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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…


This article was first published here in March 2009