Volume 89 1980 > Volume 89, No. 3 > The linguistic position of Niuafo'ou, by T. S. Dye, p 349-358
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Niuafo'ou, the northernmost island in the Kingdom of Tonga, lies roughly equidistant from Fiji to the west, Samoa to the east, and Tonga to the south. Very few reports of anthropological or linguistic field work on the island have been published; the linguistic evidence has been limited to a short discussion of non-Tongic elements in the language (Collocott 1922). While Collocott believed he was detailing a language that “exhibits forms once common to the whole Tongan area” but “less affected by Fijian influence” (Collocott 1922: 185) than the Tongan (TON) spoken on islands farther south, he noted four phonological and five morphological items, including an h/ø doublet, which he admitted cast doubt on the supposition of antiquity for Niuafo'ou (NFU). Biggs (1971: 491) has reviewed Collocott's data, noting Nuclear Polynesian (NP) forms for second person dual and plural, exclusive pronouns, the positional nei ‘near speaker’, and retention of PPN *fea ‘where’. These data indicate a non-TON language that, as early as 1922, was “fast disappearing before the political and cultural authority of Tonga” (Collocott 1922: 189).

It was with the intention of hearing NFU and collecting data sufficient to place the language within a subgroup of PN that I visited Niuafo'ou from December 16, 1976, to January 17, 1977. The island is an active volcanic cone 12 miles in circumference and up to 244 metres high; about seven freshwater lakes fill the main caldera and smaller ash cones. Some 300 people live in five villages along the seaward slopes. This total includes both native Niuafo'ouans and recent immigrants from other Tongan islands. TON is spoken in church, Government offices, and many homes. Those who speak NFU at home are bilingual and converse easily in TON. NFU is said to be intelligible to TON speakers only if spoken slowly.

In 1946, an eruption on the northern flank of the island destroyed the village at Angahā, then the Government seat. The Tongan Government responded to the disaster by relocating the entire population of the island to 'Eua, the southernmost island in the Kingdom of Tonga. Most Niuafo'ouans remained on 'Eua for at least 12 to 15 years; thereafter gradual repopulation of the home island began.


Data from Collocott and the NFU reflexes of PPN presented in Appendices 1 and 2 are sufficient to establish the consonant correspondences of Table 1.

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PPN consonants and their correspondences in NFU and selected PN languages.
PPN *p *t *k *' *f *w *s *h *m *n *1 *r
TON p t k ' f v h h m n ŋ 1 ø
SAM p t ' ø f v s ø m n ŋ 1 1/ø
NFU p t k '/ø f v h h/ø m n ŋ 1 1/ø
EUV p t k '/ø f v h h/ø m n ŋ 1 1/ø

The reflection of PPN * ' as both glottal stop and zero ('/ø) was not noted during fieldwork, but its former presence is postulated on the observation that “the stop, which is so pronounced a feature of Tongan is less marked in Niuafo'ou” (Collocott 1922: 188).

Vowels most regularly reflect the PPN forms *a, *ā, *e, *ē, *i, *ī, *o, *ō, *u, and *ū, though a few regularly reflected cognates of TON have PPN */a/ as /e/ (e.g., NFU fiema'u ‘want’, NFU efiafi ‘afternoon’) and /o/ (e.g., NFU fonua ‘land’).

Table 1 clearly shows the phonological affinity of NFU and EUV, both languages reflecting PPN *', *h, and *r as either of two reflexes. Evidence that NFU doublets are changing as a result of continuing TON borrowing is provided by the '/ø example above and comparison of NFU reflexes of PPN *taki ‘sea’, *hala ‘road’, and *hake ‘up’ presented in Collocott (1922: 188) and Appendix 1. Both items show a shift towards TON phonology within the last 55 years.

PNP Items

Pawley (1966, 1967) has noted several morphemic innovations of PNP, many of which are reflected in NFU. The most conspicuous of these in daily speech are the personal and possessive pronouns, presented in Table 2. Readily apparent PNP innovations include: 1) second person dual and plural nuclear personal pronouns, 2) the first person inclusive dual possessor, and 3) long a in first and third person, dual and plural nuclear personal pronouns.

NFU Pronouns
Person Preposed Subject Nuclear
1st singular 'au, kou, eau, nau au
dual exclusive ma māua
plural exclusive motou mātou
dual inclusive ta tāua
plural inclusive tou tātou
2nd singular ke koe
dual kulā kolua
plural kotou kōtou
3rd singular ø ia/teau
dual na nāua
plural notou nātou
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The PNP structural innovation distinguishing singular and plural number in indefinite articles does not occur in NFU despite the presence of two indefinite articles. NFU he ‘indefinite article’ is a cognate of PNP *se ‘indefinite article singular’ but is used with quantifiable nouns regardless of number. NFU le ‘indefinite article’ is used with non-quantifiable nouns (e.g., NFU le vai ‘some water’) and quantifiable nouns (e.g., NFU le feitu'u ‘some place’). Assuming that NFU once distinguished singular and plural number in the indefinite article slot, the present situation may be ascribed to the influence of TON. TON ha ‘indefinite article’ is used indiscriminately and its increasing use among NFU speakers may have blurred any original distinction between the NFU indefinite articles. NFU te ‘definite article’ also does not discriminate between singular and plural number.

As noted above, NFU regularly reflects PNP *nei ‘near speaker’ and PPN *fea ‘when, where’, a shared retention of NP languages.

NFU demonstratives eni ‘this, these’, ena ‘that, those’, and ē ‘that, those (distant)’ are the same as the TON demonstratives both in shape and in their occurrence either alone in the nucleus or postponed to a nucleus preceded by the definite article. The NFU locative demonstratives heni ‘here’, hena ‘there (near addressee)’, and ‘there (distant)’ also are the same as TON in shape and usage.

Other PNP morphophonemic innovations are either absent from NFU or are the same as a TO functional equivalent (e.g., TON, NFU noa ‘at random, without purpose’).

Proto-Samoic Outlier Items

NFU reflections of items otherwise unique to SO languages, either innovations or shared retentions from an earlier language, are fewer than reflections of PNP, but like them most evident in the pronouns (Table 2). The NFU first person dual, exclusive, and second and third person dual and plural possessives consist of the definite article te plus the appropriate person marker, and make no distinction between a and o categories of possession, all features restricted to SO languages. Only the first and second person singular possessives distinguish the a and o categories.

The first person inclusive plural pronoun NFU tou, which acts as either preposed possessor or subject, regularly reflects PSO *tou ‘first person inclusive plural’.

The NFU particle ko ‘progressive aspect’ reflects PSO *ku or *ko, which together are one of three SO progressive tense-aspect markers.

Two other features of PSO are noted in NFU. NFU nga, a direction prefix to the two locative bases NFU tahi ‘sea’, and 'uta ‘land’, is probably a shared retention of SO languages rather than an innovation. Its distribution in Austronesian languages outside of PN (e.g., YAP nga ‘to’) and its occurrence, limited to the two universal directions on any island (as opposed to NFU ki ‘to’ that is used with any other locative base), both argue for retention.

Similarly, a cognate for PSO *sina ‘quantitative nominal article’ was heard in a song on Niuafo'ou. The particular line was sung — mai hina ika ma'a si'i tama ‘bring some fish for the dear boy’. The song was heard in the company of TON

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NFU Possessive Pronouns
Person e class o class
1st singular taku toku
dual exclusive tema tema
dual inclusive
plural inclusive tou tou
2nd singular tau to(u)
dual tekulā tekulā
plural tekotou tekotou
3rd singular tana tena
dual tena tena
plural tenotou tenotou

speakers who not only claimed the song was TON, but also joined in the singing. English borrowing in the song's initial line (e.g., pēpē ‘baby’) may indicate a recent origin for the lyrics, but shed no light on why a putative SO item occurs. Neither TON nor NFU speakers could recall another instance of the occurrence of hina in either language.

No other exclusively SO items could be elicited. Where these PSO items have TON cognates, the TON cognates correspond to the NFU forms (e.g., TON, NFU toko ‘human number’ and TON, NFU ngāhi ‘plural noun marker’). Numerals directly reflect TON, using the alternative TON forms ua noa ‘twenty’, tolu noa ‘thirty’, etc. instead of TON uongofulu ‘twenty’, tolungofulu ‘thirty’, etc.


Phonological and morphological data support the contention that NFU is a NP language of the Samoic Outlier (SO) subgroup that has been overlaid with extensive, recent TON borrowing. That the NFU doublets '/ø, h/ø, and 1/ø are due to the recent, continuing influence of TON is shown by a shift from SO to TON forms in the half-century since Collocott's visit.

Historical data from the area provides a model for the mechanism of language change on Niuafo'ou. Niuafo'ou, along with Niuatoputapu, Futuna, and 'Uvea comprise a group of small, relatively isolated islands that lay within the path of 15th and 16th century Tongan expansionism. While the sparse ethnohistorical data from Niuafo'ou indicate only that the present chiefly family, Fotofili, arrived from Tonga six or seven generations before 1922 (Collocott 1922: 185), the traditional histories of Futuna (Burrows 1936: 47-54) and 'Uvea (Burrows 1937: 18-41) are replete with references to Tongan invasions. Kirch (1977) has demonstrated archaeologically that Niuatoputapu was the site of similar events. Recent TON borrowing has left Niuatoputapu (NTU) indistinguishable from TON, though the inhabitants spoke a distinctly non-TON language in 1616 when Jacob LeMaire collected a word list there (Biggs 1971: 491). Similarly, 'Uvean - 353 (EUV) appears to be a SO language with “fairly extensive borrowing from TON sometime in the last few centuries” (Pawley 1967: 292). NFU, geographically midway between NTU and EUV, presents a SO language the magnitude of whose TON borrowing falls between that of NTU and EUV. Continued TON pressure, especially upon children attending TON schools, ensures that the language of Niuafo'ou will soon be TON.

Some NFU Reflexes of PPN
*afi afi fire
*afiafi efiafi evening
*aka aka root
*ango angoango kind of plant
*atu atu away from speaker
*awa ava channel (N)
*fānau fānau to be born
*fa(A)'e(A,E) fa'ē mother
*fafa fafa to carry on back
*fafie fafie firewood
*fafine f fafine woman
*fanofano fanofano wash hands
*fale fale house (N.)
*fonua fonua land (N.)
*fara fala mat
*feke feke octopus
*fetu'u fetu'u star
*fia fiema'u want (V.)
*fiha fiha how many (interrogative)
*fitu fitu seven
*folau folau sea travel
*folau alāfolau canoe shed
*fonu fonu turtle
*fo'ou fo'ou new
*fua fua fruit
*fulu fulufulu hair
*fulu fufulu wash
*futi fusi banana
*futu futu Barringtonia sp.
*hā, *hafa ā interrogative part., what
*hake hake up
*hala hala road
*hama hama outrigger
*hangafulu hongofulu ten
*ha'i ha'i copulate (NFU tie, bind)
*hingoa hingoa name
*hoka kahoki rafters
*ika ika fish
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*ilifia 'ilifia afraid
*kafa kafa sennit
*kai kai eat
*kai me'akai food, starch
*kake kaka climb
*kapakau kapakau wing
*kata kata laugh
*kato kato basket
*ka(A)toa kātoa all
*kau 'akau wood
*kau kakau swim
*kaukau kaukau bathe
*kawa kava Piper methysticum
*keli keli dig
*kere kelekele dirt
*kete kete bag (NFU stomach)
*ki ki to, towards
*kiato kiato outrigger boom
*kili kili skin
*k(i,u)nu inu drink
*k(i,u)mi kumi seek
*kio kiu bird sp.
*kofe kofe bamboo
*kula kulokula red
*kuli kuli dog
*kupenga kupenga net
*kutu kutu louse
*lā sail
*la'a(A) la'ā sun
*lalanga lālanga weave
*lalo lalo under
*lam(U,I) lamu chew
*langa langa raise up (NFU build)
*langi langi sky (NFU sky, heaven)
*lango lango fly (N.)
*lau lau countless (NFU count)
*tau lau leaf
*lea lea speak
*lele lele fly (V.) (NFU run)
*lelei lele good
*le'o le'o voice
*lima nima hand (N.)
*loa loaloa long
*loto loto inside
*lua luo pit
*lua lua vomit
*lupe lupe pigeon
*mākona mākona satiated with food
*mānawa mānava breath
*mafana māfana warm
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*mai mai towards speaker
*maka maka rock
*mako mako dance (NFU irreverent man)
*mala'e mala'e meeting place
*mamafa mamafa heavy
*mama'o mama'o distant
*manatu manatu remember
*manawa manava belly (NFU womb)
*manifi manifi thin
*ma'u ma'u fixed (NFU fixed, get)
*ma'unga mo'unga mountain
*ma'uri mo'ui live, alive
*mata mata eye (NFU eye, see)
*mata lanumata green
*matangi matangi wind
*mata'u mata'u right side
*ma(A)ta'u māta'u fishhook
*mate mate die
*matolu mātolu thick
*mei mei breadfruit
*me'a me'a thing
*milo milo tree sp.
*moa moa fowl
*moana moana sea
*mohe moe sleep
*mu'a mu'a before (space, time)
*muri mui behind
*n(E)afi aneafi yesterday
*namu namu mosquito
*nifo nifo tooth
*niu niu coconut palm
*nofo nofo sit (NFU stay, remain, live)
*nonu nonu Morinda citrifolia
*ngutu ngutu mouth
*pakaka pakupaku dry (NFU dry, hard)
*papa papa flat, hard surface (NFU lumber)
*peka peka bat (animal)
*pepe pepe butterfly
*pō night
*popo popo decay (NFU rotten)
*pou pou post
*pongipongi apongipongi tomorrow
*pua pua flowery plant (NFU plumeria)
*puaka puaka pig
*puka puko tree sp.
*puke puke hold
*puna puna spring (V.)
*punge pula swelling
*ra'akau fu'u'akau tree
*refu 'efu'efu ashes
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*renga engeenga yellow
*rongo fanongo hear
*sala hala error, wrong
*sema hema left (hand)
*sī hī'atu fish with line (NFU bonito trolling)
*siku hiku tail
*tafe tafe flow
*tahina tehina younger sibling same sex
*taki tahi sea
*tala tala sharp pointed object
*talinga talinga ear
*talo talo Colocasia esculents
*tama tama child (NFU male child)
*tapu tapu taboo
*takoto tokoto to lie down
*tangata tangata man
*ta'u ta'u season (NFU year)
*toki toki adze
*tiale siale Gardenia sp.
*tolo tolo throw
*tonu totonu correct
*toto toto blood
*to'o to'o take (NFU pick up)
*tuki tuki strike, hit
*tu'a tu'a back (N.)
*tu'u tu'u stand
*wai vai water
*waka vaka canoe
*wa'e va'e leg, foot
*wela vela hot
*'alelo 'alelo tongue
*'alu 'alu go
*'amo 'amo carry on shoulders
*'ao 'ao cloud
*'ariki 'aliki chief
*'ate 'ate liver
*'a'anu 'a'anu spit
*'ilamutu 'ilamutu sister's child
*'ilo 'ilo know
*'ita 'ita angry
*'oti 'osi finished
*'ufi 'ufi yam
*'uha 'uha rain
*'uli 'uli'uli black
*'ulu 'ulu head
*'ulu fulufulu'i'ulu hair
*'uta (nga)'uta inland
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Probable PPN Items and Their NFU Reflexes
Probable PPN NFU Gloss
*fo'i fo'i preposed part, oneness, roundness
*manu manu animal
*maea maea rope
*ngārue ngāue work
*tapaka takapau floor mat
*tō fall
*toru sugar cane
*tuli tuli chase
"tu'i tu'i high-ranking chief (NFU king)
*tu'u tu'usi cut (as with knife)

This paper is one of a series deriving from ethnoarchaeological research in West Polynesia directed by P. V. Kirch and partially funded by NSF grant No. BNS 76-04782 through the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu. Sincere thanks are due to Taufa Savou, Paea Hoa, and scores of other Nivafo'ou residents for the love and help that they so freely gave. Several hours of tape recordings and notes containing data not presented here are on file at the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu. Proto-Polynesian reconstructions are from Biggs, Walsh and Waqa 1970.

  • BIGGS, B. G. 1971. “The Languages of Polynesia,” in T. A. Sebeok (ed.), Trends in Linguistics, Vol. 8. The Hague, Mouton.
  • BIGGS, B. G., D.S. WALSH and J. WAQA, 1970. Proto-Polynesian Reconstructions with English to Proto-Polynesian Finder List, Interim Listing January 1970. Anthropology Department, University of Auckland.
  • BURROWS, E. G., 1936. Ethnology of Futuna. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 138. Honolulu.
  • —— 1937. Ethnology of Uvea. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 145. Honolulu.
  • COLLOCOTT, E. E. V., 1922. “The Speech of Niva Fo'ou.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 31: 185-9.
  • KIRCH, P. V., 1977. “Ethnoarchaeological Investigations on Nivatoputapu, Tonga (Western Polynesia): A Preliminary Report.” Report to National Science Foundation. Department of Anthropology, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.
  • PAWLEY, A. K., 1966. “Polynesian Languages: a Subgrouping Based on Shared Innovations in Morphology.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 75: 39-64.
  • —— 1967. “The Relationship of Polynesian Outlier Languages.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 76: 259-96.

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