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About Tahitian Language

Tahitian, a Tahitic language, spoken by Tahitians, is one of the two official languages of French Polynesia (along with French). It is an Eastern Polynesian language closely related to Rarotongan, New Zealand Māori, and Hawaiian.


Tahitian features a very small number of phonemes, as further evidence of its linguistic heritage: five vowels and eight consonants not counting the lengthened vowels, diphthongs and the glottal stop.

The glottal stop or ’eta is a genuine consonant. (People unfamiliar with Tahitian might mistake it for a punctuation mark.) This is typical of Polynesian languages (compare to the Hawaiian ʻokina and others). However, in Tahitian the glottal stops are seldom written in practice, and if they are, often as a straight apostrophe ' , instead of the curly apostrophe. The native speakers know where to pronounce them and are not taught to write them down. Alphabetical word ordering in dictionaries ignores the existence of glottals. Admittedly, the Tahitian glottal is normally weak, except in a few words like i’a (fish), and easily missed by the untrained ear of the non-native speaker.

Tahitian makes a phonemic distinction between long and short vowels; long vowels are marked with a tārava or macron. For example, pāto, meaning "to pick, to pluck" and pato, "to break out", are distinguished solely by their vowel length. However, macrons are seldom written.

Finally there is a toro ’a’ï, a trema put on the i, but only used in ïa when used as a reflexive pronoun. It does not indicate a different pronunciation.

Although the use of ’eta and tārava is equal to the usage of such symbols in other Polynesian languages, is promoted by l'Académie Tahitienne, and is adopted by the territorial government, there are at least a dozen other ways of applying accents. Some methods are historical and no longer used, while others are heavily promoted by people who think they know better. This only adds to the confusion. See list. At this moment l'Académie Tahitienne seems to have not made a final decision yet whether the `eta should appear as a small normal curly comma (’) or a small inverted curly comma (‘). Compare 'okina.

Further, Tahitian syllables are entirely open, as is usual in Polynesian languages. In its morphology, Tahitian relies on the use of "helper words" (such as prepositions, articles, and particles) to encode grammatical relationships, rather than on inflection, as would be typical of European languages. It is practically an isolating language, except when it comes to the personal pronouns, which have separate forms for singular, plural and dual numbers.


Typologically, Tahitian word order is VSO (Verb-Subject-Object), which is typical of Polynesian languages.

Taboo names (pi’i)

In many parts of Polynesia the name of an important leader was (and sometimes still is) considered sacred and was therefore accorded appropriate respect. In order to avoid offense, all words resembling such a name were suppressed and replaced by another term of related meaning until the personage died. If, however, the leader should happen to live to a very great age this temporary substitution could become permanent. In the rest of Polynesia tū means to stand, but in Tahitian it is ti’a, because of king Tū-nui-’ē’a-i-te-atua. likewise fetū (star) has become in Tahiti feti’a and aratū (pillar) became arati’a. Although nui (big) still occurs in some compounds, like Tahiti-nui, the normal word is rahi (which is common Polynesian for 'large'). And also ’ē’a fell in disuse, replaced by purūmu or porōmu. Nowadays ’ē’a means 'path', purūmu is 'road'. Tū also had a nickname, Pō-mare (night coughing), under which his dynasty has become best known. By consequence pō (night) became ru`i (nowadays only used in the Bible, pō having become the normal word again), but mare (literally cough) has irreversibly been replaced by hota. Other examples: vai (water) became pape as in the names of Papeari, Papeno’o, Pape’ete. moe (sleep) became ta’oto (the original meaning of which was 'to lie down'). Some of the old words are still used on the Leewards.

More information

Although the official language of French Polynesia is French, the "unofficial" language, Tahitian, is spoken as much, if not more. It is not uncommon to hear locals speaking a combination of Tahitian and French. Because of the way the Tahitian language is pronounced, it is generally easier for Americans to pronounce Tahitian words than it is for them to pronounce words in French. Unlike French (or even English), there are no confusing rules about how words are pronounced. In Tahitian, each letter has a certain sound and that sound remains the same, no matter what the combination of letters.

Before the arrival of the missionaries in the 1700's, the Tahitian language had never been written. The missionaries took the sounds of the language and matched them to letters in our alphabet. As a result, only 16 letters are used: five vowels, A, E, I, O, U; and eleven consonants, B, F, G, H, K, M, N, P, R, T, V. The letters B, G, and K were not originally used when the language was transcribed. The tahitian word for forbidden is now tabu, but 200 years ago, it was tapu.

The vowels follow these rules for pronunciation:

  • A - pronounced ah as in father
  • E - pronounced ay as in may
  • I - pronounced ee as in be
  • O - pronounced oh as in no
  • U - pronounced oo as in rude

Pronunciation of the consonants is that same as for English.

Every syllable in the Tahitian language ends in a vowel. There are no silent letters. There are never two consonants together without a vowel between them, but it is quite common for 2 or 3 vowels to be grouped together. In this case, each vowel would be a separate syllable and would be clearly pronounced. There are times when it sounds as though each syllable isn't being pronounced for some words because, as in most languages, syllables are frequently slurred together.

The only difficult part of pronunciation in Tahitian is the glottal catch. This is when two vowels are separated by an apostrophe, such as in the name of the town, Faa'a. It is the only characteristic that people seem to have trouble with. But it is an important characteristic, because the break can change the meaning of a word entirely.

Take, for example, the Tahitian word hoe, which means paddle or row. By adding an apostrophe, ho'e, the word becomes one, as in the number. Hoe would be smoothly pronounced ho-ay. Ho'e would be pronounced the same way, phonetically, but with a hesitation after the first syllable, kind of like having someone lightly punch you in the stomach at the end of the ho.

Another aspect of the language comes from the early contact with the missionaries. There are many Tahitian words that sound very similar to English, such as Tenuare, pronounced ten-oo-ah-ray, which means January, or Fepuare (feh-poo-ah-ray), which is February.


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