Volume 41 1932 > Volume 41, No. 164 > Recording of Polynesian texts and proper names, by Te Rangi Hiroa, p 253-261
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THE Polynesians had no trouble with their own current and classical speech when they spoke, sang, or chanted. Trouble began when foreigners instituted the recording of Polynesian speech by a system of writing. The difficulty of attuning western ears to the niceties of Polynesian speech led to the establishing of alphabets that were inadequate for some groups of islands. The providing of letters to represent the sounds used in the dialects of different groups was of necessity done by different groups of missionaries whose scholastic attainments and appreciation of sound varied. Thus the f sound in Tahiti was provided for, but the wh sound in Manihiki was ignored and has been ignored to the present day. The glottal closure that neither completely drops nor completely pronounces certain consonants in some dialects was not provided for; and though present scientific writers use the hamza, or inverted comma, to show the place of the unwritten consonant in the word, much confusion still prevails. The confusion is not on the part of the older native writer who pronounces the words correctly no matter how they are written, but on the part of the student who studies the written word without having the opportunity of hearing the native pronunciation. As there was no accepted rule for using the hamza in early days, the compilers of the Rarotongan alphabet naturally left the letter h out of the list. In my study on “The Material Culture of the Cook Islands (Aitutaki), ” I felt quite sure that a sound was present which represented the h sound in similar Maori words. I somewhat prematurely criticized the compilers of the alphabet and maintained that the letter h should have been included in the Rarotongan alphabet. A more extensive acquaintance with the use of the glottal closure in other dialects such as Tahitian, Samoan, and Hawaiian, together with discussions with my - 254 colleagues of the Bishop Museum, Messrs. Stimson and Emory, has led me to revise my views and to consider that the h sound in Rarotongan is more correctly represented by the hamza. In the northern islands of Manihiki, Rakahanga, and Penrhyn, attached politically to the Cook Islands, the Rarotongan alphabet is used as the result of mission teachers being trained at Rarotonga. In these northern islands the h sound is fully aspirated, but the people have not been provided with the extra letter. Thus the people of Manihiki spell the name of their atoll as Maniiki but pronounce it Manihiki, while the name of the neighbouring atoll is written as Rakaanga but pronounced Rakahanga. Similarly, in Penrhyn both the h and s sounds are present; but the Rarotongan alphabet, which is in use, does not depict either.

An inadequate alphabet tends, in the course of time, to restrict speech-sounds within its arbitrary bounds. The alphabet did not affect the older people, for they knew the fullness of their language and pronounced the words correctly, no matter how they were written. Western education, however, seems to base the teaching of language on the sounds represented by the alphabetical letters. Where all the sounds can be represented by symbols, the principle works perfectly well. When full provision is not made, it is natural that the sounds not provided for should, in time, be entirely lost. Thus the younger generation of Rarotongans, who read by sight, have a tendency to drop the glottal closure altogether in some words, because there is no visual sign that it exists. It is held by Mr. Stephen Savage, of Rarotonga, that the w sound was present in the Rarotongan dialect, but that the early missionaries, influenced by previous acquaintance with Tahitian, in which the v sound is distinct, introduced the letter v into the Rarotongan alphabet instead of w. Thus the younger generation of Rarotongans use the v sound because they are taught to pronounce the alphabetical letters, and the w sound will probably disappear as the older people die out.

An excellent example of the restricting influence of the alphabet is afforded by Hawaii. The Hawaiian dialect originally had the t sound, while the k had come to be represented by the glottal closure. In the period when the first missionaries arrived, the t sound was undergoing a process of transition into k, but the change was by no means complete. The missionaries compiled a Hawaiian alphabet - 255 by voting on the various sounds, and the vote decided on the use of k instead of t. The transition was thus arbitrarily completed by non-Polynesians, although the island of Kauai continued to pronounce t for the written k, and has so continued up to the present time. In Honolulu a Hawaiian lady asked me in her own language whether I was going to the “kaone.” Although I knew perfectly well what she meant, I asked her the meaning of “ kaone.” “Town, ” she replied. “But, ” said I, “town is a foreign word which you have turned into Hawaiian. It has a t in it, so why don't you say taone?” “How can I, ” she replied, “when there is no t in the Hawaiian alphabet?” “But, ” I persisted, “ you can pronounce t, and taone is nearer in sound to town than kaone.” “I know, ” she said, “but I have to use the Hawaiian alphabet.” “Yes, ” I continued, “but what about writing Sadaraka and other words with s and d, which are not in the Hawaiian alphabet, ” “Oh, well, ” she replied perplexedly, “they are in the Bible.” We looked at each other and smiled with the understanding that springs from mutual helplessness.

The older generation at the missionary schools set earnestly to work to learn the various combinations that represented words. Many wrote down their versions of myths, traditions, and history with illustrative chants, incantations, and songs. Such old manuscripts supply invaluable material for ethnological study. But here again, difficulty crops up. The old native scholars did not bother much with rules relating to punctuation and the use of capital letters. It was too much to expect of their day and generation. They wrote straight ahead with the letters arduously acquired. Sometimes they threw in a capital for variety, often where it was not needed. The stops and proper names were quite obvious to them without special marks, for they knew their subject matter by heart. In recording chants and songs, they sometimes prefixed the end syllables of some words to the following words because, in the rhythm of the chant or song, they sounded them that way.

The first thing a student has to do with a really old manuscript is to copy it and then rewrite it with what he considers the correct words, punctuation, and proper capitals. Besides difficulties as to individual words, proper - 256 names, and sentences, he is often in a quandary as to whether some words are a part of a compound name or belong to the general sentence. Any one of these problems may at times involve considerable change in meaning. Happy is the student who can complete his revised transcription and translation in the field with the direct assistance of the native scholars who have inherited the manuscript. He can then annotate the text and have local idioms made clear. If his time in the field is limited, he is fortunate if he can take his native informant home with him. Though extra expense is involved, such expenditure is cheap, if accuracy is to be the criterion of value. Here again, however, the oldest living informants are often puzzled as to the meaning of archaic words and phrases. Many references in old manuscripts relate to forgotten historical incidents and matters of technique and custom that have long been abandoned. The student has to be careful as to whether explanations given by native informants are based on continuous oral transmission, or whether they are rationalizations to please an employer or to maintain the informant's prestige as a scholar.

Though the recording of Polynesian material for study-purposes is now being carried out by persons with some knowledge of punctuation and the use of capital letters, there is still room for uniformity of method in certain directions, of which one is the recording of proper names, especially those which include long descriptive phrases. No system can give universal satisfaction, for certain inconsistencies have been established by usage in official maps and Government documents. My own inconsistencies have created in me a desire for rulings from other workers for our mutual guidance in the future. The more common difficulties met with are herein set out in the form of questions.

1. Should the distinct words in a compound name be hyphened?

It is the rule to italicize native words occurring in a European text to make the distinction clear. A number of Polynesian words which occur frequently have been adopted as English words, and such are printed in ordinary text. As a result of the extensive field-word carried on in recent - 257 years by the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, a number of fresh words have been converted from year to year and published as English words in Webster's Dictionary. A few examples are: marae (religious stone structure), taupou (Samoan, official village hostess), matapule (Tongan, talking chief), and hala (Hawaiian, Pandanus). The Bishop Museum has ruled that all proper names, both personal and place, should also be printed in ordinary text and the hamza omitted. In short names, the matter is simple; but in long compound names, confusion is apt to occur if a number of native words are printed separately in ordinary text with nothing to distinguish them from the English text or to show their unity.

Two courses are open: either to print the separate native words together as one word or to hyphen the individual words. In short Maori names the words are often joined together. This, though obvious to Maori scholars, is not so clear to students of other dialects. In the long compound names of eastern Polynesia, such a method would be untenable. Even in New Zealand long compound names occur, which would cause waste of time and probable error to attempt to disentangle. What would an outside student make of the following place name?


It seems to me that the simplest thing is to hyphen the distinct words, by which the construction and subsequent translation are rendered much easier. The above place-name would then appear as


An objection to hyphening on the part of New Zealand writers has probably been due to the fact that the method was overdone by John White in his Ancient History of the Maori. In this work he broke up many proper names into syllables; and in translating each syllable arrived at a different meaning from that conveyed by the word which comprised the syllables. He also broke up the same name into different combinations of syllables and thus arrived at different meanings for the same name. When this - 258 error in technique is recognized, John White's work remains an invaluable source-book for Maori study.

2. Should personal and place-names, which occur in a compound name, be capitalized?

In a compound name, a proper-name element is usually indicated by the particle which precedes it. This is usually clear in most dialects to experts; but now and again, confusion may occur. It is sometimes difficult to decide whether a word is a proper name or an ordinary descriptive word. The use of the capital relieves any doubt. I prefer Tewai-nui-a-Rua to Te-wai-nui-a-rua, which is another name for the Whanganui River. I believe that the same Rua occurs in one of the names of Tahiti as in Tahiti-nui-a-Rua and also in Oahu, of the Hawaiian Islands, as in Oahu-nui-a-Rua. This Rua certainly deserves a capital.

3. In names commencing with the definite article Te (the) or its dialectical equivalent, should the following word be capitalized and the hyphen between it and the article be omitted?

The Maori usage is to use the capital and omit the first hyphen, as in Te Rangi-matotoru (personal) and Te Puke (place). In other parts of Polynesia it has been usual to hyphen the words without using the second capital. I favour the Maori usage.

Complications have occurred in some names through the particle o (Maori, ko) having been incorrectly incorporated with the name. An example occurs in the Cook spelling of Otaheetee ('o Tahiti). The Hawaiian spelling of the island of Oahu represents the grammatical construction of'o Ahu. The Tahiti spelling has been corrected, but Oahu remains and cannot be changed. In Samoa the particle 'o is often written with the name, as 'O le fale o le fe'e; but in an English text the 'O is not necessary. The name may be rendered as Le Fale-o-le-fe'e (The house of the octopus). Another complication, however, arises from the fact that Le Fe'e (The octopus) was a God. To be consistent the proper name should be capitalized, and as Le is the definite article, the following word should also be capitalized. As the name occurs in the body of a compound name, the connecting hyphen should be used as follows:

Le Fale-o-Le-Fe'e.

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4. Should the plural article Nga follow the rule suggested for the singular Te?

It is curious that though Maori place-names in the singular have been written separately, as Te Puke, Te Whaiti, and Te Kao, place-names in the plural have been blended, as Ngaroto and Ngaruawahia. The prevalence of this usage in my own dialect makes the separation of the plural article appear disjointed to me, as in Nga Roto and Nga Ruawahia, but it is not any more so than the separation of the singular in Te Puke and other similar names. While established spellings cannot well be altered, the separation of the plural article should, for the sake of consistency, follow the rule for the singular.

5. Should the rules suggested above be applied to tribal prefixes?

Tribal prefixes are more definitely used in New Zealand than in any other part of Polynesia. The fact that certain spellings have become established should not deter the attempt to establish some general rulings on the subject.

In Maori speech a number of tribal prefixes are preceded by the article in the singular as:

Te Ati- ….
Te Whanau-a- ….
Te Aitanga-a- ….

In an English text the article Te should be translated merely as ‘the’ for it does not form a part of the real tribal prefix, which consists of Ati, Whanau, and Aitanga.

On the other hand, variations of the plural article, as Nga, Ngai, and Ngati, have become tribal name prefixes which cannot be separated from what follow. Thus the descendants of Rauru are tribally grouped as Nga-Rauru, which literally means “the Raurus, ” but in current English speech one would not refer to them as “the Raurus” but as “Nga-Rauru.” The tribal name with a plural prefix is treated as a collective singular for it regards the several members as forming a single unit. We refer in English to “the Nga-Rauru tribe” in the same way as we speak of “the Aitanga-a-Mahaki tribe.” Thus the plural article and its variations cannot be dropped from the name as in the case of the singular Te. The Nga, Ngai, and Ngati, - 260 have become part of the tribal name as much as Ati, Whanau, and Aitanga. This being so, the plural prefix should be hyphened with the following word or words.

The ruling suggested for the capitalization of proper names, whether personal or place, should, I think, be followed in tribal names as follows:

Nga-Rauru, Nga-Puhi

The names capitalized above are the personal names of eponymous ancestors. In the case of Nga-Puhi, the members of that tribe maintain that Puhi is short for their ancestor Puhi-moana-ariki, but if the contention of the Mataatua people that it refers to the puhi ornaments of the Mataatua canoe be correct, the name should be spelt without the capital, as Nga-puhi. I do not think that an ancestor should lose the capital letter to his name because it happens to be incorporated in a compound name. The above remarks apply equally well to place-names. Common usage has combined some of the above names, as in Atiawa, Ngarauru, Ngapuhi, and Ngaitahu. Such names are so well known that no confusion results, but in recording lesser known names the suggested rule may aid clarity.


The use of diacritical marks to make a more accurate phonetic record of the Polynesian dialects has been ably set forth by Mr. F. Stimson in the pages of this Journal. His scheme forms a valuable guide for students who wish to make a more intensive study of linguistics. The above suggestions deal with a few of the minor difficulties encountered by the general field-worker.

Nothing can be more inconsistent with these suggestions than the recording of my own name. When I sat for the Medical Preliminary Examination of the New Zealand University I registered myself under my Maori name of Te Rangi Hiroa. I was called Hiroa by my relatives so - 261 the use of the capital letter with Hiroa seemed natural to me. Later on I entered Parliament as Te Rangihiroa since the outside people with whom I had been mixing were accustomed to calling me Rangi. The necessity for capitalizing Hiroa did not then seem so necessary. Later on again, when I commenced to write ethnological articles, I reverted to Te Rangi Hiroa because it was customary to add academic degrees to the author's name. My degrees had been granted to Te Rangi Hiroa and not to Te Rangihiroa. Now I feel that my name should be written as Te Rangi-hiroa, but as an author I must remain Te Rangi Hiroa.

According to the suggestions made, the long Maori place-name mentioned under Question 1 should read as follows:

Te Taumata-whakatangitangihanga-koauau-a-Tamatea-pokai-whenua-ki-tana-tahu.

NOTE—We may have something to say on this subject in a subsequent number, and meanwhile invite suggestions from other workers or readers who have experienced the difficulties and uncertainties referred to.—EDS.