Tongan (lea fakatonga) is an Austronesian language spoken in Tonga. It has around 100,000 speakers and is a national language of Tonga. It is a VSO (Verb-Subject-Object) language.
Tongan is one of the many languages in the Polynesian
branch of the Austronesian languages, along with Hawaiian
, for example. Together with Niuean
, it forms the Tongic
subgroup of Polynesian.
By comparing Tongic to the other subgroup, Nuclear Polynesian
, it is possible to reconstruct the phonology of Proto-Polynesian
, the theoretical source of the Polynesian languages.
Tongan is unusual among Polynesian languages in that it has a so-called definitive accent. Like all Polynesian languages, Tongan has adapted the phonological system of proto-Polynesian.
- Tongan has retained the original proto-Polynesian *h, but has merged it with the original *s as /h/. (The /s/ found in modern Tongan derives from *t before high front vowels). Most Polynesian languages have lost the original proto-Polynesian glottal stop /q/; however, it has been retained in Tongan and a few other languages including Rapa Nui.
- In proto-Polynesian, *r and *l were distinct phonemes, but in most Polynesian languages they have merged, represented orthographically as r in most East Polynesian languages, and as l in most West Polynesian languages. However, the distinction can be reconstructed because Tongan kept the *l but lost the *r.
||Polynesian sound correspondences
||Cook Is. Māori
In the old, "missionary" alphabet
, the vowels
were put first and then followed by the consonants
(a, e, i, o, u, f... etc.). This was still so as of the Privy Council
decision of 1943 on the orthography of the Tongan language. However, C.M. Churchward's grammar and dictionary favoured the standard European alphabetical order, and since his time that one has been in use exclusively:
- a - /a/
- e - /e/
- f - /f/
- h - /h/
- i - /i/
- k - /k/
- l - /l/
- m - /m/
- n - /n/
- ng - /ŋ/ (written as g but still pronounced as [ŋ] (as in Samoan) before 1943}
- o - /o/
- p - /p/ unaspirated; written as b before 1943
- s - /s/ sometimes written as j before 1943 (see below)
- t - /t/ unaspirated
- u - /u/
- v - /v/
- (fakaua) - /ʔ/ the glottal stop. It should be written with the inverted curly apostrophe (unicode 0x02BB) and not with the single quote open or with a mixture of quotes open and quotes close. See also okina.
Note that the above order is strictly followed in proper dictionaries. Therefore ngatu follows nusi, a follows vunga and it also follows z if foreign words occur. Words with long vowels come directly after those with short vowels. Improper wordlists may or may not follow these rules. (For example the Tonga telephone directory for years now ignores all rules.)
The original j, used for /ʧ/, disappeared in the beginning of the 20th century, merging with /s/. By 1943, j was no longer used. Consequently, many words written with s in Tongan are cognate to those with t in other Polynesian languages. For example, Masisi (a star name) in Tongan is cognate with Matiti in Tokelauan; siale (Gardenia taitensis) in Tongan and tiare in Tahitian. This seems to be a natural development, as /ʧ/ in many Polynesian languages derived from Proto-Polynesian /ti/.
- Each syllable has exactly one vowel. The number of syllables in a word is exactly equal to the number of vowels it has.
- Long vowels, indicated with a toloi (macron), count as one, but may in some circumstances be split up in two short ones, in which case, they are both written. Toloi are supposed to be written where needed, in practice this may be seldom done.
- Each syllable may have no more than one consonant.
- Consonant combinations are not permitted. The ng is not a consonant combination, since it represents a single sound. As such it can never be split, the proper hyphenation of fakatonga (Tongan) therefore is fa-ka-to-nga, against which normal, English-oriented wordprocessors always sin.
- Each syllable must end in a vowel. All vowels are pronounced, but an i at the end of an utterance is usually unvoiced.
- The fakaua is a consonant. It must be followed (and, except at the beginning of a word, preceded) by a vowel. Unlike the glottal stops in many other Polynesian languages texts, the fakaua is always written. (Only sometimes before 1943.)
- Stress normally falls on the next to last syllable of a word with two or more syllables; example: móhe (sleep), mohénga (bed). If however, the last vowel is long, it takes the stress; example: kumā (mouse) (stress on the long ā). The stress also shifts to the last vowel if the next word is an enclitic; example: fále (house), falé ni (this house). Finally the stress can shift to the last syllable, including an enclitic, in case of the definitive accent; example: mohengá ((that) particular bed), fale ní (this particular house). It is also here that a long vowel can be split into two short ones; example: pō (night), poó ni (this night), pō ní (this particular night). Or the opposite: maáma (light), māmá ni (this light), maama ní (this particular light). Of course, there are some exceptions to the above general rules. The stress accent is normally not written, except where it is to indicate the definitive accent or fakamamafa. But here, too, people often neglect to write it, only using it when the proper stress cannot be easily derived from the context.
Although the acute accent has been available on most personal computers from their early days onwards, when Tongan newspapers started to use computers around 1990 to produce their papers, they were unable to find, or failed to enter, the proper keystrokes, and it grew into a habit to put the accent after the vowel instead on it: not á but a´. But as this distance seemed to be too big, a demand arose for Tongan fonts where the acute accent was shifted to the right, a position halfway in between the two extremes above. Most papers still follow this practice.
Use of the definitive accent
English and many other languages only provide two article
- the indefinite (a) and
- the definite (the).
The phenomenon of the definitive accent allows Tongan to have three article levels, and not only articles, the idea spreads to the possessives as well.
- the indefinite accent ha. Example: ko ha pālangi ('a white person', or any other person from somewhere other than Tonga)
- the semi-definite accent (h)e. Example: ko e pālangi ('the white person' in the sense that the person does not belong to some other race, but still rather 'a white person' if there are several of them)
- the definite accent (h)e with the shifted ultimate stress. Example: ko e pālangí ('the white person', that particular person there and no one else).
There are three registers
which consist of
- ordinary words (the normal language)
- polite words
- honorific words (the language for the chiefs)
- regal words (the language for the king)
- derogatory words
For example, the phrase "Come and eat!" translates to::
- ordinary: hau 'o kai (come and eat!); Friends, family members and so forth may say this to each other when invited for dinner.
- polite: meatokoni (food, or more precisely: mea-tokoni: food-thing, i.e. foodstuff); This would be used in serious study books or in more formal situations, rather than the ordinary meakai.
- honorific: mea mai pea ilo (come and eat!); The proper used towards chiefs, particularly the nobles, but it may also be used by an employee towards his boss, or in other similar situations. When talking about chiefs, however, it is always used, even if they are not actually present, but in other situations only on formal occasions. A complication to the beginning student of Tongan is that such words very often also have an alternative meaning in the ordinary register: mea (thing) and ilo (know, find).
- regal: hāele mai pea taumafa (come and eat!); Used towards the king or God. The same considerations as for the honorific register apply. Hāele is one of the regal words which have become the normal word in other Polynesian. Some regal words clearly reflect a Sāmoan origin. History tells that sometimes the Tongans really went to Sāmoa to invent a new regal word. The Sāmoans, instead gave them words with vulgar meanings in their language, and the Tongans, not knowing that, used them to their king. Example 1: māimoa = labour of the king, either physical or mental (like the poems of Queen Sālote) from the Sāmoan maʻimoa = chicken illness, meaning: insane. Example 2: lakoifie = good health of the king, probably from the Fijian lako-i-vē = walk to where?
- derogatory: mama (eat!); Words which normally would be used for the pigs. The word mama means "to chew" (along with various other meanings) in the ordinary register. A speaker would apply this word to himself and the commoners to emphasise the distance between him and the nobles or the king.
The Tongan language distinguishes 3 numbers
, and plural
. They appear as the 3 major columns in the tables below.
The Tongan language distinguishes 4 persons: First person exclusive, first person inclusive, second person and third person. They appear as the 4 major rows in the tables below.
This gives us 12 main groups. In every group the pronoun can be subjective (reddish) or objective (greenish). This marks a distinction that has been referred to, in some analyses of other Polynesian languages, as a-possession versus o-possession respectively.
The cardinal pronouns are the main personal pronouns
which in Tongan can either be preposed (before the verb
, light colour) or postposed (after the verb, dark colour). The first are the normal subjective pronouns
, the latter the stressed subjective pronouns, which sometimes implies reflexive pronouns
, or with kia te
in front the objective pronouns
. (There are no possessions involved in the cardinal pronouns and therefore no subjective and objective forms to be considered).
(I, we, us)
||u, ou, ku
(one, we, us)
- all the preposed pronouns of one syllable only (ku, u, ma, te, ta, ke, mo, ne, na) are enclitics which never can take the stress, but put it on the vowel in front of them. Example: ʻoku naú versus ʻokú na (not: ʻoku ná).
- first person singular, I uses u after kuo, te, ne, and also ka (becomes kau), pea, mo and ʻo; but uses ou after ʻoku; and uses ku after naʻa.
- first person inclusive (I and you) is of course somewhat a misnomer. The meanings of te and kita can often rendered as one, that is the modesty I.
Examples of use.
- Naʻa ku fehuʻi: I asked
- Naʻe fehuʻi (ʻe) au: I(!) asked (stressed)
- ʻOku ou fehuʻi au: I ask myself
- Te u fehuʻi kia te koe: I shall ask you
- Te ke tali kia te au: You will answer me
- Kapau te te fehuʻi: If one would ask
- Tau ō ki he hulohula?: Are we (all) going to the ball?
- Sinitalela, mau ō ki he hulohula: Cinderella, we go to the ball ->(said the evil stepmother and she went with at least two of her daughters, but not Cinderella)
Another archaic aspect of Tongan is the retention of preposed pronouns. They are used much less frequently in Sāmoan and have completely disappeared in East Polynesian languages, where the pronouns are cognate with the Tongan postposed form minus ki-. (We love you: ʻOku ʻofa kimautolu kia te kimoutolu; Māori: e aroha nei mātou i a koutou).
for every person and number (1st person plural, 3rd person dual, etc.) can be further divided into normal or ordinary (light colour), emotional (medium colour) and emphatic (bright colour) forms. The latter is rarely used, but the two former are common and further subdivided in definite
(saturated colour) and indefinite
(greyish colour) forms.
|1st person(exclusive)(my, our)
|1st person(inclusive)(my, our)
|3rd person(his, her, its, their)
- the ordinary definite possessives starting with he (in italics) drop this prefix after any word except ʻi, ki, mei, ʻe. Example: ko ʻeku tohi, my book; ʻi heʻeku tohi, in my book.
- all ordinary subjective possessives contain a fakauʻa, all objective do not.
- the emphatic forms are not often used, but if they are, they take the definitive accent from the following words (see below)
- first person inclusive (me and you) is of course somewhat a misnomer. The meanings of heʻete, hoto, etc. can often rendered as one's, that is the modesty me.
- the choice between a subjective or objective possessive is completely determined by the word or phrase it refers to. For example: ko hoʻo tohi, ko ho fale, (it is) your book, your house. *Ko ho tohi, ko hoʻo fale* are just plainly wrong. Some words can take either, but with a difference in meaning: ko ʻene kahoa, his/her garland (which he/she is stringing probably for someone else); ko hono kahoa, his/her garland (which he/she is wearing probably given by someone else).
Examples of use.
- ko haʻaku/haku kahoa: my garland, -> any garland from/for me
- ko ʻeku/hoku kahoa: my garland, it is my garland
- ko ʻeku/hoku kahoá: my garland -> that particular one and no other
- ko heʻete/hoto kahoa: one's garland -> mine in fact, but that is not important
- ko siʻaku kahoa: my cherished garland, -> any cherished garland from/for me
- ko siʻeku/siʻoku kahoa: my cherished garland, it is my cherished garland
- ko haʻakú/hoʻokú kahoa: garland (mine)-> that particular garland is mine(!) and not someone else's at all
- ko homa kahoa: our garlands, -> you and I are wearing them, but not the person we are talking to
- ko hota kahoa: our garlands, -> you and I are wearing them, and I am talking to you
These are the remainders: the pronominal adjectives (mine), indirect object
pronouns or pronominal adverbs (for me) and the adverbial posssessives (as me).
|1st person(exclusive)(my, our)
|1st person(inclusive)(my, our)
|3rd person(his, her, its, their)
- the first syllable in all singular pronominal adjectives (in italics) is reduplicated and can be dropped for somewhat less emphasis
- the pronominal adjectives put a stronger emphasis on the possessor than the possessive pronouns do
- the use of the adverbial possessives is rare
Examples of use:
- ko hono valá: it is his/her/its clothing/dress
- ko e vala ʻona: it is his/her/its (!) clothing/dress
- ko e vala ʻoʻona: it is his/her/its (!!!) clothing/dress
- ko hono valá ʻona: it is his/her/its own clothing/dress
- ko hono vala ʻoná: it is his/her/its own clothing/dress; same as previous
- ko hono vala ʻoʻoná: it is his/her/its very own clothing/dress
- ʻoku ʻoʻona ʻa e valá ni: this cloting is his/hers/its
- ʻoku moʻona ʻa e valá: the clothing is for him/her/it
- ʻoange ia moʻono valá: give it (to him/her/it) as his/hers/its clothing
- noa, taha, ua, tolu, fā, nima, ono, fitu, valu, hiva (0 … 9)
- hongofulu, taha-noa (10), uongofulu, uofulu, ua-noa (20), tolungofulu, tolu-noa (30), … The 'full-style' numbers and 'telephone-style' numbers are equally common in use
- hongofulu ma taha, taha-taha (11), uongofulu ma fā, ua-fā (24), …; exceptions: uo-ua (22), nime-nima (55), hive-hiva (99) The 'telephone-style' numbers are almost exclusively in use
- teau (100), teau taha (101), … teau hongofulu (110), teau-ua-noa (120), uongeau (200), tolungeau (300), … But for more 'complex' numbers: taha-taha-taha (111), … uo-uo-ua (222), fā-valu-ua (482), …
- afe, taha-afe (1000), ua-afe (2000), …
- mano (10000)
- kilu (100000)
- miliona (1000000)
ʻOku fiha ia? (how much (does it cost)?) Paʻanga ʻe ua-nima-noa (T$ 2.50)
In addition there are special, traditional counting systems for fish, coconuts, yams, etc.
Tongan is primarily a spoken, rather than written, language. Only the Bible
, the Book of Mormon
, and a few other books are written in Tongan. There are not enough people who can read Tongan to commercially justify publishing books in the language . Most reading material available in Tonga is in English .
There are several weekly and monthly magazines in Tongan, but there are no daily newspapers.
Weekly newspapers, some of them twice per week:
- Ko e Kalonikali ʻo Tonga
- Ko e Keleʻa
- Taimi ʻo Tonga
- Ko e Tauʻatāina
Monthly or two-monthly papers, mostly church publications:
- Taumuʻa lelei (Catholic)
- Tohi fanongonongo (Wesleyan)
- Liahona (Latter-Day Saints)
- Tonga star (Tokaikolo)
- C.M. Churchward, Tongan grammar. ISBN 0-908717-05-9
- C.M. Churchward, Tongan dictionary