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.

UPDATE Sept 2019: Finally made that list! Check it out: 12 Alagaupu (Samoan Proverbs) About Family – with translations and meanings

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 this graphic image:

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?

First published in September 2014