The two Samoan languages

While I was slowly picking up Samoan from my family and friends, I’d hear references to another, mysterious, ‘higher’ version of the language.

‘It’s different from our everyday Samoan,’

…they would say.

‘It’s the language that matais and ministers use’.

And I would think, OK, so… what is it? Do they just use bigger words?

…because I am an avid reader, and my favourite authors use lots of big words, like Salman Rushdie, for example, who says stuff like ‘cogitate’ instead of ‘think deep’ and ‘imprecations’ instead of just plain ‘swearing’…

So I figured that learning this enigmatic ‘higher’ language, reserved only for important people, would just be a matter of finding a great Samoan dictionary / thesaurus, reading more Samoan literature and maybe paying more attention to the matai speeches at functions.

Yeah, it’s not quite that simple. Many of the words I came across couldn’t be found in the dictionary I had, and even if I did find a definition, it rarely ever helped me to understand a passage. As for those matai speeches… all of them lost me at ‘talofa’.

But I persevered, got myself some Samoan language support, and I think I’ve figured out why this ‘higher Samoan’ has been so difficult to decipher.

What’s the story

In English, people tend to use bigger (more difficult) words for the sake of eloquence – to express complex thoughts and nuances of emotion.  Sometimes you just can’t explain exactly what you mean with everyday English.

Samoa’s higher language, however, is founded on  poetry, history, legends and myths. To understand the meaning of a difficult word or phrase, you’d have to know the story behind it.

In this pretty word, for example:

Lautinalaulelei

…I recognize a couple of concepts: ‘lauti’ – the leaves of the ti tree – and ‘laulelei’ which talks about being well, or satisfied.

Interestingly enough, this word has nothing to do with agriculture. It is used to refer to a group of talking chiefs (tulafale) in a village who are of a general or lower rank. Why?

I have no idea, except that somewhere in Samoan history, somebody compared this group of tulafale to a field of beautifully grown ti-leaves…

In Context

In English, the use of more difficult words (correctly) can also imply that a person is educated, so your own personal glossary for life can become a status symbol.

…everybody knows at least one person who will happily show off the range of their vocabulary – whether they make any kind of sense or not – for the sake of sounding brainy, right?

In the Fa’asamoa, on the other hand, big, beautiful, complicated words are used to lavish praise on other people. It’s more than just respect… it’s verbal (lyrical) veneration.

So… in our culture, knowledge of this higher Samoan language is not about pride or ego, but rather deep humility and a willingness to defer to others.

Proverbially Speaking

It’s no wonder then that our parents will talk to us about ‘fa’aaloalo’ and remind us…

‘O le ala i le pule o le tautua’

Although it’s not always apparent to natural born cynics like myself, ideals like respect and service and obedience and modesty are foundational elements of Samoan wisdom… passed down to us from our ancestors, preserved so efficiently in our higher language.

Any Samoan function or family get together – a wedding, a funeral, an ava ceremony, a birthday – is an opportunity for our elders and matais to  share speeches, lauga.

Learning to compose and deliver a lauga, though, is sacred work, not only because they are used to consecrate and bring honour to an occassion, but also because the language used in these speeches – our higher language – carries proverbs, expressions and figures of speech that teach and reaffirm values that we sustain as Samoan people.

Learning for Life

It worries me now that this higher language is still relatively mysterious to me – partly because it’s not like we can just pick up a dictionary and learn it, but mostly because only a little while ago, I was completely oblivious to what it was all about.

I can’t help but wonder how many other Samoans in my generation – especially those of us raised outside of Samoa – have no idea how important our language is, or how valuable it is to be able to communicate ‘like matais and ministers’. It doesn’t help that the way we live today doesn’t make it easy for us to learn…

…but that excuses nothing.

One thing most of us can appreciate is that Samoans are all about family and respect for our elders. What better way to learn than to spend time serving and talking to our parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts…

Just like in the old days…

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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!

13 thoughts on “The two Samoan languages

  1. Just wanted to share my great appreciation of your blogs! I love my culture! I love learning about it! I’m in the process of learning to be fluent and not so shy with speaking. I get bashings from cousins saying I ‘sound white’ (whatever that means) but I dont want that to hinder any progress or hold me back from speaking. Just so happens I have the PRATTS dictionary, very useful!lol

    Born and Raised in the states but traveled back and forth as a child to Samoa. I regret not speaking to my older generations.. Just did shoulder shrugs. aha Com’n kid!lol My dads way of teaching us is just to talk lol Not the pen and paper route we’ve been so used to. I’ve adjusted abd found a medium with songs, stories, writing notes and keeping use of the dictionary. Looking forward to conquering the language and pass it down to the future!

  2. Great post! Found this site searching for Samoan tattoos… I see from the comments we’ve got Samoans from all around the world touching on this topic. It’s fascinating to know that Samoans far away with different life experiences still hold true and sacred the same innate values that were passed thru our ancestors, thru our blood and spirit. Respect, servant leadership, putting others first. If we share these same values, then I’m sure we share the same struggles -- as we live among the western ways of individualism and “self-first” way of life. It’s tough living in a race every day, knowing in your heart you should allow your fellow man to go ahead of you. Anyways, I could go on and on, but I don’t mean to get off track. This came to mind cuz reading this post, and the replies people left, reminded me of how great my people are and how important my culture is to me. It felt good to read about how important our language is, and how someone took the time to look at it and write about it from a non-Speaking Samoan point of view, comparing it to how we look at the English language… I appreciate that. And the fact that other Samoans feel the same way too.

    I was gonna try and get poetic with my closing but it’s late here in California and yeah, it’s not happening… 😛

    Soifua y’all!

    JP from Carson, CA

  3. WOOOW..ISNT THAT SO TRU…I ALWAYS DID LOVE DAT QUOTE

    ” O LE ALA I LE PULE O LE TAUTUA”

    AND ALWAYS TRY TO APPLY THAT TO MY OWN LIFE AND HOW I GO ABOUT CARRYING MYSELF AROUND OUR PEOPLE ESPECIALLY..BUT NOT ONLY THAT BUT I HAVE NOTICED THAT HOW WE CARRY OURSELF (IN A FA’AALOALO SENSE) WITH NON-SAMOANS THAT IT SHINES SO BRIGHT THAT EVEN THEY ARE ATTRACTED AND ACKNOWLEDGE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SAMOANS AND OTHERS…IT’S WONDERFUL TO SEE THAT HAPPEN…MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD ABOUT BEING SAMOAN…WHICH WE SHOULD ALL FEEL BECAUSE NOT ONLY IS SAMOA RICH IN CULTURE BUT VERY BEAUTIFUL IN EVERYWAY…

    THANKS FOR THE POST HGG..I TOO AM ALWAYS LOOKING FOR THINGS TO READ UP ON ABOUT OUR CULTURE AND HISTORY..I HAVE PRINTOUTS OF SOME PROVERBS AND MATAI WORDS AND I OFTEN GO BACK AND GO OVER THERE LEARNING SOMETHING NEW EVERYTIME…I HOPE OUR YOUNG PEOPLE WILL FIND THEIR WAY TO APPRECIATE THIS LANGUAGE OF OURS…

  4. I remember going to a predominately ‘FOB’ school in Sydney and being embarrassed to use ‘big words’, not that I have an extensive vocabulary. I enjoyed reading your blog. You have a wonderful writing style. I am an afakasi who has never been to Samoa. I was sent to my grandparents place in Sydney when I was 7 and started learning the fa’a Samoa from there. I have an old Pratt’s dictionary of the ‘Samoan native tongue.’ I remember staying at my uncle’s house in Brisbane for three months and coming across this ‘mysterious higher language.’ He taught me a few phrases, but I am by no means a master of it.

    Keep up the wonderful work.

    God love you!

  5. wow i love your blog ..

    my grandfather is a great matai speaker ..
    but i generally don’t know anything about the launguage, since my mother was bought up on her Tokelauan side !!
    but after visiting my family in Samoa, i decided that it wasnt fair to only know one side of my culture ..

    my family inspired me to complete a bachelor of fa’asamoa and thats exactly what il be doing !!

    keep up thaa blogs .. its a true inspiration, and a great read !!

  6. Oh, about fa’aumu… here’s what I know (which isn’t much)…

    Yes it’s also called kiususu (probably just the onomatopoeic interpretation) … I’ve actually spoken to a few people about it (including my mum) and from what I gather, the fa’aumu is a celebratory call used in ceremonies, especially where ie toga and other gifts are exchanged. Of course we also hear it a lot during traditional dance performances…

    …but it’s not meant to be used just anywhere.

    In fact, it’s pretty disrespectful to be ‘kiususu-ing’ inappropriately, for example… when the village is asleep… to punctuate your mocking sessions… just because you’re drunk… to egg other people on in a fight… in hip-hop videos… *kale*

    I hope that helps… and by the way, yes I take requests hehe… I’ll put this on my ‘to blog about’ list…

    Thanks again!

    1. Oh, wow! I had no idea that it was disrespectful. Thanks for the knowledge because for sure I chee-hoo like no tomorrow when I drink…I’ll be putting that in check.

  7. Hey guys.. thanks so much for stoppin by and for, u know… saying nice things 🙂

    I’m still very much in the learning process when it comes to all this Samoan stuff… but I’m loving it! It seems like everything I discover makes me want to learn more…

    Right now I’m still buzzin on the big picture -- that as Samoans we have a distinct way of life, one determined by our ancestors, influenced by all stories in our collective history… and just like Christianity has been recorded in scripture, the values and traditions of the Fa’asamoa have been recorded in our language… which in a broader sense also includes the symbols in our tatau and siapo patterns.

    I’m excited to see that I’m not the only one on this discovery expedition … hehe… Thank u for sharing your thoughts…

  8. Niuzila,yes that is the word I was looking for.Thanks.

    Does anybody know what it means?

  9. Good piece!

    As an oral culture, early Europeans who visited our shores admired the eloquent poetic language exchanged between matai’s at formal events.

    For those of us outside of Samoa, many of us (like myself) were once fluent in Samoan, but once entered into mainstream education, the fluency is fast lost. But even those that still have a strong command of Samoan into their adult years, only know everyday conversational Samoan.

    The language matai use isn’t easy to pick up but that just adds to its beauty.

    Thanks for the read.

    Sulu O Le Tautua: is it -- Choohoo = Kiususu?

  10. Awesome post Chi! 🙂

    Your right tho! its hard to learn more about it, my nana had once told me that If I was to become a matai, I would have to learn this ‘language’ from our pulenu’u in Leulumoega.. as this language is still a massive enigma..

    I’ve asked my aunt about it (here in Samoa) and asked if she understood it, she said that alot of it is mixed parables and eloquent phrases taken from myths and legends -- i’m not sure about this.. but I’ll find out a bit more about it if I can..

    I guess Samoan’s have 3 languages in that case right? the Informal ‘k’ -- the formal ‘t’ (and fa’aaloalo) and then there’s the ‘higher’ language..

    🙂 awesome brain food!.. 🙂

  11. I just wanted to post one more thing.I have been curious about something that we as Samoans do all to often now,that is the ‘faumu’.Sorry if thats not the correct spelling ,but I’m referring to what we all recognize as CHOOOOOHOOOOOOO! lol

    A while back I read something about the faumu,and how the sound we make which sounds like chooohoo,actually originates from an old Samoan word.I dont think that word sounds like choohoo but thats what it has become.I dont know if what I read had some truth but I do know there is more meaning and historical significance behind this yell.I know that it has to be more than something we do when we party,or get too drunk.Come on now,who faumu’s at the club? haha

    If you ever get the chance,would you mind looking into this,and sharing your findings? You probably dont take requests lol but you seem to be really good at finding out information on these subjects and the resources here in the states,and even online,is very limited.Hopefully you’ll be as curious to discover the meaning behind this Samoan phenomenon as much as I am.Stay up!

    Peace!

  12. I just happened to find this site while looking for the lyrics to Naumati Lagona.That was a great post.This was such a beautiful post too though,and the way that you explained how our culture and language and the ability to express ourselve’s so deeply with our words,is something that is such a vital part of our foundation,that was dope! I look forward to reading more from you so I do hope that you keep on posting.

    I was aware of this ‘Matai’ language,since I was a child.My Dad would tell me about it,but he never taught me how to speak or even understand the language.Any of it,the regular or the higher speech.What the hell? lol He didn’t really get close to explaining the higher speech the way that you did.But even though I still do not understand my own language,I do understand fa’aaloalo,and the fact that how I carry myself and how I choose to treat other people I meet,Samoan or not,young or old,through my actions,as long as they are with humility,respect and Love, I am actually speaking the language of our people.So I always try to choose my ‘words’ wisely 🙂

    Thank you for all the info you’ve provided.You can probably tell that I’m not as well written/spoken as you but I do appreciate your thoughts.

    One Love!

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