A primer on Polynesian pronounciation…

When I first started learning Samoan in 1965, I soon discovered:

  • It is totally unrelated to English or any other European language, except for ‘upu afakasi — borrowed or “half-caste” words. Please note, Samoa does not have a caste system, but the word afakasi refers to someone or something of mixed heritage.
  • English speakers can handle most of the sounds — except for a couple of sorta’ new ones and some dipthongs (vowel combinations) as well as some completely unusual “swaps” (more on these below).
  • Formal Samoan writing uses diacritic marks which definitely help second-language learners to understand better, but they are not included in most Samoan writing.
  • There is a separate lexicon of chiefly language, bolstered by historical allusions, proverbs and socio-genealogical-geographical knowledge — all filtered through a prescribed centuries-old tradition of oratory — that usually only matai or chief’s learn to varying degrees. Ministers, Latter-day Saint missionaries, and other officials are considered to be chiefly, or just below chiefly rank; and as such, for example, I learned enough to interact with the matai in giving appropriate responses to greetings, addressing chiefs, giving thanks and, of course, speaking in formal situations such as church meetings. But it seemed to me that every skilled Samoan orator considers him- or herself an authority on this chiefly language, and like many foreign-language situations, sometimes one learned just enough to get in trouble. It must also be noted that some references actually say this manner of oratory is a separate language, but it’s definitely Samoan.

Samoan phonetics:

Since you’re reading this online, I first state the obvious that letters represent sounds: The early Christian missionaries who devised the Samoan writing system were usually well educated men and women of their day who used the western Roman alphabet to codify those sounds the best they could…which created some interesting differences among various Polynesian orthographies (spelling systems). Hence, the Samoan alphabet traditionally consists of 14 letters in this order:

a e i o u f g l m n p s t v

[then there are also borrowed consonants]: b, h, k, r, w

…and two diacritics:

  • The fa’amamafa [or kahakö in Hawaiian], which represents a Polynesian long-vowel and is indicated by a macron or bar above the lengthened vowel. Unfortunately, most computers do not have fonts that include a macron over vowels, so in the example above I have used a European umlaut symbol to show that the last ‘o’ in the word is longer than a normally pronounced ‘o’.
  • The taofi [or ‘okina in Hawaiian], which represents a glottal stop or break and is usually written with either an apostrophe or a reversed apostrophe — i.e. one shaped like the number six.

It’s generally said that Samoan vowels are similar in pronunciation to Spanish — with just one sound: the letter ‘i’ in Samoan is pronounced like the English ee as in the word ‘bee,’ but avoid turning a single vowel into more than one sound: For example, the letter ‘o’ in English is pronounced rapidly more like oh-oo, whereas in Samoan it would just have its ‘o’-sounding characteristic, and so forth.

This renders into a big challenge for English speakers learning Samoan (and other Polynesian languages) to correctly pronunce some vowel combinations — or a vowel combination vs. a long-vowel — because the change in sound means a change in meaning, such as in the Samoan words vae, which means ‘leg,’ and vai, which means water…whereas most English speakers simply don’t pay that much attention to slight variations in vowel pronunciation, because it doesn’t change the meaning of the words. Other hard combinations for English speakers to discern and differentiate correctly are au and ao; ei and ë; ou and ö.

Samoan consonants are pronounced a lot like in English, with a couple of exceptions:

  • The leter ‘g’ represents the unreleased ‘ng’ sound as in the English word singer and not the released-g sound as in the word finger. Since virtually all English speakers can pronounce singer, it always surprises me how many people stumble over the Samoan ‘g’…although I’m less surprised at the stumble when the same sound comes at the beginning of a word. Almost invariably the pronounce it as a hard-g, as in the English word ‘gun’ or get. By the way, the missionaries who devised written Tongan and Maori chose to use the digraph ‘ng’ to represent exactly the same sound, but again most English speakers often pronounce this with a released-g sound. Try to keep this in mind the next time you say “Tonga,” which is written Toga in Samoan but pronounced exactly the same: Think toe-ngah — accent on the first syllable, not tah but toe, unreleased ‘g’ in the middle. Now try saying Pago Pago, the name of the capital of American Samoa.
  • The Samoan consonants ‘p’ and ‘t’ are technically not aspirated — that’s the little puff of air most English speakers add when we pronounce these and other consonants. In years past, for example, Samoans learning English had a hard time distinguishing between the English consonants ‘p’ and ‘b’ — so the phrase “big pig” was particularly trying — as well as ‘t’ and ‘d’.

Long vowels — the ones marked with a macron — are literally enunciated for a longer time than regular vowels, and are a feature of all Polynesian phonetics. The meanings of words change with the use of a long vowel versus its regular counterpart. For example, mana in Hawaiian means ‘spiritual force’ (among other definitions) whereas mänä means ‘arid’ or ‘desert.’Polynesian long-vowels should not be confused with English phonetic “long vowels” that are sometimes used in teaching how to differentiate the pronunciation of, for example, the letter ‘a’ in words such as hat (which we say has an English “short-A” sound) and hate (which has an English “long-A” sound). English speakers occasionally use long or lengthened vowels for emphasis, but the enunciated length of vowels in English does not change word meaning, as it does in Samoan. For example, although awkwardly written, ple-e-e-e-e-ase or hello-o-o-o-o-o, still have the same meanings regardless of how long their pronunciation is sustained.

It should be noted that in the original writing system for Maori a long-vowel was indicated by a double vowel rather than the use of a kahakö. This convention has led to some mispronunciation of Maori names and words by others: For example one of my former Maori neighbor’s names was Whaanga, which in Samoan should be written Fäga and not Fa’aga.

The taofi represents a meaningful sound in Samoan and most other Polynesian languages caused by briefly closing the air passage with the glottis near the back of the mouth (similar to how the air passage must be closed or “stopped” by the lips when pronouncing a “B” sound). While this glottal stop sound is sometimes found in English (as in the vernacular expression “oh-oh,” meaning ‘mistake’), its use does not change the meaning of words as it can in Samoan. For example: ‘oti means “cut” or “clip,” but oti means “die” (among other meanings for both words). Note that in Polynesian languages the glottal stop can also come at the beginning of a word (which English speakers have a hard time recognizing at all), while some Polynesian languages use a ‘k’ sound instead of a glottal-stop (such as Maori).

Consonant swaps: As indicated above, English speakers can easily get confused when a Samoan swaps a ‘k’ for a ‘t’ sound, or vice versa; or a ‘n’ for an ‘ng’ sound (which, remember, would be written with just a ‘g’ in Samoan), and vice versa — all without changing the meanings of the words. So, for example, toto and koko both mean ‘blood’ (among other meanings). Sometimes, however, the swaps can create confusion even among Samoans, such as the differences between fana and faga. Another example of this is word tagata — meaning man, person, people — which could also be pronounced more like kanaka, which incidentally is also good Hawaiian and means the same thing. Also, please note, Samoans consider it more formal and correct to speak with T’s, while speaking with vernacular K’s is more informal. Similar or near-similar consonant swaps also occur in Hawaiian — w and v, and r and L (although this is now mostly historical — a case where the spelling system has actually dictated how pronunciation has changed over the years); and sometimes in Tahitian — h and f.

Polynesian diacritics evolution: Using Hawaii as an example, Christian missionaries here created the written Hawaiian alphabet in the 1820s and 1830s — as their counterparts were doing in other island groups about the same time. They included diacritics in the Bible and other publications to help non-native speakers realize the difference in pronunciation and meaning that long vowels and glottal stops can make in words. Nineteenth-century Hawaiians quickly became one of the most literate races of people in the world, but since native and fluent speakers already knew these differences, they rarely included diacritics.

In some of the islands, diacritics were often omitted except when a possible misunderstanding could occur, because context usually made the correct pronunciation clear to fluent speakers. So, for example, few people today write a fa’amamafa above the first ‘a’ in Samoa. In other cases, some people write partial diacritics, such as in La’ie but do not include the kahakö over the first ‘a’.

Indeed, with far fewer Hawaiian speakers today, some people inadvertently mispronounce Hawaiian words because of the absence of the diacritical marks. For example, the name of the most populated island in Hawai’i should be pronounced with a glottal stop between the O and the remainder of the word: O’ahu; the name of the most popular beach on O’ahu is more correctly written (and appropriately pronounced) Waikïkï; and the main street through Waikïkï is named after the Islands’ last king, Kaläkaua — note that the second ‘a’ in His Majesty’s name is a Hawaiian long-vowel.The, of course, there’s our neighbor in Ko’olauloa: Kaaawa, which is more correctly written Ka’a’awa; or the all-vowel community of Aiea, which more correctly is written ‘Aiea…and so forth.

In the recent past, the government and others have made efforts on several fronts to include Hawaiian diacritical marks on, for example, street and road signs. And the local media is getting a lot better, both in pronunciation and writing. For example, the newspaper I edited (Kaleo o Koolauloa, which was later called Kaleo: Koolauloa News) used diacritics for seven years before the daily Honolulu newspapers started to do so.

Recent changes in attitude: Interestingly, as the teaching of Hawaiian increases, some people are resuming the nineteenth-century position that fluent speakers do not need the marks, and are purposefully leaving them out of their written materials. But there’s another issue that affects the usage of Polynesian words on the Internet:

The online problem with diacritics: With the explosive use of the World Wide Web and its attendant search engines, using diacritics presents an online-search dilemma. For example, try a Google™ search for Oahu versus O’ahu: 3.6 million hits vs. 122,000 hits; or Laie vs. Lä’ie: 640,000 vs. 62,000 . . . and some search engines will not “look for” words with such diacritic marks. This is probably the main reason why Kaleo no longer uses Hawaiian diacritics in its online pages. Other problems include:

  • Many users do not have “Hawaiian fonts” installed on their computer, so a Polynesian long-vowel may appear as the vowel with the umlaut or two dots above the letter as in German and other European languages; and the glottal stop may appear as a regular apostrophe or an umlaut-y. The good news is that Apple-brand devices now give the option for using the fa’amamafa by holding down the keyboard key, which brings a pop-up, then inputting or sliding to the letter-with-diacritical mark you want. (I’m not sure how/if this works in other operating systems.)
  • The use of a regular apostrophe for the ‘okina and the umlaut-vowel combination for the Polynesian long-vowel can definitely look awkward to those not familiar with Polynesian languages.
  • In a few cases using an ‘okina diacritic in some words would look awkward because it comes too closely after an English-language apostrophe; for example,  “Hawaii’s” and not “Hawai’i’s” to show the possessive form of the word Hawai’i.

Accents, word formation, etc.: By accents, I mean how various syllables in a word or phrase are stressed or emphasized, more so than others.

  • Most Samoan words (Tongan, too) are markedly accented on the penultimate (the next-to-last) syllable, whereas Hawaiian and Tahitian are much less so, and Maori tends toward first-syllable accenting. If a syllable is added to a word, which happens with some Samoan plural verbs and adjectives, the accent shifts to the penultimate syllable. For example: a-LO-fa (‘love’) vs. a-lo-LO-fa.
  • Almost all consonants (except in a few borrowed words) must be separated by vowels, and all words end in a vowel. So to create a Samoan name choose the closest vowel and consonant sounds available in Samoan, then remember to break up consonant clusters and add a vowel sound at the end of the name, if it doesn’t already have one: For example,  John becomes Ioane, Mike becomes Maika or Mika, Belle is Pela, and so forth.
  • Modifying words usually come after the word they modify: fa’afetai (‘thanks’) vs. fa’afetai tele (‘thanks a lot).
  • Questions in oral Samoan are usually indicated with a rising-then-falling intonation. This practice, which is also true in Hawaiian, has actually shifted over into Hawaiian-English (or Pidgin).

[NOTE: parts of this entry have been published previously]


  1. Does the glottal stop (‘ hamza) change the vowel
    before or after itself? In Samoan, Fa’a sounds
    like it affects the first a, and the second one
    is said normally. But with ‘oti, it is obviously
    effecting the vowel after itself.

  2. Hi, I am a guy and I have a few friends from the islands and I have noticed that they call me Emmanuela with an ‘a’ at the end. We’re good friends but I’ve always been afraid to ask because English is not their first language. I’ve done some research online and haven’t been able to find any rule that explains this. I was wondering if it has anything to do with the amount of syllables and the consonant at the end. Any help you could provide will be great appreciated.

  3. A good question, Emanuela, that has everything to do with your name in English ending in a consonant, whereas ALL Polynesian words MUST END in a vowel. Notice, too, in my spelling I’ve also eliminated the double-consonant in your English name. My own name, Michael, is another good example: It has become Mikaele (with all the vowels pronounced) in Samoan, Tongan, Hawaiian (and probably other island languages). Other common examples of names that end in a consonant that have a vowel ending in their respective Polynesian forms include Joseph: Iosefa (or Iosefo), and Peter: Petelo (or Peteru). There lots of others like this.

  4. Sorry I didn’t get back to you on this. As far as I know, the glottal stop does NOT change either the preceding or following vowel . . . but I remember having a professor years ago when I was in grad school who would say, hmmm, let’s get out a oscilloscope and check the wave form. In that sense, because there’s a strong pattern of accenting the penultimate vowels, especially in western Polynesian languages (Samoan, Tongan, etc.), someone might say the second-A in your example is de-emphasized by the glottal and therefore has changed, but since we rarely bring out the old scope, I’m going to say “not really.” ALOHA.


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