A correspondent sent me a story by Jon Stokes from the New Zealand Herald about a project “for the development of a pan-Pacific language”:

[Maori Language] Commission chief executive Haami Piripi said the commission was in discussions with a number of Pacific nations including Hawaii, Rarotonga, Samoa and Niue to develop a language database that would be used to develop a common “Meta-Polynesian” language.
He said the initiative was required to halt the declining use of Polynesian languages driven by the dominance of the English language and high numbers of Pacific peoples settling in other parts of the world.
“There are networks of languages that share a common ancestry, from Fiji across to Tahiti, it is important to chronicle the changes to the language as it spread across the Pacific and to recognise the family of languages that exist.”
He said the end result would be a database that would assist in developing greater uniformity among the various languages, driven by a need to ensure Polynesian languages are maintained.
“There is a merge point, the point where the languages merge will get greater and greater until it becomes a language of its own.”…

However, the proposal has been met with scepticism by senior lecturer in Samoan studies at Victoria University Galumalemana Alfred Hunkin.
He said language and culture were intertwined and strong opposition would follow moves for change, especially from another culture.
“When we talk about language loss it is a very emotional issue. Language is about identity and pride and your culture if you have someone who comes along and says ‘hey let’s use this word’, you are going to have some very healthy debate aren’t you?”
Mr Hunkin applauded moves to compile a database and protect Pacific languages, but said initiatives to ensure the survival of a native tongue had to be driven from within the community and embraced by those at the grass-roots.

I’m afraid I agree with the skeptical Mr. Hunkin (and with Pita Sharples, who said “I support the attempt to proliferate the languages and to share, but Samoan is Samoan and Maori is Maori”), but the database is an excellent idea, and anything that promotes the study of threatened languages is OK with me.


  1. Very interesting. There have been discussions of similar projects since I arrived at UH-Hilo in 1994. In particular, there was strong interest on the part of the M?ori and us in Hawai‘i to develop a pan-Polynesian database for the new lexicon created to address the language needs of everyday life – science, technology, sports, contemporary society. The M?ori had a modest database at that time, and we have our own M?maka Kaiao database (about 8,000 entries). We recently met with Haami and others on this issue, and it seems like there is little movement on this issue outside of Aotearoa and Hawai‘i. Perhaps he’s had more luck with other Polynesian island groups since we last discussed this.
    When our lexicon committee meets to discuss the needs for new words, we do look at the work of the M?ori and others to see if they have coined a term for a particular work in order to help maintain the relationship of the languages and avoid further language drift. Our dictionary is online, and I would hope that they and others do the same with ours.

  2. Keola, could you post a link to the dictionary?

  3. Claire, I would have emailed you this: you might be interested in Mātāpuna which my colleague Dave developed for the Māori Language Commission.

  4. To quote myself from the Essentialist Explanations page:
    Samoan/Hawaiian/Maori is essentially bad Hawaiian/Maori/Samoan.

  5. The Māmaka Kaiao dictionary, along with several others, are individually or jointly searchable at:
    Regarding Matapuna, we are using it also. The Māmaka Kaiao database was maintained for years using FileMaker Pro. We learned about Matapuna at a gathering on O‘ahu last year which also included Haami. Dave Moskowitz has done an amazing job of modifying the Matapuna software to accomodate our specific needs. The Māori language commission uses it for a monolingual Māori dictionary they are developing. Ours is for new lexicon which includes both Hawaiian->English and English->Hawaiian sections.
    The website I pointed to (as well as our Ulukau digital library) also uses digital library software developed in Aotearoa called Greenstone. We will be using Matapuna to maintain the Mamaka Kaiao database via the web as committee members live on different islands. The data will be periodically exported from Matapuna for printing and for importing into Greenstone. Both Matapuna and Greenstone are excellent programs with quite different functionality, and we’ve found both to be invaluable to our work.

  6. It seems to me that the pan-Pacific language would be the widespread English-based Creole. My guess that standardizing the various Creoles would be a lot easier and would get less resistance, and Micronesians and Melanesians could be included. (Not Tahitians, though).
    Whether there’s enough ongoing functional connection between the various island peoples is another question.

  7. I don’t know about this instance, but most government initiatives like this are attempts to solve problems created by those very governments in the first place. If you don’t want the language that has expressed your civilization for millennia to die out, stop relying on English (or any other foreign language) in your schools and administration.

  8. Peter Kleiweg says

    That would be Polynesian Interlingua.

  9. Has there ever been a successful top-down language-rescue initiative? Have speakers of a group of related languages ever decided that banding together would be the best course for survival? This sounds like an awfully tear-soaked route toward getting the multilingual database constructed.

  10. It’s true that this sort of project has never really been successful in the past (well, I guess there’s Esperanto, although…).
    But such projects have never had access to the internet, either. Voice over IP becomes ever more ubiquitous, mobile devices are increasingly hooked up to the web, and as a result the possibility of authentic speech communities forming without geographical restrictions becomes ever more feasible, even in Polynesia.
    Perhaps it’s too soon to predict how the majority of speakers of these languages will take to the idea?

  11. Has there ever been a successful top-down language-rescue initiative?
    I would nominate modern Hebrew.

  12. People also say Welsh.

  13. Here’s an interesting paper: http://www.linguapax.org/congres04/pdf/1_dutcher.pdf — making the case that language diversity can be preserved in multilingual societies, typically through a system of bilingual education in local languages plus a mother tongue or lingua franca. The author details as examples the policies that are working in Papua New Guinea (800 languages), Eritrea and Guatemala. This seems to me preferable to a forced merging of languages into a meta-language.

  14. N’Ko is a consciously devised compromise between the several Manding languages.

  15. S. Valkemirer says

    Wikipedia has two articles on efforts to forge a common language for speakers of Slavic languages: “Pan-Slavic language” and “Interslavic language.”

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