The language of Niue – Vagahau Niue – quite an unknown jewel!

Morning everyone!

This article will introduce the language of Niue, one of the smallest countries in the world with a population only greater than that of Vatican City. The interesting thing about the country is that native Niueans, who were born on Niue – are automatically New Zealand citizens. For that reason mainly, the population has plummeted from a high of 5,000 in the early 70s to fewer than 2,000 now. 

There are nearly, if not more than 5 times the amount of speakers living outside the country than in Niue itself. However, the proficiency level of Vagahau Niue is much higher on Niue than it is in its expatriate communities. The proficiency of the language for Niuean diaspora is disputed, as Rev. Liuvaie mentioned when he tried to deliver sermons completely in Vagahau Niue, saying that many people had difficulty understanding him (USA Today, 2014). There is a risk of the language’s treasures disappearing, because strong oral traditions and stories not being passed on, and that many Niueans abroad do not have the connection to their island. 

Now onto the language’s mechanics! This language is classified as a Polynesian language under the Tongic family, meaning that it came from the same subfamily of languages as Tongan did. The language is pretty typical of Polynesian languages, it has the main 5 vowels (a, e, i, o and u) in both short and long forms. The “G” you see, is not really pronounced like that, but is actually a [ŋ], which is very typical of Polynesian languages to represent the [ŋ] sound. This is done in Samoan, Tongan, Rapa Nui and countless other Polynesian languages. Strangely enough, Vagahau Niue does not have the glottal stop, which is a feature that most Polynesian languages have. Vagahau Niue uses many different morphological tricks to construct new words, among them are compounding, reduplication, suppletion (changing the word with an atypical form like in “to be” – “was”).

Seung provides some examples of these compounded words, which appear to start from the head (Seung, 2016) (the beginning of the word, here):

Vakalele – airplane (vaka – canoe + lele – to fly)
Magafaoa – family (maga – branch + faoa – people)
Tagamimi – bladder (taga – bag + mimi – urine)

Others are less clear, and may make less sense to a speaker of English looking at this:
Tagaloa – rainbow (taga – bag + loa – to be long/tall)
Palatao – to be decayed (pala – to be wet + tao – to be dirty)
Ukufeke – to presevere/show determination (uku – to dive + feke – octopus)

Seung encourages readers to take a closer look at these roots and make your own determination as to how these morphemes connect to the overall word. You can read about this more in depth on his article in the references.

Suppletion, which could be defined as changing, unrelated verb forms to perform a special conjugation is used in Niuean sometimes when there is a plural subject or object. This is similar to when English has “went” from “go” or “was” or “been” from “to be”. We won’t go into depth here, as Thornton writes about this in her work. 

Examples of this strange notion of the verb completely changing forms, given by Thornton:

“To fano a au” – “I will go…”
“To ō a tautolu” – “We will go…” 

Here, the verb “fano” changes to “ō” in the plural form (Thornton, 2017).

Even with plural objects and a singular conjugation, this form can still be shown, in a form that resembles partial reduplication:

“Kua hala e ia e la akau” – “He cut the branch”
“Kua hahala e ia e tau la akau” – “He cut the branches”

The “hala” here changed to “hahala” and the noun “akau” had a copula “tau” placed to mark the plural (Thornton, 2017). There are special reasons for this, dealing with transitive plural objects and intransitives, and Thornton explains these further in her work. 

Thanks for reading, and take a look at the Vagahau Niue course, free from Pasifika Tagata which has DVDs available in some place for them. For more information on compounding and suppletion in Vagahau Niue, take a look in depth at the references provided below, that were used in this word.

References:

Seung, J. (2016, December 02). Compounding in Niuean. Retrieved March 28, 2018,

Thornton, A. (2017, May). Agreeing in Number: Suppletive Verbal Plurals.

USA Today. (2014, July 13). Anybody home? Pacific island of Niue hit by exodus. Retrieved March 28, 2018,

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