Tahitian language

Tahitian (Tahitian: Reo Tahiti, part of Reo Māohi, languages of French Polynesia)[2] is a Polynesian language, spoken mainly on the Society Islands in French Polynesia. It belongs to the Eastern Polynesian group.

Reo Tahiti
Reo Māohi
Native toFrench Polynesia
Ethnicity185,000 Tahitians
Native speakers
68,260, 37% of ethnic population (2007 census)[1]
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1ty
ISO 639-2tah
ISO 639-3tah

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 māohi).[2][3] The latter also include:[4]

  • Marquesan, spoken by about 8,000 people in the Marquesas Islands, with two sub-divisions, North-Western (eo enana) and South-Eastern (eo enata)
  • Paumotu (reo paumotu), spoken by about 4,000 people in the Tuamotu Islands
  • Austral, spoken by about 3,000 people in the Austral Islands
  • Rapa, spoken by about 400 people on Rapa Iti
  • Raivavae, spoken by about 900 people in the Austral Islands
  • Mangareva, spoken by about 600 people in the Gambier Islands


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. Reports by some early European explorers including Quirós[5] include attempts to trascribe notable Tahitian words heard during initial interactions with the indigenous people of Marquesa. Aboard the Endeavour, Lt. James Cook and the ship's master, Robert Molyneux, transcribed the names of 72 and 55 islands respectively as recited by the Tahitian arioi, Tupaia. Many of these were "non-geographic" or "ghost islands" of Polynesian mythology and all were transcribed using phonetic English spelling.[6] 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, and the Welsh missionary, John Davies (1772-1855), to translate the 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.

Plosive ptʔ
Nasal mn
Fricative f vh
Trill r

There is a five vowel inventory with vowel length:

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a

Next follows a table with all phonemes in more detail.

letter name pronunciation notes
IPA English
a ā /a/, /aː~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 /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)
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 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 aï, 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 eta 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 eta 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 () 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 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 after "a", "o" or "u") I, me: Ua amu vau i te ia I have eaten the fish; E haere au i te farehaapiira ānānahi I will go to school tomorrow.
  • Oe you: Ua amu oe i te ia You have eaten the fish; Ua tuino oe i tō mātou pereoo You damaged our car.
  • Ōna/oia he, she: Ua amu ōna i te ia 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 ia We (us two) have eaten the fish; E haere tāua Let's go (literally 'go us two'); O tō tāua hoa tēi tae mai Our friend has arrived.
  • Māua (exclusive) we/us two: Ua amu māua i te ia We have eaten the fish; E hoi māua o Titaua i te fare Titaua and I will return/go home; māua tera fare That is our house.
  • Ōrua you two: Ua amu ōrua i te ia You two ate the fish; A haere ōrua You (two) go; ōrua teie puta This book belongs to both of you.
  • Rāua they two: Ua amu rāua i te ia They (they two) have eaten the fish; Nō hea mai rāua? Where are they (they two) from?; O rāua o Pā tei faaea i te fare He/she and Pa stayed home.


  • Tātou (inclusive) we: O vai tā tātou e tīai nei? Who are we waiting for/expecting?, E ore tā tātoua e toe There won't be any of our food more left.
  • Mātou (exclusive) we, they and I: O mātou o Herenui tei haere mai 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 pee atu vau You (all) go, I will follow; O outou o vai mā tei haere i te tautai? Who went fishing with you (all)?
  • Rātou they/them: Ua mārō rātou ia Teina They have quarrelled with Teina; rātou te pupu pūai ae 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 [7] are:

  • tē tāmāa 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 haari – "Are thing dry the coconut", "The coconuts are dry"] [*e taata 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.[7]: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 taata – can mean the person or the people


The indefinite article is e

For example;

  • e taata - a person

The article e also introduces an indefinite common noun.

For example;

  • e taata – a person
  • e vahine – a woman
  • e mau vahine – (many) women

In contrast, te hōē means a certain.

For example;

  • te hōē 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: ""Will sing Mary tonight", "Mary will sing tonight"
  • ua: expresses a finished action, a state different from a preceding state. [ua does not indicate surprise]
Ua riri au : "Angry I", "I am angry"
  • 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 pio 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 taahuri, ua pohe pau roa īa tātou "If the boat had capsized, we would all be dead"
  • aita expresses negation.
Aita vau e hoi 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?
maitai well, good
maita’i roa very good
tāne man
vahine woman
fenua land
rai sky
vai water
auahi fire
’amu eat
inu drink
mahana day/sun
moana ocean, sea
e ua it's raining
ua to’eto’e it's cold
nehenehe beautiful
’ori dance
po’ia hungry
hoa friend
atau right
aui left
ni’a up
raro down
roto in
rāpae out
muri back
ua here au ia ’oe I love you
tumu rā’au tree
a’a root
tumu trunk
’āmaa branch
rau’ere leaf
pa’a rind
mā’a hotu fruit
’ōrapa square
menemene circle
’ōrapa maha roa rectangle
porotoru triangle

Taboo names – pii

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 tia, because the word was included in the name of king Tū-nui-ēa-i-te-atua. Likewise fetū (star) has become in Tahiti fetia and aratū (pillar) became aratia. 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 ēa fell in disuse, replaced by purūmu or porōmu. Currently ēa 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 rui (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;

  • vai (water) became pape as in the names of Papeari, Papenoo, Papeete
  • moe (sleep) became taoto (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 (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Reo Māohi 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).
  3. "Les Langues Polynésiennes". Académie Tahitienne. Retrieved 1 August 2010.
  4. See Charpentier & François (2015).
  5. Thompson, Christina (5 March 2020). Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific. Glasgow, Scotland: William Collins. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-00-833905-0.
  6. Thompson, Christina (5 March 2020). Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific. Glasgow, Scotland: William Collins. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-00-833905-0.
  7. Tryon, Darrell T. (1970). Conversational Tahitian. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520016002. Retrieved 1 August 2010. Tahitian language.


  • Charpentier, Jean-Michel; François, Alexandre (2015). Atlas Linguistique de Polynésie Française — Linguistic Atlas of French Polynesia (in French and English). Mouton de Gruyter & Université de la Polynésie Française. ISBN 978-3-11-026035-9.
  • 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
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