Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mark's Nerdy Language Post

I can't write honestly about my time in Tonga without talking about the Tongan language. Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, the thought of learning to speak a new language was really exciting to me. And, since I was already an English grammar nerd, these feelings have only multiplied; it truly is one of my favorite aspects of this experience. This being so, I've decided to write a really nerdy blog post about the Tongan language. It may be be boring to some folks, but perhaps other language nerds will appreciate it...

What makes Tongan somewhat difficult to learn:
- When a noun is the subject of a sentence, the syntax is Verb + Subject + Object, instead of the English Subject + Verb + Object. This may sound simple, but making that switch in your mind when you're speaking is extremely difficult...
- The possessive pronouns are divided into two "classes," and every noun belongs to one of these classes. For example, most food is in the "eku class," so "my mango" is "eku mango". But, "my hand" is "hoku nima" because most body parts belong to the "hoku class".
- Different types of nouns have different ways you pluralize them, whereas in English, we almost always just add an "s" on the end. For example, "cups" would be written "u ipu" because "u" is the plural marker for most small objects.
- For all personal and possessive pronouns, there is a "dual class". So while we say "their clothes" for any plural number of people, in Tongan there are different words depending on whether the "their" is two or three+ people.
- One of the letters in the Tongan alphabet is called the fakau'a - a "glottal stop". Basically, when you see an apostrophe in the middle of a word, you have to stop the sound with your throat and begin again. So, even though "tui" and "tu'i" sound very similar, one means to believe and one means king.

What makes Tongan somewhat easy to learn:
- Because of the influence of English on the culture, many nouns have nearly identical Tongan equivalents. For example, newspaper is "nusipepa" and computer is "komiputa".
- To change the part of speech of a word, there is usually nothing you need to do to the word. For example, the word "va'inga" is the verb for "play" and the noun for "game".
- To ask a question in Tongan, you do not need to do anything to the word order. For example, "Na'a ne lele" could mean "she ran" or "did she run?" depending on your voice inflection.
- To change the tense of a verb, you simply add a "tense marker" to the sentence, instead of dealing with the endless hassle of verb conjugation. This makes life so nice...

- Ma'ake (pronounced Ma-ah-kay)


  1. Being a fellow grammar nerd, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I hope you two are doing well!

  2. I'm glad this is easy for you. For me would be very difficult. So proud of both of you!

    Love, Mom

  3. Tongan sounds remarkably similar to semitic languages, especially Hebrew. Verb-Subject-Object makes languages easier to translate from written text, in my opinion. Speaking in that structure, however, sounds like it would be incredibly difficult. Does the structure vary if you want to emphasize the subject?