proverbs, and an extensive grammatical sketch. Pratt was a missionary for the London Missionary Society and lived in Matautu on the island of Savai'i.

Phonology and alphabet

The Samoan alphabet consists of 15 letters excluding three (H, K, R) that are used only in loanwords:

  • Aa, Āā Ee, Ēē Ii, Īī Oo, Ōō Uu, Ūū Ff Gg Ll Mm Nn Pp Ss Tt Vv (Hh) (Kk) (Rr) ‘
  • /a/, /aː/ /ɛ/, /eː/ /iː/ /o/, /ɔː/ /ʊ/, /uː/ /f/ /ŋ/ /l, ɾ/ /m/ /n, ŋ/ /p/ /s/ /t, k/ /v/ (/h/) (/k/) (/ɾ/) /ʔ/

In formal Samoan, with native words, [k] is found only in the interjection puke(ta)! 'gotcha!'. However, in colloquial speech, /t/ has come to be pronounced [k], and in /n/ has merged with /ŋ/ as [ŋ]. /l/ is pronounced [ɾ] following a back vowel (/a, o, u/) and preceding an /i/. /s/ is less sibilant than in English. /h/ and /r/ are found only in borrowings, and /s/ and /l/ are sometimes substituted for them.

Short /a/ is pronounced [ə] in only a few words, such as mate or maliu 'dead', vave 'be quick'. Diphthongs are /au ao ai ae ei ou ue/.


Every syllable ends in a vowel. No syllable consists of more than three letters, one consonant and two vowels, the two vowels making a diphthong; as fai, mai, tau. Roots are sometimes monosyllabic, but mostly disyllabic or a word consisting of two syllables. Polysyllabic words are nearly all derived or compound words; as nofogata from nofo and gata, difficult of access; taʻigaafi, from taʻi, to attend to the fire, and afi, fire, the hearth.

Samoan syllable structure is (C)V, where V may be long or a diphthong. A sequence VV may occur only in derived forms and compound words; within roots, only the initial syllable may be of the form V. Metathesis of consonants is frequent, such as manu for namu 'scent', lava‘au for vala‘au 'to call', but vowels may not be mixed up in this way.

The letter G in the Samoan language is pronounced like ng at the end of the word thing. So the name Giovani would be pronounced Ngiovani.


Stress generally falls on the penultimate mora; that is, on the last syllable if that contains a long vowel or diphthong or on the second-last syllable otherwise. There are exceptions though, with many words ending in a long vowel taking the accent on the ultima; as ma'elega, zealous; ʻona, to be intoxicated; faigata, difficult.

Verbs formed from nouns ending in a, and meaning to abound in, have properly two aʻs, as puaa (puaʻaa), pona, tagata, but are written with one.

In speaking of a place at some distance, the accent is placed on the last syllable; as ʻO loʻo i Safotu, he is at Safotu. The same thing is done in referring to a family; as sa Muliaga, the family of Muliaga. So most words ending in ga, not a sign of a noun, as tiga, puapuaga, pologa, faataga and aga. So also all words ending in a diphthong, as mamau, mafai, avai.

In speaking the voice is raised, and the emphasis falls on the last word in each sentence.

When a word receives an addition by means of an affixed particle, the accent is shifted forward; as alofa, love; alofága, loving, or showing love; alofagía, beloved. Reduplicated words have two accents; as pálapála, mud; ségiségi, twilight. Compound words may have even three or four, according to the number of words and affixes of which the compound word is composed; as tofátumoánaíná, to be engulfed. The articles le and se are unaccented. When used to form a pronoun or participle, le and se are contractions for le e, se e, and so are accented; as ʻO le ana le mea, the owner, literally the (person) whose (is) the thing, instead of O le e ana le mea. The sign of the nominative ʻo, the prepositions o, a, i, e, and the euphonic particles i and te, are unaccented; as ʻO i maua, ma te o alu ia te oe, we two will go to you.

Ina, the sign of the imperative, is accented on the ultima; ína, the sign of the subjunctive, on the penultima. The preposition iá is accented on the ultima, the pronoun ia on the penultima.


Personal pronouns - Like many Austronesian languages, Samoan has separate words for inclusive and exclusive we, and distinguishes singular, dual, and plural. The root for the inclusive pronoun may occur in the singular, in which case it indicates emotional involvement on the part of the speaker.


The article le is both definite and indefinite; at least as it is constantly used in Samoan, whereas the English would require the indefinite article; definite e.g., ʻo le Atua, God; indefinife e.g., ʻo le aliʻi Pai, such as, one is a chief. On looking into such cases, it will be found that there is something definite, from a Samoan standpoint, which makes them use le rather than se, as Ua tu mai le vaʻa, a canoe appears.

Se is always indefinite; ta mai se laʻau, cut me a stick.

The article is omitted before plural nouns, thus, ʻO le tagata, the man; ʻO tagata, men.


Names of natural objects, such as men, trees and animals, are mostly primitive nouns, e.g.ʻO le la, the sun; ʻo le tagata, the man; ʻo le talo, taro; ʻo le iʻa, the fish; also manufactured articles, such as matau, an axe, vaʻa, canoe, tao, spear, fale, house, etc.

Some nouns are derived from verbs by the addition of either ga, saga, taga, maga, or ʻaga: such as tuli, to drive; tuliga, a driving; luluʻu, to fill the hand; luʻutaga, a handful; anu, to spit; anusaga, spittle; tanu, to bury; tanumaga, the part buried. These verbal nouns have an active participial meaning; e.g. ʻO le faiga o le fale, the building of the house. Often they refer to the persons acting, in which case they govern the next noun in the genitive with a; ʻO le faiga a fale, contracted into ʻo le faiga fale, those who build the house, the builders. In some cases verbal nouns refer to either persons or things done by them: ʻO le faiga a talo, the getting of taro, or the party getting the taro, or the taro itself which has been got. The context in such cases decides the meaning. Sometimes place is indicated by the termination; such as tofa, to sleep; tofaga, a sleeping-place, a bed. ʻO le taʻelega is either the bathing-place or the party of bathers. The first would take o after it to govern the next noun, ʻO le taʻelega o le nuʻu, the bathing-place of the village; the latter would be followed by a, ʻO le taʻelega a teine, the bathing-place of the girls.

Sometimes such nouns have a passive meaning, such as being acted upon; ʻO le taomaga a lau, the thatch that has been pressed; ʻo le faupuʻega a maʻa, the heap of stones, that is, the stones which have been heaped up. Those nouns which take ʻaga are rare, except on Tutuila; gataʻaga, the end; ʻamataʻaga, the beginning; olaʻaga, lifetime; misaʻaga, quarrelling. Sometimes the addition of ga makes the signification intensive; such as ua and timu, rain; uaga and timuga, continued pouring (of rain).

The simple form of the verb is sometimes used as a noun: tatalo, to pray; ʻo le tatalo, a prayer; poto, to be wise; ʻo le poto, wisdom.

The reciprocal form of the verb is often used as a noun; e.g. ʻO le fealofani, ʻo femisaiga, quarrellings (from misa), feʻumaiga; E lelei le fealofani, mutual love is good.

A few diminutives are made by reduplication, e.g. paapaa, small crabs; pulepule, small shells; liilii, ripples.

Adjectives are made into abstract nouns by adding an article or pronoun; e.g. lelei, good; ʻo le lelei, goodness; silisili, excellent or best; ʻo lona lea silisili, that is his excellence or that is his best.

Many verbs may become participle-nouns by adding ga; as sau, come, sauga; e.g. ʻO lona luai sauga, his first coming; mau to mauga, ʻO le mauga muamua, the first dwelling.


Gender is sometimes expressed by distinct names:

  • ʻO le aliʻi, a chief.
  • ʻO le tane, a man.
  • ʻO le tama, a boy.
  • ʻO le poʻa, a male animal.
  • ʻO le tamaitaʻi, a lady.
  • ʻO le fafine, a woman.
  • ʻO le teine, a girl.
  • ʻO le manu fafine, a female animal.

When no distinct name exists, the gender of animals is known by adding poʻa and fafine respectively. The gender of some few plants is distinguished by tane and fafine, as in ʻo le esi tane; ʻo le esi fafine. No other names of objects have any mark of gender.


The singular number is known by the article with the noun; e.g. ʻo le tama, a boy.

Properly there is no dual. It is expressed by omitting the article and adding numbers e lua for things e.g. e toalua, two, for persons; as ʻo fale e lua, two houses; ʻo le nuʻu e toalua, two persons.

The plural is known by:

  • the omission of the article; ʻo ʻulu, breadfruits.
  • particles denoting multitude, as ʻau, vao, mou, and moíu, and such plural is emphatic; ʻo le ʻau iʻa, a shoal of fishes; ʻo le vao tagata, a forest of men, i.e., a great company; ʻo le mou mea, a great number of things; ʻo le motu o tagata, a crowd of people. These particles cannot be used indiscriminately; motu could not be used with fish, nor ʻau with men.
  • lengthening, or more correctly doubling, a vowel in the word; tuafafine, instead of tuafafine, sisters of a brother. This method is rare.


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