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Tahitian language

Reo Tahiti
Reo Mā'ohi
Native to French Polynesia
Ethnicity Tahitians
Native speakers
68,000  (2007 census)[1]
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Regulated by No official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ty
ISO 639-2 tah
ISO 639-3 tah
Glottolog tahi1242[2]

Tahitian (Reo Mā'ohi or Reo Tahiti in Tahitian) is an indigenous language spoken mainly in the Society Islands in French Polynesia. It is an Eastern Polynesian language closely related to the other indigenous languages spoken in French Polynesia: Marquesan, Tuamotuan, Mangarevan, and Austral Islands languages. It is also related to the Rarotongan, New Zealand Māori, and Hawaiian languages, and distantly to Malay, Tagalog and Malagasy.

Tahitian was first transcribed from the oral spoken language into writing by missionaries of the London Missionary Society in the early 19th century.

In French Polynesia, it is the most prominent of the indigenous Polynesian languages (reo mā’ohi)[3] which also include;


  • History 1
    • Early writing 1.1
  • Alphabet 2
  • Grammar 3
  • Vocabulary 4
    • Common phrases and words 4.1
  • Taboo names – pi’i 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Early writing

When Europeans first arrived in Tahiti at the end of the 18th century, there was no writing system and Tahitian was only a spoken language. In 1797, Protestant missionaries arrived in Tahiti on a British ship called the Duff, captained by James Wilson. Among the missionaries was Henry Nott (1774–1844) who learned the Tahitian language and worked with Pōmare II, a Tahitian king, to translate the English Bible into Tahitian. A system of 5 vowels and 9 consonants was adopted for the Tahitian Bible which would become the key text by which many Polynesians would learn to read and write.


Tahitian features a very small number of phonemes: five vowels and nine consonants, not counting the lengthened vowels and diphthongs.

letter name pronunciation notes
IPA English
a ’ā /a/, /ɑː/ a: opera, ā: father
e ’ē /e/, /eː/ e: late, ē: same but longer
f /f/ friend becomes bilabial [ɸ] after o and u
h /h/ house becomes [ʃ] (as in English shoe) after i and before o or u
i ’ī /i/, /iː/ as in machine may become diphthong ai in some words like rahi
m /m/ mouse
n /n/ nap
o ’ō /ɔ/, /oː/ o: nought, ō: same but longer
p /p/ sponge (not aspirated)
r /r/ - alveolar trill
t /t/ stand (not aspirated)
u ’ū /u/, /uː/ u: foot, ū: moo strong lip rounding
v /v/ vine becomes bilabial ([β]) after o and u
’eta /ʔ/ uh-oh glottal stop beginning each syllable

The glottal stop or 'eta is a genuine consonant. This is typical of Polynesian languages (compare to the Hawaiian ʻokina and others). Glottal stops used to be seldom written in practice but that has changed today, and since they are now commonplace, they're often written as a straight apostrophe ' , instead of the curly apostrophe used in the Hawaiian language. Alphabetical word ordering in dictionaries used to ignore the existence of glottals. However, academics and scholars now publish text content with due use of glottal stops.

Tahitian makes a phonemic distinction between long and short vowels; long vowels are marked with macron or tārava.

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 among older people because Tahitian writing was never taught at school until one or two decades ago.

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. Usage of this diacritic was promoted by academics but has now virtually disappeared, mostly due to the fact that there's not difference in the quality of the vowel when the trema is used and when the macron is used.

Although the use of 'eta and tārava is equal to the usage of such symbols in other Polynesian languages, it is promoted by l'Académie Tahitienne and adopted by the territorial government. There are at least a dozen other ways of applying accents. Some methods are historical and no longer used. This can make usage unclear. 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. The straight apostrophe (Unicode U+0027) being the default apostrophe displayed when striking the apostrophe key on a usual French AZERTY keyboard, it has become natural for writers to use the straight apostrophe for glottal stops.

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 a very analytic language, except when it comes to the personal pronouns, which have separate forms for singular, plural and dual numbers.

Today, macronized vowels and 'eta are also available for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. People can download and install mobile applications to realize the macron on vowels as well as the 'eta.


Personal pronouns

Like many Austronesian languages, Tahitian has separate words for inclusive and exclusive we, and distinguishes singular, dual, and plural.


  • Au (Vau before "a", "o" or "u") [1] – I, me; 'Ua 'amu vau i te i'a. – I have eaten the fish.: E haere au i te farehapi'ira'a ānānahi – I will go to school tomorrow;
  • 'oe : you; Ua 'amu 'oe i te i'a. – You have eaten the fish; Ua tu'ino [2] 'oe i tō mātou pere'o'o. – You damaged our car. ;
  • 'ōna/'oia : he, she; Ua amu 'ōna i te i'a. – He/she ate the fish. ; E aha 'ōna i haere mai ai ? – Why is she here/why did she come here? ; Aita 'ōna i 'ō nei. – He/she is not here.


  • Tāua (inclusive) – we/us two ; Ua 'amu tāua i te i'a : We (us two) have eaten the fish.; E haere tāua. [3]] : Let's go (literally 'go us two'). ; O tō tāua hoa tēi tae mai. [4]] : Our friend has arrived.
  • Māua (exclusive) – we/us two ; 'Ua 'amu māua i te i'a. : We have eaten the fish. ;E ho'i māua 'o Titaua i te fare. [5]] : Titaua and I will return/go home. ; Nō māua tera fare. : That is our house. [6]]
  • 'ōrua : you two ; Ua 'amu 'ōrua i te i'a. : You two ate the fish. ; A haere 'ōrua [7]] : You (two) go. ; Nā 'ōrua teie puta. : This book belongs to both of you.
  • Rāua : they two ; Ua 'amu rāua i te i'a. – They (they two) have eaten the fish. ; Nō hea mai rāua ? – Where are they (they two) from? ; [8]] O rāua 'o Pā tei fa'aea i te fare [9]] – He/she and Pa stayed home.


  • Tātou (inclusive) – we ; 'O vai tā tātou e tīa'i nei? – Who are we waiting for/expecting ? [10]]; E 'ore tā tātou mā'a e toe. – There won't be any of our food more left.
  • Mātou (exclusive) – we, them and me ; O mātou 'o Herenui tei haere mai. [11]] [12]] – We came with Herenui; Ua 'ite mai 'oe ia mātou – You saw us/you have seen us.
  • outou – you (plural) ; A haere atu 'outou, e pe'e atu vau. – You (all) go, I will follow. ; [13]] 'O 'outou 'o vai mā tei haere i te tautai ? [14]] – Who went fishing with you (all)?
  • Rātou – they/them; 'Ua mārō rātou ia Teina. [15]] [16]] – They have quarelled with Teina. ; Nō rātou te pupu pūai a'e. [17]] – They have the strongest team.

Word order

Typologically, Tahitian word order is VSO (verb–subject–object), which is typical of Polynesian languages. Some examples of word order from [4] are:

  • tē tāmā'a nei au – "[present continuous] eat [present continuous] I", "I am eating"
  • 'ua tāpū vau 'i te vahie – "[perfective aspect] chop I [object marker] the wood", "I chopped the wood"
  • 'ua hohoni hia 'oia e te 'ūrī – "[perfective aspect] bite [passive voice] he by the dog", "He was bitten by the dog"

[*e mea marō te ha'ari – "Are thing dry the coconut", "The coconuts are dry"] [*e ta'ata pūai 'oia – "Is man strong he", "He is a strong man"]


Definite article

The article te is the definite article and means the. In conversation it is also used as an indefinite article for a or an.[4]:p.9

For example;

  • te fare – the house; te tāne – the man

The plural of the definite article te is te mau.

For example;

  • te mau fare – the houses; te mau tāne – the men

Also, te may also be used to indicate a plural;

For example;

  • te ta'ata – can mean the person or the people

Indefinite article


The indefinite article is e

For example;

  • e ta'ata - a person [18]]

The article e also introduces an indefinite common noun.

For example;

  • e ta'ata – a person
  • e vahine – a woman
  • e mau vahine – (many) women

In contrast, te hō'ē means a certain. [19]]

For example;

  • te hō'ē fare – a certain house


The article 'o is used with proper nouns and pronouns and implies it is.

For example;

  • 'O Tahiti – (It is) Tahiti
  • 'O rātou – (It is) they

Aspect and modality markers

Verbal aspect and modality are important parts of Tahitian grammar, and are indicated with markers preceding and/or following the invariant verb. Important examples are:

  • e: expresses an unfinished action or state.
E hīmene Mere i teie pō: [20]] ""Will sing Mary tonight", "Mary will sing tonight"
  • 'ua: expresses a finished action, a state different from a preceding state. [21]] ['ua does not indicate surprise]
'Ua riri au : "Angry I", "I am angry" [22]
  • tē ... nei: indicates progressive aspect.
Tē tanu nei au i te taro: "planting I [dir. obj. marker] the taro", "I am planting the taro"


E tāere ana 'ōna: "Always is late he", "He is always late"
  • i ... nei: indicates a finished action or a past state.
'Ua fānau hia 'oia i Tahiti nei: "Was born she in Tahiti", "She was born in Tahiti"
  • i ... iho nei: indicates an action finished in the immediate past.
I tae mai iho nei 'ōna: "He just came"
  • 'ia: indicates a wish, desire, supposition, or condition.
'Ia vave mai!: "Hurry up!"
  • 'a : indicates a command or obligation.
'A pi'o 'oe i raro!: "Bend down!"
  • 'eiaha : indicates negative imperative.
'Eiaha e parau!: "Do not speak"
  • 'Āhiri, 'ahani: indicates a condition or hypothetical supposition.
'Āhiri te pahī i ta'ahuri, 'ua pohe pau roa īa tātou: "If the boat had capsized, we would all be dead"
  • 'aita: expresses negation.
'Aita vau e ho'i mai: "I will not return"


Common phrases and words

Tahitian English
'Ia ora na Hello, greetings
Haere mai, maeva, mānava Welcome
pārahi goodbye
nana bye
'Ē Yes
'Aita No
māuruuru roa thank you very much
māuruuru thanks
E aha te huru? How are you?
maita'i well, good
maita'i roa very good
tāne man
vahine woman
fenua land
ra'i sky
vai water
auahi fire
'amu eat
inu drink
mahana day/sun
moana ocean, sea

Taboo names – pi’i

In many parts of Polynesia the name of an important leader was (and sometimes still is) considered sacred (tapu) and was therefore accorded appropriate respect (mana). 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 means to stand, but in Tahitian it became ti’a, because the word was included in the name 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 usual word is rahi (which is a common word in Polynesian languages for 'large'). The term ’ē’a fell in disuse, replaced by purūmu or porōmu. Nowadays ’ē’a means 'path' while purūmu means 'road'.

Tū also had a nickname, Pō-mare (literally means 'night coughing'), under which his dynasty has become best known. By consequence (night) became ru'i (nowadays only used in the Bible, pō having become the word commonly in use once again), but mare (literally cough) has irreversibly been replaced by hota.

Other examples include;

  • 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.

See also


  1. ^ Tahitian at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Tahitian". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ "Les Langues Polynesiennes". Académie Tahitienne. Retrieved 1 August 2010. 
  4. ^ a b Tryon, Darrell T. (1970). Conversational Tahitian. University of California Press.  
  • Y. Lemaître, Lexique du tahitien contemporain, 1973. ISBN 2-7099-0228-1
  • same; 2nd, reviewed edition, 1995. ISBN 2-7099-1247-3
  • T. Henry, Ancient Tahiti – Tahiti aux temps anciens
  • Darrell Tryon, Conversational Tahitian; ANU 1970

External links

  • Tahitian–English dictionary
  • Tahitian Swadesh list of basic vocabulary words (from Wiktionary's Swadesh-list appendix)
  • Académie Tahitienne – Fare Vāna’a
  • Puna Reo – Cultural Association, English section too

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