The Guide to the Tongan Language
The Guide to the Tongan Language

The Guide to the Tongan Language

(c) James Blackwood – Tonga Ministry of Tourism

A Quick Guide to the Language of Tonga

Tonga is home to two official languages: Tongan and English. While Tongan is the most-used language, English is a second language of most Tongans in Tonga’s most populated islands, like Tongatapu and Vava’u. Nevertheless, you’re bound to encounter plenty of Tongan words and phrases during your getaway, from people saying “malo e lelei” to seeing “lu” on the menu and sleeping in a “fale”. Learn a little about the Tongan language in this quick guide to the language of Tonga.

For some quick words to learn, see 10 Tongan Words You Need to Know When Visiting Tonga.

5 Fun Facts About the Tongan Language

  • The Tongan language is locally known as Fakatongan!
  • There are several numbering systems in Tonga, for instance, counting coconuts, yams or fish have a different numbering system for each
  • The islanders of Niuafo’ou have their own unique dialect known as Niuafo’ouan
  • There is a vowel in every single syllable pronounced in Tongan
  • “Ng” is seen as one letter in the Tongan alphabet.
The Guide to the Tongan Language(c) Tonga Ministry of Tourism

Where Does the Tongan Language Come From?

For those of you who like a bit of context, Tongan is part of a Polynesian branch of the huge Austronesian family of languages. It’s closest relative languages are Samoan, Tahitian, Hawaiian, Niuean and Maori.

The same variety of Tongan (Fakatonga) is spoken across the islands of Tonga, with no regional variants other than on the island of Niuafo’ou. The language in Niuafo’ou, which is Tonga’s northernmost island and closer to Samoa than the nearest island group Vava’u, is Niuafo’ouan, which has aspects of Samoan mixed in the dialect.

Tongan was first written by missionaries in the early 19th Century, which has a number of different spelling systems. The current spelling system for Tongan was officially proclaimed by the Privy Council of Tonga in 1943.

Learn a little more about the Tongan history in A Brief History of Tonga, as well as the Tongan culture in The Guide to the Tongan Culture for Travellers.

The Guide to the Tongan Language(c) Tonga Ministry of Tourism

Tongan Pronunciation

The Tongan language is fairly simple for English-speakers to pronounce, knowing that all letters are fully voiced and there are no complicated constant clusters or diphthongs. Interestingly, each syllable spoken ends in a vowel in Tongan, but be careful about using vowel length which can change the meaning of some words. A macron (ā, ē, etc.) is used to indicate a long vowel. The confusing thing for foreigners, however, is that although macrons are meant to be in writing, the practice is often neglected.

Tongan Pronunciation Rules

In short, some of the rules for Tongan pronunciation include:

  • All letters are fully voiced
  • Each syllable ends in a vowel and has one consonant
  • Macrons indicate long vowels and count as one syllable
  • Consonant clusters are not in the language – “ng” is not a constant cluster because it always represents just a single sound, acting as one letter in itself
  • Stress falls on the second-to-last syllable of a word with two or more syllables, except for when the last vowel is a long vowel then the stress falls on that.
The Guide to the Tongan Language(c) Tonga Ministry of Tourism

Tongan Words and Phrases to Know

Although English is widely spoken, especially in Tongatapu and Vava’u, effort in speaking the local language is always appreciated. Here are some Tongan words and phrases to try out…

Basic Phrases in Tongan

Hello – Mālō e lelei
Yes – ‘Io
No – ‘Ikai
Please – Fakamolemole
Thank you – Mālō
Thank you very much – Mālō ‘aupito
Excuse me – Kātaki
I’m sorry – Fakamolemole atu
Goodbye (if staying) – ‘Alu ā
Goodbye (if leaving) – Nofo ā

Places in Tongan

Beach – matātahi
House – fale
Church – fale lotu
Shop – fale koloa
Restaurant – fale kai
Hospital – fale mahaki
Market – māketi
Ocean – moana
Palace – palasi
Island – motu
Village – kolo

Tongan Food & Drink (and What They Are)

Talo – taro, a root vegetable
– taro leaves
Ika – fish
Siaine – banana
Fainā – pineapple
‘Ota ika – raw fish in coconut cream and lime juice
Umu – underground oven
Niu – coconut
Manioke – cassava, root vegetable
Fua ‘i  ‘akau – fruit
Vai – water
‘Otai – Tongan fruit drink

Learn more about the food and drink in Tonga in the 6 Unique Foods in Tonga You Have to Try and in the 10 Drinks in Tonga You Have to Try.

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