Polynesian Legal Terms.

Interesting excerpts from A Power in the World, by Lorenz Gonschor (U. Hawaii Press, 2019), courtesy of Joel at Far Outliers (Sources of Tahitian Legal Terms, Sources of Samoan Legal Terms):

Unlike the Hawaiian constitutional model with its hybrid forms combining classical elements of statecraft with Western forms, the Tahitian legal code and its derivatives primarily used concepts from either biblical or English law, for example, the word ture for “law,” a Tahitian form of the Hebrew word ה רָוֹתּ (torah), basileia (pātīreia in contemporary Tahitian spelling), deriving from Greek βασιλεία (basileía) for kingdom, or tāvana, Tahitian rendering of governor (> *gāvana > tāvana) to designate the heads of the formerly independent clans or chiefdoms that were reorganized as districts within the new Christian kingdom (Académie Tahitienne 1999, 530; Montillier 1999, 270–271).

The marked contrast to the terminology for the equivalent political institutions in the Hawaiian kingdom—namely, kānāwai, aupuni, and kia‘āina, all of which derive from classical Hawaiian statecraft—is clear. It is also hardly surprising, given the nature or Pomare’s kingdom and the other Tahitian-language realms as secondary states modeled on outside examples, and not primary states that developed endogenously, such as the classical Hawaiian predecessor states of the Hawaiian Kingdom (Hommon 2013, 184–185).


What is also intriguing about the Samoan constitutional system is that despite the absence of classical state-like political structures, the vocabulary created for concepts of modern statecraft was remarkably traditional, much more than the equivalent terms in Tongan and Fijian. For instance, the Samoan term for law is tulāfono, a concept clearly grounded in classical concepts of governance. Other terms for innovative institutions were literal translations, such as failautusi (someone doing writing or accounting) for secretary (that is, cabinet minister). Very few words, however, were direct borrowings from foreign languages comparable to Tahitian ture and basileia or Tongan lao and minisitā.

I would not have expected a Polynesian language to borrow either torah or basileia.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I would not have expected a Polynesian language to borrow either torah or basileia

    I’m fairly sure that this is the effect of Bible translations; the nineteenth-century translators were quite ingenious at making up nice words consisting of Polynesian-friendly strings of open syllables on the basis of Latin and Greek (and even Hebrew.)

    (Here I have to mention the Books of Bokonon, scriptures of the all-time best fictional religion. [“Bokonon” <- Boyd Johnson.] Bokononism explains so much.)

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    I see that Cat’s Cradle was banned in Strongsville, Ohio, from 1972 to 1976. What would we do without Wikipedia?

  3. Now we have a question. Whether תּוֹרָה has been spelled left-to-right in the excerpt to emphasize the connection between it’s letters with ture or was it just mistake of typesetting. There is an actual Hebrew word הרות (harot) which means pregnant (fem.pl.)

  4. The mixed-up Hebrew writing direction is probably the fault of Kindle, which converted the book from which the source blog quotes.

  5. Thanks for checking the Hebrew. I wondered whether that was the author’s doing, the typesetter’s, or the Kindle conversion utility they used. The print version on Google Books has the letters in the reverse order, so the fault must lie with the conversion to Kindle, which also lost all connection to the printed pages, so I had to locate the excerpts by very rough Kindle locs.

  6. I’m afraid I can’t access the site, no matter how I try. Invalid certificate.

    the nineteenth-century translators were quite ingenious at making up nice words consisting of Polynesian-friendly strings of open syllables on the basis of Latin and Greek (and even Hebrew.)

    Japanese does that with English words even now. Nothing special here.

    What the excerpt doesn’t tell us is how the Hawaiians came up with their own words using native morphemes, and how they became established in legal terminology. Borrowing is fine, but this is more interesting than borrowing.

  7. I eventually had to restart my computer because my browser threw up an unclosable box demanding that I access my keychain.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Uh-oh, “keychain” is not a word I want to be confronted with in an uncloseable dialog. Don’t know why, it just raises my hackles in the context you describe. Do you dabble in bitcoin ? Or is it merely a snappy reference to “two-factor authentification” ?

    Snappy expressions are the bane of my old age. They make it easier for people to string words together with a nod to syntax, to produce floods of speech that make no sense whatsoever. It doesn’t surprise me though, since I have for a long time viewed speech as an automatic process like scratching an itch. People are itching for attention, so they open their mouths.

  9. Lars Mathiesen says

    It’s just Apple-speak for a password and certificate manager application.

  10. Stu Clayton says

    Well then, at least I had a good scratch.

  11. Bathrobe,
    See the earlier excerpt from 7 July 2020, about the extension of Hawaiian institutions to adapt to “British governance.”

  12. Bathrobe says


    Accessed that page. After which I was able to access all the rest. Not sure why.

    I’ve switched to Firefox. Vivaldi stinks.

    (Now I’ve discovered that even Vivaldi will let me through. WTF.)

  13. mmmm interesting, thank you Joel.

    We have interpretation difficulties in New Zealand. Our constitutional founding document, the ‘Treaty of Waitangi’ 1840 [see wikipedia] was drafted by a naval Captain (not a lawyer) in English, then translated into te reo māori by a bunch of missionaries (different ones of different sects in different parts of the country), and it’s the translations that our courts have to interpret.

    Māori already had systems of agreements/truces amongst the tribes, with sophisticated terminology for rights and obligations, guardianship/trusteeship, usage of land and resources from the sea. But no concept of people owning land: more people ‘belonging to land’.

    Of course none of this fitted into the British legal system. It’s been a veil of tears, whose resolution is still rumbling through the courts.

  14. David Marjanović says

    veil of tears

    Interesting eggcorn for the vale [ = valley] of tears.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    There’s also a Dance of the Seven Vales wedding dress.

  16. AJP Crown says

    Much remarked Bakerloo line announcement on the London Underground: “The next station is…made of ale” (Maida Vale).

  17. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I once heard on the radio that something had been recorded at the Made Of Ale Studios, which took me a moment to work out. I suppose if you hear about the place more often you’re more likely to hear it first.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    The discussion of Samoa is from the time period prior to its division between rival imperial powers and it would be interesting to know to what extent the relevant part of the Samoan lexicon subsequently diverged between the different islands subject to different external sovereigns. That the non-American part passed into Anglophone hands after a comparatively short period of German rule may have helped minimize such divergence, of course.

  19. I don’t think I had ever heard of Maida Vale. (I have very little firsthand knowledge of London, having only spent a single night in the United Kingdom in the course of my European travels.) Yet just now, while I was watching the beginning of Dial M for Murder, it showed up in Grace Kelly’s address.

  20. The audio is right, but the video in that is a recreation of the famous intro.* It looked just a little off to me—probably the absence of the stars—until the “E=mc²” appeared in Comic Sans.

    * Actually, I prefer the one earlier, less remembered intro sequences to The Twilight Zone, the original one.

  21. “Ture” is also used in NZ Māori (e.g. Te Ture Whenua Māori 1993 aka the Māori Land Act). A former law professor of mine informed our class that the reason the more obvious Māori borrowing (i.e. “tora”) wasn’t used was because one of its existing meanings was “erect penis”.

  22. Bathrobe says

    So the law in Maori would not have been an “ass”, it would have been “an erect penis”.

    Telling someone “go to buggery with your law” would have sounded exceedingly apt. Tant pis.

    (I guess I should add this: Go to buggery)

  23. Trond Engen says

    It’s an interesting series of posts. From Kalākaua as pan-Austronesianist:

    During the following visit in Johor, at the southern tip of present-day Malaysia, relations between the Hawaiian king and another non-Western ruler reached another climax. Johor’s ruler, Maharajah Abu-Bakar, was another monarch using the tools of modernity to secure a certain degree of parity for his country (Trocki 1979; Andaya and Andaya 2001, 173–174, 202; Keng 2014). Because he had traveled extensively on his own, Abu-Bakar was Kalākaua’s first non-Western host as fluent in English as himself, so they could talk without an interpreter. But this more familiar atmosphere aside, the king also found the maharajah physically quite similar to a Hawaiian ali‘i, specifically, the late Prince Leleiohōkū I. As Kalākaua remarked in a letter to his brother-in-law, “if [the maharajah] could have spoken our language I would take him to be one of our people the resemblance being so strong.” Although Abu-Bakar could not speak Kalākaua’s native language, the two monarchs compared words in Hawaiian and Malay, and within a few minutes could identify a number of them that the two Austronesian languages had in common, and they reflected on the common origins of their peoples (Armstrong 1977, 44; Requilmán 2002, 164).


    Kalākaua maintained close relations with the court of Johor during the rest of his reign, attested by a steady exchange of letters between the two monarchs and their government officials throughout the 1880s. It was likely similar considerations of pan-Austronesian solidarity that later motivated Kalākaua to include Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar among the heads of state he notified via autographed letters of the death of his sister Likelike in February 1887. Like Siam and Johor, the Kingdom of Madagascar was another non-Western hybrid state using strategies of selective similitude to achieve international parity (Valette 1979; Esoavelomandroso 1979; Brown 2006). At the time of Kalākaua’s letter, however, Queen Ranavalona’s government was embattled by French imperialism, which had led to the forcing of a French protectorate on the Indian Ocean island kingdom in 1885 and would culminate in the French conquest and colonial annexation of the island in 1896 (Randrianarisoa 1997). Hence, Kalākaua’s gesture to include the Malagasy queen among the heads of state of the world should be seen as a remarkable gesture of pan-Austronesian anticolonial solidarity.

  24. Fascinating, thanks for bringing that here!

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