Thursday, September 11, 2014

Seven Tongan words

Tongan Language Week ran from the first until the seventh of this month and was marked by several interesting events, including the opening of a retrospective exhibition by Filipe Tohi, retrofuturist sculptor and tireless kava bowl raconteur, at the Mangere Arts Centre, and the singing of a Tongan version of Niu Sila's national anthem,

I missed all of the week's events, and that is perhaps appropriate, because I am the world's worst student of Tongan.

Instead of using the year I recently spent in the Friendly Islands to nail the grammar and syntax of the language, I relied upon the superb English skills of Nuku'alofans, including my students at the 'Atenisi Institute. When I made visits to villages distant from Tonga's bilingual capital city, I abused the pity of colleagues and friends like Taniela Vao, 'Opeti Taliai, and Lose Helu, by letting them translate for me. (Sorry, folks: if I make it back to the kingdom in 2015 then I pledge to do a lot better.)

Although I can't put together a Tongan sentence, I love to learn, pronounce, and listen to individual words, in the same way that a child loves to peel pretty shells off a beach and hold them to an ear. These are my seven favourite Tongan words.

Kisikisi, meaning helicopter

I learned this word after my son became preoccupied with a small plastic chopper he had bought from one of the two pa'anga shops Chinese immigrants have opened in Nuku'alofa. Until I discovered that 'kisikisi' also meant 'dragonfly' I wondered whether the word was onomatopoetic.

Peka, meaning fruit bat or flying fox

A short word that is somehow able to contain the long, slow dive of a pair of outstretched black wings from an ironwood tree through a dusk sky.

Vaka Va, meaning spaceship

A couple of six year-olds taught me this word - I'm going to count it as a single word - as we took time out from a late night game of touch rugby, stood on the swampy edge of the 'Atenisi campus, looked up, and tried to differentiate the breathless twinkling of stars, the slow red pulse of Mars, and the stolid glow of satellites. I hope this really is the Tongan word of spaceship, and those kids weren't fooling me. It wouldn't have been the first time.

Mongamonga, meaning cockroach

The enormous, almost fearless roaches of the Friendly Islands make their Kiwi relations look like feeble, underfed things that deserve nurturing rather than crushing. I was fascinated by the contrast between the soft, gorgeous sound 'mongmonga' makes and the awful creature it denotes.

Fakapikopiko, meaning idleness

Another contradiction between sound and sense. Despite the word's meaning it feels, to me at least, violently busy. When I pronounce it, I feel plosives popping in my mouth, and send those short vowels flying like watermelon pips.
Heliaki, meaning double or hidden meaning

Heliaki is a word used to describe, or perhaps merely gesture towards, the ambiguities that inhabit many Tongan songs, poems, and orations. A metaphor or slogan that might seem straightforward can become, under the terms of heliaki, mysterious or unstable. In her great essay 'Wry Comment from the Outback: songs of protest from the Niua Islands', Wendy Pond showed how the apparently reverential songs and poems that greeted Tonga's king when he visited the distant northern part of his domain concealed, thanks to the magic of heliaki, satire and invective.

'Alu! meaning go away!

This invaluable word was a refrain during my many conversations with Nuku'alofa's dogs.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

va va vaka - you could guess say from 'waka' poss. ~ vaka and I think va is space of void so it could mean an emphasis of space, that is something like the 'great empty sailing place'...but even if that is wrong, it doesn't matter, you could make that your secret way of recalling it, it is one way to remember words.

Not that I can speak any language but I did try Samoan years ago and a few other languages I have learnt bits and pieces of. Unless you learn when quite young it is hard.

But I mentally 'named' things around me in the language. So if you see you child think of him as not say 'baby' but the Tongan equivalent and so on. Start with some main things I would say. But to even take an interest is a start.

It has also been shown that people who have more than one language can learn others more easily.

But another thing I heard on the BBC the other day is that the very fact of learning, or trying to learn - it is enough to try - a new language (or in fact to try to learn something new, or visit a country such as Tonga as you did, is good for the mind and can offset dementia etc - in any case it seems to have a value in the brains general health.

It doesn't have to be successful, simply going to Tonga as Ted is, and indeed getting married etc, will be good for Ted's old brain! I am not looking to improve my noggin by such drastic measures - cockroaches I have a horror of -

I suspect that at one stage they were eaten, and tasted good when cooked, hence the nice sound - mongamonga!

There is a neurologist who says that in fact it is probably a fact that language develops as a description of what we see or are describing.

Take the English for 'come' and 'go'
the first word requires the mouth to close and the lips move away from whoever you want to come. With go the opposite occurs.

As languages get more complex this physical-neurological basis of words is 'hidden'. It is a challenge to the Sassurean idea and even the so-called postmodern idea that language is arbitrary, symbols can be interchanged etc: in theory they can be but they possibly all have an empirical basis.

Another thing that children do that adults dislike, is to repeat things over and over: hence the value of nursery rhymes etc And adults are embarassed where children just (often) "give it a go".

But at least you know those words above. It is a start for sure.

I recall the meaning of some German words this way: 'handel' means something like 'commerce' so when I think of the composer I say to myself George Frederich Commerce. And I know Tal means valley, and there is a great chess player called Mikhail Tal so I attached valley to his name so each time I think of him or play one of his games I think of 'valley'

Think also of fa'a-molemole (I put the hyphen in) in Samoan which means (to make) smooth etc - it sounds smooth. And the fa'a va'a or whaka words (virtually) always indicate action in a verb and so on...

'Puku' in Maori - stomach - nothing could sound more like a stomach. Those are the words to start with.

And places, all those places, translate them into their meanings (use one to start with)...easier said than done of course!

11:59 pm  

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