Tongan language

Tongan language

Infobox Language
nativename=lea faka-Tonga
states=Tonga, also American Samoa, Australia, Canada, Fiji, New Zealand, Niue, USA, Vanuatu
speakers=105,319 (as of 1998)
fam3=Central Eastern Malayo-Polynesian
fam4=Eastern Malayo-Polynesian
fam6=Central-Eastern Oceanic
fam7=Remote Oceanic
fam8=Central Pacific
fam9=East Fijian-Polynesian

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.

Related languages

Tongan is one of the many languages in the Polynesian branch of the Austronesian languages, along with Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan and Tahitian, 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 IPA|/h/. (The IPA|/s/ found in modern Tongan derives from *t before high front vowels). Most Polynesian languages have lost the original proto-Polynesian glottal stop IPA|/q/; however, it has been retained in Tongan and a few other languages including Rapa Nui. [The glottal stop in most other Polynesian languages are the reflexes of other consonants of proto-Polynesian; for example, the glottal stop of Samoan and Hawaiian is a reflex of the original *k; the glottal stop of Cook Islands Māori represents a merger of the original *f and *s. Tongan does not show changes such as the *t to IPA|/k/ and IPA|*ŋ to IPA|/n/ of Hawaiian; nor has Tongan shifted *f to IPA|/h/. Although Tongan, Samoan and other Western Polynesian languages are not affected by a change in Central Eastern Polynesian languages (such as New Zealand Māori) involving the dissimilation of IPA|/faf/ to IPA|/wah/, Tongan has vowel changes (as seen in "monumanu" from original "manumanu") which are not a feature of other languages.]
# 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. [This loss may be quite recent. The word "lua", meaning "two", is still found in some placenames and archaic texts. "Marama" (light) thus became "maama", and the two successive "a"s are still pronounced separately, not yet contracted to "māma". On the other hand "toro" (sugarcane) already has become "tō" (still "tolo" in Sāmoan).]

Tongan alphabet

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 - IPA|/a/
*e - IPA|/e/
*f - IPA|/f/
*h - IPA|/h/
*i - IPA|/i/
*k - IPA|/k/
*l - IPA|/l/
*m - IPA|/m/
*n - IPA|/n/
*ng - IPA|/ŋ/ (written as g but still pronounced as [ŋ] (as in Samoan) before 1943}
*o - IPA|/o/
*p - IPA|/p/ unaspirated; written as b before 1943
*s - IPA|/s/ sometimes written as j before 1943 (see below)
*t - IPA|/t/ unaspirated
*u - IPA|/u/
*v - IPA|/v/
*okina ("fakauokinaa") - IPA|/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 okinaokina.

Note that the above order is strictly followed in proper dictionaries. Therefore "ngatu" follows "nusi", "okinaa" 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 IPA|/ʧ/, disappeared in the beginning of the 20th century, merging with IPA|/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 IPA|/ʧ/ in many Polynesian languages derived from Proto-Polynesian IPA|/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 fakauokinaa 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 fakauokinaa 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 . 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 types:
* 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 wordsFor example, the phrase "Come and eat!" translates to::
* ordinary: "haokinau 'o kai" (come and eat!); Friends, family members and so forth may say this to each other when invited for dinner.
* polite: "meokinaatokoni" (food, or more precisely: "meokinaa-tokoni": food-thing, i.e. foodstuff); This would be used in serious study books or in more formal situations, rather than the ordinary "meokinaakai".
* honorific: "meokinaa mai pea okinailo" (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: "meokinaa" (thing) and "okinailo" (know, find).
* regal: "hāokinaele mai pea taumafa" (come and eat!); Used towards the king or God. The same considerations as for the honorific register apply. "Hāokinaele" 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. Fact|date=February 2007 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.Fact|date=February 2007 Example 2: lakoifie = good health of the king, probably from the Fijian lako-i-vē = walk to where?Fact|date=February 2007
* 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: singular, dual, 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. [These "a" and "o" refer to the characteristic vowel used in those pronouns. In Tongan, however, this distinction is much less clear, and rather a characteristic for the indefinite and definite forms respectively. Use of the "a" & "o" terms therefore is not favoured. Further, some linguists equate "a-possession" with alienable possession and "o-possession" with inalienable possession.]

Cardinal pronouns

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).

*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.Fact|date=May 2007 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).

Possessive pronouns

The possessives 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.

Possessive pronounsdefinite or nottypesingulardualplural
subjective objective subjective objective subjective objective
1st person
(my, our)
definite ordinary "he"ʻeku hoku "he"ʻema homa "heʻ"emau homau
indefinite haʻaku haku haʻama hama haʻamau hamau
definite emotional siʻeku siʻoku siʻema siʻoma siʻemau siʻomau
indefinite siʻaku siʻaku siʻama siʻama siʻamau siʻamau
emphatic haʻaku hoʻoku haʻamaua hoʻomaua haʻamautolu hoʻomautolu
1st person
(my, our)
definite ordinary "he"ʻete hoto "he"ʻeta hota "he"ʻetau hotau
indefinite haʻate hato haʻata hata haʻatau hatau
definite emotional siʻete siʻoto siʻeta siʻota siʻetau siʻotau
indefinite siʻate siʻato siʻata siʻata siʻatau siʻatau
emphatic haʻata hoʻota haʻataua hoʻotaua haʻatautolu hoʻotautolu
2nd person
definite ordinary hoʻo ho hoʻomo homo hoʻomou homou
indefinite haʻo hao haʻamo hamo haʻamou hamou
definite emotional siʻo siʻo siʻomo siʻomo siʻomou siʻomou
indefinite siʻao siʻao siʻamo siʻamo siʻamou siʻamou
emphatic haʻau hoʻou haʻamoua hoʻomoua haʻamoutolu hoʻomoutolu
3rd person
(his, her, its, their)
definite ordinary "he"ʻene hono "he"ʻena hona "he"ʻenau honau
indefinite haʻane hano haʻana hana haʻanau hanau
definite emotional siʻene siʻono siʻena siʻona siʻenau siʻonau
indefinite siʻane siʻano siʻana siʻana siʻanau siʻanau
emphatic haʻana hoʻona haʻanaua hoʻonaua haʻanautolu hoʻonautolu
*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

Other pronouns

These are the remainders: the pronominal adjectives (mine), indirect object pronouns or pronominal adverbs (for me) and the adverbial posssessives (as me).

other pronounstypesingulardualplural
subjective objective subjective objective subjective objective
1st person
(my, our)
pronominal adjective "ʻa"ʻaku "ʻo"ʻoku ʻamaua ʻomaua ʻamautolu ʻomautolu
pronominal adverb maʻaku moʻoku maʻamaua moʻomaua maʻamautolu moʻomautolu
adverbial possessive maʻaku moʻoku maʻama moʻoma maʻamau moʻomau
1st person
(my, our)
pronominal adjective "ʻa"ʻata "ʻo"ʻota ʻataua ʻotaua ʻatautolu ʻotautolu
pronominal adverb maʻata moʻota maʻataua moʻotaua maʻatautolu moʻotautolu
adverbial possessive maʻate moʻoto maʻata moʻota maʻatau moʻotau
2nd person
pronominal adjective "ʻa"ʻau "ʻo"ʻou ʻamoua ʻomoua ʻamoutolu ʻomoutolu
pronominal adverb maʻau moʻou maʻamoua moʻomoua maʻamoutolu moʻomoutolu
adverbial possessive maʻo moʻo maʻamo moʻomo maʻamou moʻomou
3rd person
(his, her, its, their)
pronominal adjective "ʻa"ʻana "ʻo"ʻona ʻanaua ʻonaua ʻanautolu ʻonautolu
pronominal adverb maʻana moʻona maʻanaua moʻonaua maʻanautolu moʻonautolu
adverbial possessive maʻane moʻono maʻana moʻona maʻanau moʻonau
*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 rareExamples 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 Fact|date=February 2007. Most reading material available in Tonga is in English Fact|date=February 2007.

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"

External links

* [ Planet Tonga]
* [ Ethnologue on Tongan]
* [ Omniglot on Tongan]
* [ Ten Minute Guide to Tongan]
* [ Basic Tongan-English and English-Tongan Dictionary]

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