Tahitian language

Last updated
Reo Tahiti
Reo Māꞌohi
Native to French Polynesia
Ethnicity185,000 Tahitians
Native speakers
68,260, 37% of ethnic population (2007 census) [1]
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ty
ISO 639-2 tah
ISO 639-3 tah
Glottolog tahi1242 [2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Tahitian (autonym Reo Tahiti, part of Reo Māꞌohi, languages of French Polynesia) [3] is a Polynesian language, spoken mainly on the Society Islands in French Polynesia. It belongs to the Eastern Polynesian group.


As Tahitian had no written tradition before the arrival of the Western colonists, the spoken language was first transcribed by missionaries of the London Missionary Society in the early 19th century.


Tahitian is the most prominent of the indigenous Polynesian languages spoken in French Polynesia (reo māꞌohi). [3] [4] The latter also include: [5]


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 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 five vowels and nine 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. Notably, the consonant inventory lacks any sort of dorsal consonants.

Labial Alveolar Glottal
Plosive p t ʔ
Nasal m n
Fricative f v h
Trill r

Next follows a table with all phonemes in more detail.

IPA English
aꞌā/a/, /aː~ɑː/a: opera, ā: father
eꞌē/e/, /eː/e: late, ē: same but longer
f/f/friendbecomes bilabial [ɸ] after o and u
h/h/housebecomes [ʃ] (as in English shoe) after i and before o or u
iꞌī/i/, /iː/as in machinemay become diphthong ai in some words like rahi
oꞌō/o~ɔ/, /oː/o: nought, ō: same but longer
p/p/sponge (not aspirated)
r/r/- alveolar trill, may also be heard as a flap [ɾ]
t/t/stand (not aspirated)
uꞌū/u/, /uː/u: foot, ū: moostrong lip rounding
v/v/vinebecomes bilabial ([β]) after o and u
ꞌeta/ʔ/uh-oh glottal stop beginning each syllable

The glottal stop or ꞌeta 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 are now commonly written, though often as straight apostrophes, , instead of the curly apostrophes used in Hawaiian. 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 ꞌaꞌï, 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 is no difference in the quality of the vowel when the trema is used and when the macron is used.

Although the use of ꞌeta and tārava is equal to the usage of such symbols in other Polynesian languages, it is promoted by the 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 ꞌeta should appear as a small normal curly comma (ʼ) or a small inverted curly comma (ʻ). (Compare ʻokina.) 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, though to avoid the complications caused by substituting punctuation marks for letters in digital documents, the saltillo (ꞌ) may be used.

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 ꞌeta 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 ꞌeta.


Personal pronouns

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




Word order

Typologically, Tahitian word order is VSO (verb–subject–object), which is typical of Polynesian languages. Some examples of word order from [6] are:

[*e mea marō te haꞌari – "Are thing dry the coconut", "The coconuts are dry"] [*e taꞌata pūai ꞌoia – "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. [6] :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 taꞌata – can mean the person or the people

Indefinite article


The indefinite article is e

For example;

  • e taꞌata - a person

The article e also introduces an indefinite common noun.

For example;

In contrast, te hōꞌē means a certain.

For example;


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

For example;

  • ꞋO Tahiti – (It is) Tahiti
  • ꞋO 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 hīmene Mere i teie pō: ""Will sing Mary tonight", "Mary will sing tonight"
ꞋUa riri au : "Angry I", "I am angry"
Tē tanu nei au i te taro: "planting I [dir. obj. marker] the taro", "I am planting the taro"

E tāere ana ꞌōna "Always is late he", "He is always late"
ꞋUa fānau hia ꞌoia i Tahiti nei "Was born she in Tahiti", "She was born in Tahiti"
I tae mai iho nei ꞌōna "He just came"
ꞋIa vave mai! "Hurry up!"
ꞋA piꞌo ꞌoe i raro! "Bend down!"
ꞋEiaha e parau! "Do not speak"
ꞋĀhiri te pahī i taꞌahuri, ꞌua pohe pau roa īa tātou "If the boat had capsized, we would all be dead"
ꞋAita vau e hoꞌi mai "I will not return"


Common phrases and words

’Ia ora nahello, greetings
haere mai, maeva, mānavawelcome
māuruuru roathank you very much
e aha te huru?how are you?
maitaꞌiwell, good
maita’i roavery good
moanaocean, sea
e uait's raining
ua to’eto’eit's cold
ua here au ia ’oeI love you
tumu rā’autree
mā’a hotufruit
’ōrapa maha roarectangle

Taboo names – piꞌi

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 tiꞌa, because the word was included in the name of king Tū-nui-ꞌēꞌa-i-te-atua. Likewise fetū (star) has become in Tahiti fetiꞌa and aratū (pillar) became aratiꞌa. 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 ꞌēꞌa fell in disuse, replaced by purūmu or porōmu. Currently ꞌēꞌa 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 ruꞌi (currently only used in the Bible, having become the word commonly in use once again), but mare (literally cough) has irreversibly been replaced by hota.

Other examples include;

Some of the old words are still used on the Leewards.

See also


  1. Tahitian at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Tahitian". Glottolog 3.0 . Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. 1 2 Reo Māꞌohi correspond to "languages of natives from French Polynesia," and may in principle designate any of the seven indigenous languages spoken in French Polynesia. The Tahitian language specifically is called Reo Tahiti (See Charpentier & François 2015: 106).
  4. "Les Langues Polynésiennes". Académie Tahitienne. Retrieved 1 August 2010.
  5. See Charpentier & François (2015).
  6. 1 2 Tryon, Darrell T. (1970). Conversational Tahitian . University of California Press. ISBN   9780520016002 . Retrieved 1 August 2010. Tahitian language.

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