The heartbeat of Samoan culture is love and respect, or fa’aaloalo. How we greet people is a very public demonstration of this respect. Like a lot of languages, we have informal greetings for our peers and friends and then formal greetings for people we don’t know as well, or for those in authority over us (like our elders). But we also have another layer of greeting protocol reserved for our matai (our chiefs).
Here’s the main idea:
To greet a matai ali’i or a titled taupou, we say, ‘Afio mai lau afioga,’ and then say his or her title name. For a matai who is a tulafale, or orator, we say, ‘Susū mai lau susuga,’ plus the title name. Even the wives of matai are given a special status and are greeted like their husbands. Read on for the full explanation of these greetings and some common variations.
As you can see, to appropriately greet a Samoan matai, we need to know that chief’s title name and what type of title it is plus the specific greeting words for that type. But that’s just for the simple greetings.
To deliver a more oratorical greeting at a ceremonial gathering, it really helps to know how that matai’s title ranks in the political structure of his or her village… in other words, you’d need to know that village’s fa’alupega. (Here’s an article that explains fa’alupega a bit more.)
Yes. To greet a Samoan matai in the most Samoan of ways, you’d need to do some homework first… but isn’t taking the time to get to know someone the ultimate gesture of respect?
Let’s have a look at some of the background details that inform the way we greet our matai.
Rank and Order
When a person becomes a matai, it is respectful to use his or her new matai title in our greetings. So, obviously, we have to know what that title is.
Side Note: Some people are a bit shy about flouting their matai titles, probably because they don’t want to come across as boastful…as if they’d be saying, “All ye commoners shall now address me by my royal title, and never look me in the eye again…”
It’s not even like that in the Samoan culture, but still, it may take a little effort to uncover a person’s matai name. You might have to ask around. At a formal function, if none of your own Fa’asamoa advisers knows the title of a person you have to ceremonially greet, send someone into their entourage to discreetly inquire.
Ask for his or her matai name and what type of matai title it is.
In the Fa’asamoa, not all chiefs (matai) have the same rank or function. I guess you could compare it to the peerage system of European monarchy, but like… on a much smaller, people-of-Oceania (but still extremely important) sort of scale.
You can learn more about how Samoan matai titles are ranked and organized here: Matai: A Complicated System of Chiefs, but to summarize that article, every chiefly title generally falls into one of these categories:
- Ali’i – A high chief, also called a sitting chief
- Tulafale – The orator, or talking chief
We also have one other type of title, this one only ever held by a woman:
- Taupou – Head of the women’s counsel in a family or village (this is different from the untitled ‘taupou’ honour, which any daughter of a high chief – or any female heir to a family’s matai titles – is often given)
Also known as our sa’otama’ita’i, the titled taupou is treated and greeted in much the same way as the ali’i matai, as she ranks as highly.
The Chief’s Wife
By extension, a chief’s wife is also honoured with a title that celebrates her support of his role… and yes, I’m being very gender specific here because as far as I know, only a wife (i.e. the female spouse) is recognized in this way.
It goes like this:
- Faletua – the wife of an Ali’i
- Tausi – the wife of a Tulafale
The chief’s wife is greeted in a similar way to her husband according to the type of title he holds.
Okay, let’s get into some language tings.
Not Your Average Hello
The standard Samoan greeting is, Talofa! Of course. Talofa just means ‘hello’ and is perfectly appropriate for greeting anyone.
But a warmer, more rapport-building way to greet people is to invite them to you, using phrases that mean ‘welcome’ or ‘come on over’. For this job, we employ the services of our more formal Samoan language.
Afio mai, susū mai and maliu mai are all respectful ways to say ‘welcome’, using the version of our language reserved for matai, clergy, professionals, our elders, and anyone else you want to venerate with words. Which one of those greetings to use for a matai will depend on the type of title he or she holds:
- We say, “Afio mai” for matai with an ali’i title or for a taupou
- We say “Susū mai” or “Maliu mai” for our tulafale
By the way, we also use susū mai to greet most clergy – pastors and ministers, etc. – and maliu mai is also the appropriate welcoming phrase for a variety of other dignified people you might greet: our elders, a doctor or lawyer, or teacher, etc. Interestingly, a Catholic priest (patele) is greeted with afio mai.
We’ll look at a few more quirks in our greeting system soon.
Those EXTRA Formal Situations
If you are greeting a matai as part of a speech at a ceremonial gathering that includes many chiefs (you know, the kind of meeting where knowledge of fa’alupega would be really helpful) then it would be less about welcoming that matai and more about excusing yourself
In this situation, tulouna, a very formal version of the phrase ‘pardon me’, is the word you would use to acknowledge that you’re in respectable company, and then you’d complete your greeting by reciting what you know about that matai’s title and village history (i.e. their fa’alupega).
Speaking of Status
So the first part of your matai greeting is the hello, or the welcome. The second part is acknowledging their status, or the type of title they hold.
It’s like, do we refer to the Queen of England as ‘your majesty’ or ‘your royal highness’? Either one? Neither? I don’t know.
But I do know that if you’re greeting a taupou or a matai with an ali’i title, you refer to them as, ‘lau afioga‘. Same goes for the ali’i’s faletua.
A tulafale is, ‘lau tofā‘ or ‘lau susuga‘, so is his tausi (his wife), and then we use ‘lau susuga’ again for the other respectable people mentioned earlier – teachers, elders, doctors, etc.
Interestingly… when we refer to the highest ranking title in all of Samoa – our Samoan Head of State – you’d expect that he’d be ‘lau afioga’ right? He’s not. We refer to our Head of State as ‘lau susuga’.
I don’t know why.
Putting it All Together
We’re finally ready to deliver the culturally appropriate greetings to each of our matai.
Let’s create some made up matai profiles to work with:
- Let’s say our first matai is our ali’i and his matai title is Tamatoa and his wife’s name is Lili.
- Our next matai, our tulafale… let’s call his title Siufofoga and his wife’s name is Lala.
- Finally, our taupou‘s title can be Purinisese.
Okay, let’s start with Tamali’i.
How to Greet a Matai Who Has an Ali’i Title
For an ali’i, we use the welcome phrase, “Afio mai” and we refer to him or her as ‘lau afioga”.
Your greeting will therefore be:
Afio mai lau afioga ia Tamatoa.
And then for his wife, Lili, we would say:
Afio mai lau afioga i le faletua.
How to Greet a Matai Who is a Tulafale (talking chief)
For a tulafale, we use the welcome phrase “Susū mai” and refer to him or her (usually him) as ‘lau susuga’ or ‘lau tofā’.
Susū mai lau susuga Siufofoga.
Susū mai lau tofā Siufofoga.
For his wife, his tausi, Lala, we would say:
Susū mai oe le tausi, Lala.
How to Greet a Titled Taupou
We greet a taupou the same way we greet an ali’i, but we could add a bit of flourish, if you like, with the word masiofo, or ‘queen’.
Afio mai lau afioga ia Purinisese.
Afio mai lau afioga i le masiofo Purinisese.
When you really don’t know who you’re talking to
Sometimes, you just can’t help it. You might not have time or the means to find out if the person you’re talking to has a title or not, much less what kind of title that might be.
And let’s say you don’t even know what this person’s occupation is… and you don’t want to awkwardly guess, but you will still want to be fully respectful, of course, because that’s who we are, right?
So what do you do?
Well, in these situations, it’s appropriate to default to our greeting for an ali’i matai – afio mai. And then you want to humbly acknowledge your ignorance of that person’s status. You’d say:
Afio mai lau afioga ua le maua.
Afio maia lau afioga ou te le maua atu.
Ua le maua means something like… ‘it’s not known’. Ou te le maua atu loosely translates to, ‘I haven’t caught it’, of course referring to not knowing your new friend’s identity or status.
Aiiiiight that’s all I got about greeting our venerable matai.
And now you know.