Rare Languages #4: Samoan

By | March 12, 2023
Pola Island in American Samoa
Pola Island in American Samoa. Image: Tavita Togia

Samoan is a Polynesian language spoken by about 500,000 people, primarily in the independent country of Samoa and the U.S. territory of American Samoa. It is also spoken by Samoan communities in other parts of the world, including New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.

Samoan is an official language of Samoa and American Samoa, and it has a long history and rich cultural significance in these places. The language is closely related to other Polynesian languages, such as Tongan, Tokelauan, Maori, and Hawaiian.

Samoan has a unique writing system, which uses only 14 letters: a, e, i, o, u, f, g, l, m, n, p, s, t, and v. Three more letter are used in lone words: h, k, and r. This makes it one of the simplest writing systems in the world. The language also has a complex system of vowels and consonants, which can make it challenging for non-native speakers to learn.
Until the early to mid-1800s, Samoan was exclusively a spoken language. It wasn’t until Christian missionaries arrived that the language began to be documented in written form for religious texts. The introduction of the Latin script for writing facilitated this process. By 1834, an orthography for the language had been established and distributed by the London Missionary Society. In 1839, a printing press was also set up to aid in the production of written materials. It wasn’t until 1862 that the first complete Bible in Samoan, known as Tusi Pa’ia or Sacred Book, was finished and published.

Samoan language is distinguished by the phonetic variations in formal, informal, and ceremonial speech. One of the distinctive features of Samoan is its use of honorifics, which are words or phrases that show respect for others. In Samoan culture, showing respect is considered very important, and honorifics are used in many different social situations. For example, a person may use a different honorific when speaking to an elder, a chief, or a member of the clergy.

Although not widely spoken outside of Samoa, there is a growing interest among Samoan descendants to learn their ancestral language and gain insight into their history. Like any language, Samoan is evolving as it interacts with other languages, leading to shifts in pronunciation and word usage. Unfortunately, those seeking to learn Samoan often have to rely on written materials rather than living examples, making it challenging to preserve the language. To aid in the preservation effort, linguists use diacritical marks to indicate the proper pronunciation of vowels and glottal stops. These marks can be found above, below, and before letters in words, making it easier for students and non-native speakers to understand the nuances of Samoan pronunciation and maintain the language’s authenticity.

Learning Samoan can be a rewarding experience for those interested in Polynesian culture and history. Whether you are planning a trip to Samoa or simply want to explore the richness of the Samoan language, there are many resources available to help you get started. From language courses and dictionaries to cultural events and online communities, there are many ways to learn and engage with this unique and fascinating language.

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