Upu ‘afakasi: Samoan “half-caste” words

A few posts back I blogified about Samoan pronunciation and names. Now I’d like to do a little follow-up on ‘upu ‘afakasi — Samoan half-caste words.

First, please remember the phrase “half-caste” in this sense refers to words that have been borrowed from other languages (mostly English) and then “Samoanized.” That is, consonants not found in Samoan are approximated with those that are, consonant clusters are usually separated with a vowel, and a vowel is always added at the end of those borrowed words that don’t end in a vocalized vowel sound. So manukï is good for “monkey,” but John becomes Ioane (Sione in Tongan, Keone in Hawaii, etc.).

Sometimes Samoans of mixed ancestry are also referred to as ‘afakasi — half-castes, although there is no caste system in Samoa like the one in India — which leads to my first example:

During my Mormon missionary  days in Samoa in the mid-1960s, I met a number of young adults who were described as being ‘afa-malini. The word ‘afa derives from the English word “half,” or perhaps in this sense, “part”; and malini or maligi (remember, the ‘g’ in Samoan is pronounced as the sound ‘ng’ in the English word “singer”) from the U.S. Marines who used to be stationed in Samoa, which the Allies used as a Pacific islands staging area during World War II. In other words, these young people had Marine fathers.

The Hawaiian equivalent of ‘afa is hapa, as in the phrase hapa-haole, now meaning part-Caucasian for people, or music that’s mixed Hawaiian-and-English. Actually, the grammar of hapa is a little different than ‘afa and its connotation is definitely more toward “part.” So, for example, hapa-lua means “part” + “two” = “half”; hapa-kolu = “one-third,” and so forth.

From ‘afa you can see Samoans didn’t traditionally use an ‘h’ sound, and an a-sound was added to the end of “half” to make the word. Traditional Hawaiian, on the other hand, has an ‘h’ sound, so no problem there, but no ‘f’ sound — hence the ‘p’ in the middle; so with a close approximating consonant and a vowel ending, the word became hapa. Incidentally, if I remember correctly, the Tongan equivalent is hafe (pronounced something like HAW-fay).

Now, study enough of these ‘upu ‘afakasi and similar words in other Polynesian languages, and you begin to see  where a Samoan traditionally uses a ‘t’ sound, Hawaiian uses a ‘k’. ‘R’ sounds often become ‘l’ in Samoan; ‘j’ sometimes goes to ‘iu’. The glottal stop in Samoan usually becomes a ‘k’ sound in related Tongan and Maori words, and so on.

There’s a whole dictionary (or more correctly, a vocabulary) of modern hapa-haole words, Mämaka Kaiao, in which language teachers and cultural experts are attempting to come up with Hawaiian equivalents or consistently Hawaiianize borrowed words.

Some of the ‘upu ‘afakasi used to make me smile: For example, an ad for toothpaste encouraged us to fa’afelesi lou gutu — literally “freshen your mouth,” with the borrowed felesi coming from the English “fresh”. I also got a grin out of a good driving tip in a Samoan newspaper that talked about a pikiapu (pickup truck) which didn’t dim — ‘aua ne’i fa’aparaiti mölï (from paraiti or “brighten”) — its lights in oncoming traffic.

There are lots of other examples. A quick check a few minutes ago of an online Samoan newspaper turned these up:

  • lipoti (also ripoti): report
  • kamapunï: company
  • peresetene: president
  • kovana: governor
  • leitiö: radio
  • Niu Sila: New Zealand
  • Ausetalia: Australia
  • sikolasipi: scholarship
  • komesina: commission
  • iunivesete: university
  • komiti: committee

Do you see the English coming through in Samoan form?


  1. Hello again Mike! What a great post! The afakasi words sure can be funny, especially when there are equivalent Samoan words which are skipped to use the hybrid ones. I hadn’t hear of the felesi or paraiti…those are funny! Whenever I hear those kinds of words for the first time it always kind of throws me off because I first assume I am hearing a Samoan word, not a Samoan derivative of a palagi word.

    I hear Samoans tease people when these words are used by other Samoans, saying they are speaking as if from American Samoa. I haven’t been to Samoa or American Samoa, is this more common in AS?

    Just a quick help from my Tongan 101 class: The proper spelling of half is haafe.

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