Volume 82 1973 > Volume 82, No. 3 > The meaning of the name Samoa, by Joseph C. Finney, p 301-303
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- 301

The people of Sāmoa have no agreed explanation of the meaning of the name of their country. One anthropologist who worked there in the early sixties, and gained some fluency in the language, reported that she asked the question repeatedly and was given a dozen or more different answers, none of them plausible. 1 One such explanation, for example, was that there were two gods named Sā and Moa. Since no such names appear in any legend, the explanation has little to offer, except to show the natural way of dividing the word into two roots or morphemes.

Similar implausible explanations were offered to the present author. The most plausible was Sā “tribe of” plus Moa, said to be the family name of the early Tui Manu'a. Others made use of the common Samoan word moa “chicken” and gave fanciful explanations of why the early Samoans might have been called the “chicken tribe”. One informant gave the meaning as “chicken is forbidden”, and explained it as an early public health measure.

Other meanings of moa given in Milner's Samoan dictionary 2 are “lawn mower” (from English), “spinning top,” “belly”, and “the middle” (noun).

Sometimes when the meaning of a word has been lost, it is preserved in a kindred language. In Tongan, the name for Sāmoa is Ha'amoa. Proto-Polynesian (PPN) glottal stop, preserved in Tongan, disappears in Samoan, while PPN *s, preserved in Samoan, becomes h in Tongan. The place-name in both tongues therefore appears to descend from PPN *Sa'amoa. Had the name arisen in any later time, after either sound-change had taken place and been borrowed into Tongan, it would have a different form. The evidence is strong that the name is very ancient, going back all the way to Proto-Polynesian times.

Two modern Tongans, a physician and a lawyer, were asked what the place-name Ha'amoa might mean. They answered at once that Ha'a means tribe or people; then they paused in puzzlement, for moa in Tongan, as in Samoan, means “chicken”, and the name made no sense to them.

Churchward's Tongan dictionary 3 list four other meanings of moa: “a banana flower”, “a kind of fish”, “the game of knuckle-bones”, and “rush of water where two currents meet, rip”. The last suggests a connection with moana, which is the word for ocean or deep sea in Samoan, Tongan, Maori, Hawaiian and Tahitian. The hypothesis at once suggests itself that PPN had a word moa meaning “ocean” or “deep sea”; that the name Sāmoa (PPN *Sa'amoa) means “people of the deep sea”; and that the word moana, which arose in PPN times, consists of moa plus a meaningless suffix. Perhaps the reason that moana so universally displaced moa in - 302 the sense of ocean or deep sea is that the longer, more redundant form avoids confusion with other meanings of moa.

Shortly after formulating this hypothesis, the author, while compiling a dictionary of the Tuvalu (Ellice Polynesian) language 4, discovered a word moa meaning “ocean bed, reef mud, white clay in the ocean”, in the language of the Ellice Islands. The only kernel of meaning common to this word and its Tongan counterpart is “sea-water” or “ocean”—some confirmation of the hypothesis.

Perhaps, also, two of the meanings of moa in Samoan, “middle” and “belly”, are figurative extensions of the meaning “ocean”. A belly is a soft, almost liquid area, with solid parts, bones, at its boundaries, like an ocean bounded by lands.

For further confirmation we must look to other Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) tongues for words of similar meaning that may be cognate with PPN *moa.

In Kusaie the word for ocean is meoa. In other languages, a dental sound (t, d, or r) appears after the first vowel. In Truk, the word for ocean is matau. In Ponape, it is spelt madau and pronounced matau 5. In Gilbertese 6 it is marawa; in Malay 7 sa-mudra; in Lau 8, makakwa (spelt mataqa) and in Sa'a matawa. 9 All these words mean ocean or deep sea. Two other languages have possible homologs, with some change in meaning:in Fijian, 10 marawa “to capsize, of a canoe” (spill into the ocean?); in Tagalog, 11 malawak “vast; very spacious” (i.e., oceanic?).

From these words one can reconstruct PMP or PAN *maRawa or *maDawa, “ocean” or “deep sea”. Perhaps an *h followed the *w, as in Dyen's reconstruction 12 of PAN *Dewha for two. In pre-Polynesian the R must have disappeared (allowing collapse into *mawa) before the change of *aw into PPN *o. The nature of the dental consonant is not clear. Dyen's D best accounts for many of the forms, including the l in Tagalog, but should be reflected by an l in Polynesian. The capital R represents dental stops that disappear in Proto-Polynesian. Dempwolff 13 resolved such difficulties by positing doublets in PAN, while Dyen dealt with the same problem by dividing PAN *R into four phonemes 14; perhaps we have discovered a fifth. A reason for suggesting *-awha is the uncertainty whether the change of PAN *aw to PPN *o takes place if a syllable boundary intervenes before the w.

It is possible that the Proto-Austronesian form consisted of a prefix ma-followed by a root morpheme. If so, some other words without the prefix are possible cognates. Pangasinan 15 has taew “middle of river; ocean, deep sea”. The Manobo 16 word lawed combines three meanings that we have seen elsewhere: “in the middle of a vast area, such as the ocean”. Fiji 17 has dawa “cross from one place to another; extend as far as”. The Ilokano 18 word lawa is given as “wide, - 303 spacious”. Marshallese 19 has as words for “ocean” not only metew, but also the partial doublet law- and the combination lawmetew. If all these words have a common source, Proto-Austronesian must have had doublets not only for the quality of the dental consonant, but also for the presence or absence of the prefix ma-, and the single common source was at a still earlier stage.

In summary, evidence is presented to suggest that (1) Proto-Malayo-Polynesian had a word *maRawa or *maDawa, from which Proto-Polynesian had a word *moa, meaning “ocean” or “deep sea”; and (2) the name Sāmoa means “people of the ocean or deep sea”.

Both and moana are words current in modern Samoan; and so, if this explanation be accepted, Samoan teachers can present the name Sāmoa as equivalent to sā moana. The explanation is easily understood; and it can help to foster a healthy feeling of pride in the ancestors as heroes who sailed courageously across the vast uncharted seas.

  • BENDER, Byron W., 1969. Spoken Marshallese. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.
  • BENTON, Richard K., 1971. Pangasinan Dictionary. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.
  • CAPELL, A., 1968. A New Fijian Dictionary. Suva, Government Printer.
  • CHURCHWARD, C. Maxwell, 1959. Tongan Dictionary. London, Oxford University Press.
  • CONSTANTINO, Ernesto, 1971. Ilokano Dictionary. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.
  • DEMPWOLFF, Otto, 1934-8. Vergleichende Lautlehre des Austronesischen Wortschatzes. Berlin, Reimer.
  • DYEN, Isidore, 1947. “The Malayo-Polynesian Word for ‘Two’.” Language, 23:50-5.
  • —— 1953. “Dempwolff's R.Lanaguage 29:359-66.
  • ELKINS, Richard E., 1968. Manobo-English Dictionary. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.
  • FINNEY, Joseph C., MS. Comparative Dictionary of Ellice Polynesian (in preparation).
  • IVENS, W. G., 1921. A Dictionary of the Language of Sa'a (Mala) and Ulawa, South-east Solomon Islands. Washington, Carnegie Institution Publication No. 300.
  • —— 1934. “A Vocabulary of the Lau Language.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 41-43 (Memoir Supplement)
  • MILNER, George B., 1966. Samoan Dictionary. London, Oxford University Press.
  • SABATIER, E., 1971. Gilbertese-English Dictionary. Sydney, South Pacific Commission.
  • TABLAN, Andrea A. and Carmen B. MALLARI, 1961. Filipino-English, English-Filipino Dictionary. New York, Washington Square.
  • YUSOP, Bin and Abdul RAHMAN, 1964. Malay Gem Dictionary. London and Glasgow, Collins.
1   Gloria Cooper, personal communication.
2   Milner 1966: 146.
3   Churchward 1959:359.
4   Finney MS.
5   Words supplied by native informants in the Trust Territory.
6   Sabatier 1971:231.
7   Yusop and Rahman 1964:255.
8   Ivens 1934:43, 68.
9   Ivens 1921.
10   Capell 1968:137.
11   Tablan and Mallari 1961.
12   Dyen 1947.
13   Dempwolff 1934-8.
14   Dyen 1953.
15   Benton 1971:167.
16   Elkins 1968:104.
17   Capell 1968:47.
18   Constantino 1971:307.
19   Bender 1969:404.