The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #5 September / October 2013
Languages in Peril
The Island Invasion
by Lucille Martin
September / October 2013 | 

The Malayo-Polynesian languages are a subgroup of the Austronesian languages and are spoken on the island nations of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean. Most of these languages belong to smaller groups of indigenous people who have suffered from European colonization, often driving them to the edge of extinction. We are going to look at the history and situation of three of them: Rapa Nui, Chamorro and Rotuman.

Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui, also called Pascuan, is an Eastern Polynesian language. It is spoken by the Rapa Nui people living in Chile and on the island of Rapa Nui (also called Easter Island) which is a special territory of it. It is unknown how many people currently speak Rapa Nui, but the estimate is under 3000, with most of those speaking Rapa Nui as a minor language, the dominant language of the region being Spanish. Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world, and the Rapa Nui language is isolated from the other Eastern Polynesian languages.

Polynesian people settled on Easter Island some time between from 300 to 1200 CE. The created a strong culture and thrived for a time, but the isolation of the island worked against them. They became overpopulated and used up most of the islands natural resources. When European explorers arrived on the island in 1722, the population had gone from a civilization of 15000 to one of just 3000. Diseases brought by the Europeans also aided in reducing the population even further.

The name "Easter Island" was given to it by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, the island's first recorded European visitor. He found it on Easter Sunday, so named it Paasch-Eyland, which was Dutch for "Easter Island". The official name of the island is Isla de Pascua, which also means "Easter Island". The Polynesian name for it, Rapa Nui, means "Big Rapa", and was given to it during slave raids of the 1860s because of its topographic similarity to the island of Rapa in the Bass Islands of the Austral Islands group.

Tamure Dancers, Easter Island

Spanish explorer Felipe González de Ahedo traveled to the island in 1770 and claimed it for Spain. Much of Rapa Nui vocabulary is taken from Tahitian, mixing it with older forms of the language. When Captain James Cook visited the island four years later, he had a Tahitian interpreter with him. The interpreter recognized some Polynesian words, but was unable to converse with the islanders. Many of the words, such as the numbers from one to ten, don't seem to have any relation to any other known language.

In the 1860s, the Peruvians needed more people for doing labor and so they started raiding island for free labor in the forms of slaves. Easter Island became a target. Eight Peruvian ships landed there in 1862 and captured around 1000 Easter Islanders, including the king, his son, and the ritual priests. Over the the years, hundreds more were taken. Most of those captured did not survive long in Peru.

When the Bishop of Tahiti finally protested this activity, he had the surviving Rapa Nui gathered and sent them back to their island. On the way, the ship broke out in smallpox, and only 15 natives made it back to the island. They carried the sickness with them, however, and a smallpox epidemic nearly wiped out the remaining island population. Continued contact with outsiders caused the people and language even further decline, as Rapa Nui became diluted by the local Tahitian pidgin.

Chamorro people in 1915

Easter Island was annexed by Chile in 1888 by Policarpo Toro, a Chilean naval officer, under the Tratado de Anexión de la isla ("Treaty of Annexation of the Island"). The validity of this treaty is still contested by some Rapa Nui natives. The surviving Rapa Nui people were confined to Hanga Roa, the capital of the island, until the 1960s, when the island was reopened in its entirety and the natives were given Chilean citizenship.

Father Sebastian Englert, a German missionary who lived on Easter Island between 1935 and 1969, published a partial Rapa Nui–Spanish dictionary in 1948, attempting to save what he could of the old language. It contained many typographical mistakes but still contained a large amount of material, recording not only the language but also some of the oral traditions and conversations.

Today, Spanish is the most widely spoken language on Easter Island and the primary language of education and administration. Rapa Nui is being influenced still, slowly shifting to a more Spanish sentence structure. With so few native speakers left and the current speakers mainly knowing it as a secondary language, it is unknown how much longer Rapa Nui will continue to exist.


Chamorro is a Malayo-Polynesian language spoken by the native Chamorro people of the Mariana Islands, which include Guam. Chamorro people also live in several United States states including California, Hawaii, Nevada, Texas and Washington. According to the 2000 Census, approximately 65,000 people of Chamorro ancestry live on Guam, 19,000 in the Northern Marianas, and another 93,000 live outside the Mariana Islands.

The Chamorro people came from Southeast Asia around 2000 BC and are most closely related to other Austronesian natives to the west in the Philippines and Taiwan. They were first encountered by explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. Later Spanish explorers named the inhabitants of the islands "Chamurres", which was derived from a local term for "upper caste", but this was eventually converted to "Chamorros" from an old Spanish term for "bald", referring, perhaps, to the native males habit of shaving their heads. This last part is hard to confirm, as various visitors reported different hairstyles for the natives.

During its time as a Spanish colony, the Chamorro population was greatly reduced by the disease the Europeans brought with them. The Spanish also introduced many changes in the society, killing many Chamorro men and relocating most of the remaining population others to Guam. There, they lived in several parishes to prevent rebellion. An estimated 100,000 Chamorro natives that had lived on the islands before Europeans were reduced to under 10,000 by 1800. In the parishes, the Spanish worked to covert the natives to Catholicism. The Chamorro were given Spanish surnames. Since Guam was a Spanish colony for over 300 years, many Chamorro words are derived from Spanish. The traditional Chamorro number system was replaced by Spanish numbers.

Kutturan Chamorro Performers

In 1898, the United States captured the island during the Spanish-American War. This did not end trouble for the Chamorro people, however. In Guam, the language suffered suppression when the U.S. Government banned it completely from schools in 1922. All Chamorro dictionaries were collected and burned. This continued during the Japanese occupation of the area during World War II and when it was returned to the US after the war. Only English was allowed to be taught in the schools, and students who spoke their native tongue were punished.

When at last their oppressive polices were removed, the damage to the language and people had already been done. New generations had children raise in families in which only the oldest members were fluent, making it difficult for the children to learn the language. English eventually replaced Chamorro as the common language. More and more Chamorros, especially youth, are also relocating to the US mainland, and that makes preserving the Chamorro identity even more difficult.

They carried the sickness with them, however, and a smallpox epidemic nearly wiped out the remaining island population.

There is still hope for the language, though. In the Northern Mariana Islands, young Chamorros still speak the language fluently, and it is still common among Chamorro households. There has also been a growing interest in reviving the language, and all public schools on both Guam and the the Northern Mariana Islands are now required, by law, to teach the Chamorro language as part of their standard curriculum. Furthermore, because the Marianas are a part of the United States, the Chamorro people now enjoy greater economic opportunities than many other Micronesian peoples.

On Guam, a Chamorro rights movement has developed since the United States regained control of the island. Leaders of the movement are seeking to return the ancestral lands to the Chamorro people. It is impossible to tell, however, if these efforts will be enough to save the Chamorro identity and language.


Mofmanu Beach, Rotuma

Rotuman, also called Rotunan, is a Malayo-Polynesian language spoken by the native people of the island Rotuma, which is part of the South Pacific Islands group. Rotuma is a Fijian dependency, and many Rotumans live on Fiji as well. There are an estimated 2000 Rotumans, according to the 2007 census, but it is unknown how many of those are native or second language speakers of Rotuman. The island has long been a cultural melting pot of the Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian groups, and so the indigenous Rotuman share many of the same cultural traits as it's neighbors.

The first inhabitants of the island were probably the ancient seafaring people, the Lapita, some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. After them, waves of Micronesians would have migrated to the island. The Polynesians would have been the last to come to the island, which gives it a similar but distinct language and cultural heritage from any of its ancestors.

When at last their oppressive polices were removed, the damage to the language and people had already been done.

The first recorded European contact with Rotuma was in 1791. British Captain Edward Edwards and the crew of HMS Pandora landed on the island while searching for sailors who had disappeared following the Mutiny on the Bounty. In the mid-nineteenth century, Rotuma became a safe haven for deserting sailors. Some of them married local women, contributing their genes to the already highly mixed pool.

A United States exploring expedition arrived on Rotuma in1840. Wesleyan missionaries from Tonga came to the island in 1842, and they were followed by Catholic Marists in 1847. Conflicts between the groups broke out and the local chiefs finally asked Britain to annex the island in order to put an end to the fighting, which Britain did in 1881. It became part of the United Kingdom a few years after Fiji became a colony and was put under Fiji's control. The British granted Fiji independence in 1970, and Rotuma remained part of Fiji.

The mix of peoples and cultures over the millenniums makes it difficult to properly categorise the people. While they physically most resemble the Polynesian people of Samoa and Tonga, the Rotuman musical style of chanting is similar to traditional Tahitian or Maori styles. The language itself is distinctive from the neighboring Polynesian neighbors and is more closely similar to the Melanesian languages of Fiji.

Council of Chiefs of Rotuma, 1927

The language is even more interesting to linguists because it uses metathesis, in which it swaps the the final vowel in a word with the consonant before it. This results in a vowel system that employs umlauts, vowel shortening or extending and diphthongisation (when a single vowel sound shifts to a two-vowel vocalization).

The Rotumans managed to escape much of the damage normally brought when a native population meets Europeans, so the language has not been as oppressed. However, it is still considered vulnerable, due to the newer generations adopting English or Fijan as their primary language.

Languages in Peril - The Island Invasion
Writer: Lucille Martin
Mbmerino: Ahu Tahai sunset (title)
Lufke: Tamure Dancers, Easter Island
Marilyn Sourgose: Kutturan Chamorro Performers
Rivi: Panorama of Anakena, Easter Island
Petey: Chamorro people in 1915; Mofmanu Beach, Rotuma; Council of Chiefs of Rotuma, 1927
• "Rapa Nui language" Wikipedia <>
• "Another mystery of the Rapa Nui culture" <>
• "Rapa Nui people" Wikipedia <>
• "Easter Island" Wikipedia <>
• "Chamorro people" Wikipedia <>
• "Rotuman language" Wikipedia <>
• "Rotuman people" Wikipedia <>
• "Rotuma" Wikipedia <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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