Alagaupu ma Muagagana – Samoan Proverbs and Expressions


My grandfather was a diligent note-keeper. He was a faiava, which means he lived with my grandmother in her village (rather than his own), and he kept several notebooks worth of hand-written records on her family’s history and titles.

This grandfather was also a gifted orator. He died when I was very young, but I still hear stories about how so many villages would invite him to their various functions to hear him speak, and how he was paid handsomely – in the currency of food and fine mats – for his eloquence. They say that while he was usually soft-spoken, his words were always very powerful.

I’ve got one of his notebooks right here in front of me now, and I think I’ve discovered the secret to his oratory genius. Filling several pages in this book, he’s made a numbered list of over 400 alagaupu and muagagana – the basic building blocks of a Samoan lauga, or speech.

In English, alagaupu is what we’d call ‘proverbs’. They’re little soundbites of widely-accepted wisdom based on the characters and events in our legends. Muagagana are more like ‘idioms’, everyday expressions that are a little more poetic than straightforward statements. Kind of like when we say, “We have no car, so time to beat the feet.”

The difference in the Samoan language is that these proverbs and idioms are usually only studied by our talking chiefs (tulafale). They are highly valued and guarded like precious jewels. You have to be a skilled speaker to compete against other tulafale for the honor (and the spoils) of delivering commemorative speeches at various functions. So in an oratory culture like ours, alagaupu and muagagana are like sacred ammunition, kept stashed away until absolutely necessary for the task at hand.

That’s great for our community of chiefs, but it means that a lot of everyday Samoans don’t get exposed to these pearls of wisdom and poetry handed down from our ancestors, which is a shame. I know a lot of very fluent Samoan speakers who only know a handful of these sayings, and can’t reaaally explain what all of them mean.

I’m looking at these 400+ in my grandfather’s book and can’t even begin to guess the meaning of most of them… but they’re beautiful. I’ve chosen 12 that I like the most and will work on trying to understand them. I’ll have to talk to some matai in my family and track down a new Samoan language and culture mentor (since my old teacher has passed away). Then I’ll be back to report my findings.

In the meantime, thank the good Lord for Palagi historians like Dr. E Schultz, who was a High Court Judge in Apia back around 1906. He collected a huge number of alagaupu and muagagana AND he explained them. I found an excerpt of his book over at the Journal of the Polynesian Society, then I turned one of his findings into the graphic image I posted above.

Now this one I instantly recognized from that gorgeous Five Star ballad I love so much: Amuia le La. It’s an easier sentiment to understand:

Amuia le masina, e alu ma toe sau.

That lucky moon gets to come back after it sets. People are not so fortunate. We only get to pass through this life one time.

Do you feel that heartbreaking power in one simple, Samoan expression?

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Known offline as Lillian (Lils, Lei'a) Arp, Hamo Geek Girl is just learning what it means to be Samoan. When she's not here, she's over at Manaui: Savour Oceania mostly talking about her other favourite topic: Food!

11 thoughts on “Alagaupu ma Muagagana – Samoan Proverbs and Expressions

  1. Loving what you do here Hamo Geek Girl! I have a few pages that i have found in our old house, my grandfathers (Mums side) collection, i dont understand any of them. I showed them to my Dad, who is a skilled Tulafale, since he was 16, he loved reading them, and explained and even corected some of the words in it, so many beautiful stories that go with them, one really made me cry because of the story behind it, about a village that was suffering from a drought, and no one had water, it hadnt rained in a very long time… I remember sheding some tears when my Dad told me the story behind it, True Provebs
    only the very skilled orators know and even remember their meanings, and origins, not many even keep a record anymore, so you posting it all up will be a great service to samoans everywhere!! Thank you, and Well done, keep up the good work, faafetai ia ma le le alofa, manuia lo galuega!

    1. Sure i can, but id rather not, well, not the ones that i have, they are not your everyday provebs. And just out of respect for the culture. If i was a matai, i would love to share it with you, but im just a botz, for now, eager learner, keen student, but amazingly fiabotz.
      Also, i dont want to upset any itu’s incase they decide they wanna come over for a play, you know what i mean? If you cant wait for HGG, well, i suggest you make contact with some matai within your family. Thats the best way to do things. If they know their stuff, they will teach you, seek out a practicing Tulafale if possible, one who grew up in Samoa, they are very sharp! The oldies pretty much. (50+)
      Remember JJW, some of these provebs are from the 1800’s, some even before them mention the original and first family names, and matai titles, of each village or district, and they only come out during special occasions. One day we will all have access to all of them, thanks to advancements in technology and tech savies like HGG! But because you read my post, here are some that my Dad used alot on us growing up.. Enjoy

      “E le pu se tino i upu,” Words cant put holes in your body, no one ever died from words.
      “E pala le maʻa, a e le pala upu,” Stones can break down and rot but words dont rot.

    2. Hey E. Motu.. those are some wise sayings.. thanks.
      But if I confer on you the matai title, Muagaganalegagana. would you then gagana mai e share with us some of your hidden treasured proverbial wisdom?.. if not, then its ok, I guess we can just share the title fiabotz..jkz.. lol lets share the eager to learn and keen student.

    1. I wondered where is the grandfathers note book of 400 alagaupu/muagagana? I think she’ll post them soon, like the next 20yrs or so? lol.

  2. An interesting culture indeed that we have. I hope you can rekindle your grandfathers legacy for the sake of future Samoa and generations after.

    1. Haha JJW… I think you need to have faith (and a LOT of patience) in me 🙂 … I know it’s been ages, but I promise I’m working on something big! lol

    2. LOL…Oh I have lots of faith in you Geek, but when you asked for LOT of patience then it only means one thing, the waiting will be lengthen..LOL.. but I supposed if it’s something big, then patience MAY be necessary..hahaha

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