Reviving Pacific Languages through Song.

Pete McKenzie writes for the Guardian:

As a child, Olivia Foa’i would steal into the recording studio her father had attached to their Auckland home to listen to the best Pacific musicians as they performed. Her favourite memory was hearing her aunt as she sang in Gagana Tokelau, the indigenous language of Tokelau, a collection of atolls halfway between Australia and Hawaii.

“I remember looking at her like she was my idol. I’d copy whatever she sang,” says Foa’i, one of the Pacific’s most prominent singers and one of the main vocalists behind Disney’s Moana. “It’s a beautiful language.”

While listening to music in Gagana Tokelau enthralled Foa’i, it also left her feeling conflicted. The sounds were familiar but she worried that her own grasp of the language wasn’t as strong as it should be. “In one way, I felt connected. But the other way I felt was nervous, because I didn’t want people to think I could answer back fully fluently.”

Foa’i has gone on to become one of the biggest stars in Pacific music. She sang many of the most popular songs in the 2016 film Moana, including its opening track, Tulou Tagaloa. More recently, she was named best female artist at the Pacific music awards and won top honours at the Aotearoa music awards.

In part, her success has come from her willingness to integrate Tokelauan influences into her music, culminating in her recent release of Mai Anamua, her first song fully in Gagana Tokelau. Those efforts have made her one of the most prominent figures in a wider movement across the Pacific to revive indigenous languages through song.

In New Zealand stars such as Lorde and Six60 have released versions of their most recent music in both English and Te Reo Māori, while Australian musician Mitch Tambo has won praise for his performances of the iconic song You’re The Voice in Gamilaraay language. Meanwhile, in the Pacific Islands, prominent regional musicians such as Josh Tatofi in Hawaii and Kas Futialo from Samoa are producing music partly or exclusively in indigenous languages. […]

In part because of her disconnection from Tokelau after growing up in Auckland, Foa’i is still working to master Gagana Tokelau: a journey that has at times been emotionally challenging. “Because I’ve sung in the language for so long, sometimes you don’t want to let people know that you’re not as advanced as you should be or appear to be,” she says, adding she has family members who will speak with her and “let me make mistakes”.

More at the link; as always, I approve of this sort of thing. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. as always, I approve of this sort of thing.

    Of course. And for many Pacifica languages there are larger speech communities in Auckland (or Australia) than remain on the islands. The annual Pacific Music Awards are a huge event.

    Mai Anamua live at Taiwan International Festival of the Arts.

  2. It’s great that there’s official support for such things.

  3. The annual Kamehameha Song Contest in Honolulu and Merry Monarch Festival in Hilo have long provided important venues for preserving and reviving the Hawaiian language. The role of language has become more and more important in hula.

  4. Tokelau, a collection of atolls halfway between Australia and Hawaii.

    Is a particularly misleading way to put it, linguistically speaking.

    Tokelau is a little [**] North-East of Tonga-Samoa, on the way to Hawaii[***]. Its language therefore counts as within the Polynesian Triangle of closely-related Eastern Polynesian Languages — as opposed to Fiji and other points (North-, South-)West towards Australia/Papua/Philippines.

    Of course no Polynesian languages spoken in Australia until European-facilitated migrations.

    Foa’i … sang many of the most popular songs in the 2016 film Moana, including its opening track,

    So much as I could bear of the drippingly schmaltzy Moana songs seemed to be in Hawaiian.

    And noticeably not the same phonology as ‘Mai Anamua’ I linked above. Can anybody tell how authentic is the Hawaiian in Moana? Or has Disney done its usual fudge job?

    Did Foa’i need to learn Hawaiian for the soundtrack?

    [**] Since we’re in the Pacific, that “little” is ~500km of open and sometimes fierce ocean; as opposed to the ~3,700km onwards to Hawaii.

    [***] And you wouldn’t actually set off to Hawaii from Tokelau, because the winds/currents don’t work like that; and no islands to stop off at to replenish supplies. Rather you’d go east to Cook Islands then Tahiti, then turn North-West to Hawaii. So I could believe Gagana Tokelau is quite linguistically distant from Hawaiian.

  5. Gagana Tokelau is not an East Polynesian language.

  6. Indeed, its nearest relative is Samoan. These two plus the ten Polynesian Outlier languages form the Ellicean branch, which is coordinate with the East Polynesian branch (Rapanui, Marquesan, Mangarevan, and Hawaiian, plus the Tahitic languages) and the dubious Futunic branch of Nuclear Polynesian, which together constitute all the Polynesian languages except Tongan, Niuafo’oan, and Niuean.

    Pukapukan (not to be confused with the Marquesan variety spoken on Puka-Puka in the Tuamotus) is legally part of Cook Islands Maori, but genetically is closer to Tokelauan. Per contra, Tokelauan/Pukapukan form a Sprachbund with Tuvaluan, which is genetically Outlier rather than Samoic.

  7. So much as I could bear of the drippingly schmaltzy Moana songs seemed to be in Hawaiian.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “seemed to be”, but none of them are in Hawaiian. They’re mostly in English, and the Polynesian lyrics are in Tokelauan (i.e. Gagana Tokelau), Samoan, and some Tuvaluan. These lyrics were written by Olivia Foa’i’s father, Opetaia Foa’i, who was born in Samoa to parents from Tokelau and Tuvalu. Lyrics and translations from his website (I include these archived links as an authoritative source on the languages used in each case):
    “We Know the Way”
    “Tulou Tagaloa”
    “Logo Te Pate”
    “An Innocent Warrior”

  8. Is there something undesirable about dripping schmaltz?

  9. Figuratively, and in English, yes: shmaltzy ‘exaggeratedly sentimental.

  10. And it’s a straight Anglicization if Yiddish shmaltsik (שמאַלציק) with the same meanings. I don’t know to what extent the same word exists in standard or dialectical German, having never, so far as I recall, encountered it in German. The noun schmaltz certainly exists, but because of dietary restrictions, chicken fat is far more prominent in traditional European Jewish cooking than in other neighboring cuisines. So the metaphorical adjective may have been strictly Yiddish, never common German.

  11. Thanks @Tim. I meant of the songs that aren’t in English.

    Schmaltz; not. (I should mention I don’t have kids, so I’ve mostly managed to avoid Disney since … oh, Fantasia ‘Mr Stokowski!’.)

    I guess what I mean by ‘Hawaiian’ amounts to schmaltzy over-produced generic Polynesian. (I have a vague memory of swaying grass skirts and ukuleles on a stopover flying from UK to NZ.)

    Tulou Tagaloa sounds a little more atmospheric; but Polynesian music just doesn’t do split/tight harmony like that [**].

    [**] We discussed here a pseudo-Polynesian movie from the 1950’s “shot on location in New Zealand!” which was just a travesty, with African drumming and full-on choral harmony.

    Oh, and big congratulations to Fiji trouncing the Aussies at RWC.

  12. Polynesian music just doesn’t do split/tight harmony like that

    Since Fo’ai is of mixed Tokelauan and Tuvaluan ancestry and grew up in Samoa, he is obviously Polynesian, and so is his music.

  13. he is obviously Polynesian, and so is his music.

    I dispute the music in the movie is entirely his: I suspect Disney corporate arrangement. That’s why I linked to the ‘not’ schmaltzy performance — more likely to be his/the performers authentic arrangement. So note the modestly-split not-tight harmonisation — despite having backing singers and the full resources of a symphony orchestra to hand.

  14. I wonder if the name Foa’i is Samoan foa‘i ‘give’. According to the Tokelau Dictionary (1986, p. 126), ‘give’ in Tokelauan is fо̄ki (< earlier foaki, given in an older dictionary). I could only find ave in Tuvaluan for ‘give’ (cf. Samoan ‘ave), but I didn’t look very hard. (I assume that Opataia is the equivalent of Obadiah, but what do I know?)

  15. I don’t know to what extent the same word exists in standard or dialectical German
    The adjective schmalzig exists and can be used like the Yiddish word, but that usage seems to be a recent development under the influence of English. Grimm, which normally reflects usage up to the 1st half of the 20th century, has only the literal meaning “made of / full of lard” and as figurative meanings “rich, juicy” (of crops / harvests and incomes) – this latter figurative usage being one I’m not familiar with and which may be obsolete.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Agreed on all counts, though the use for songs could have been reinforced by Schmalzlocke, a greasy hairstyle found among performers of such songs in the mid-20th century. (Do a Google image search, and then click away fast.)

    I’m not sure I’ve encountered non-pork usage of literal Schmalz.

  17. i’m guessing the yiddish meaning is a tightening of a more general “rich, juicy” figurative usage – roughly parallel to “saccharine” in english, but a lot more heymish – with the more positive possible connotations already covered by “zaftik”.

  18. Fats seem to a rich source for metaphors in many languages. Oleaginous is much more likely to describe a figurative character trait than literal oiliness.

  19. I wonder if the name Foa’i is Samoan foa’i ‘give’

    Sāmoan has /ʔ/, which Tokelauan and Tuvaluan don’t. However, it seems grammatically weird to use a bare verb (not ‘gift’ or such) as a name.

  20. PlasticPaddy says

    If ‘hoa’ is a word for flower in Hawaiian, *foa with the same meaning would seem to be possible in Tongan or Samoan.

  21. POLLEX is a brilliant resource. (But I find it rather hard to navigate/haven’t got time now to hunt around.)

    Hoa/foa is to break/smash with a club such as a coconut or as headache

    Fao/hao/hau (in various languages) is a tree with white flowers/garland

  22. I’m not sure I’ve encountered non-pork usage of literal Schmalz.
    Pork is the default, but Gänseschmalz is also not unusual. WP says that in the past, chicken and dog(!) Schmalz also were used.

  23. I suspect that Foa’i is a Samoanization of some original Tokelauan or Tuvaluan name. Now /ʔ/ in Samoan (and independently in Tahitian) corresponds to PPn /k/ (Samoan [k] exists only as the allophone of /t/ in the L variety of Samoan), so we should look for something like foaki, or in Eastern Polynesian voaki/woaki/hoaki. (Per contra, PPn /ʔ/ is preserved in Tongan, partly preserved in Niuafo’ou, East Futunan, and Rapanui, and lost everywhere else.)

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