Tongan Language Cloud

    Tongan Language Cloud

    Tongan Language Cloud


    Sailing on the journey to reconnect to my Tongan culture, I look up to the stars to navigate through the night, but it is overcast. Not knowing how to venture on, I remember my childhood enthusiasm to learn the Tongan language.

    Overcast skies grew closer to the choppy ocean surface, and setting the sails, all of a sudden, I was surrounded by a cloud of Polynesian words, so thick, I was blinded. The vocabulary of the Tongan language drifted past me in a thick misty bold font, that would vaporise as soon as it touched anything.


     Looking at the boards I stood on, supported by the two canoes, I saw the word ako, the Tongan word for to learn, to study, turn into droplets as it hit the side of one of the boats.

    The word lea, which is Tongan for to speak, hovered in front of my face. Its whiteness glowed in the night sky as I remembered the Learn to Speak Tongan book my father bought me. I was a 14-year-old on a visit to Tonga in 1998.

    Finding it again in 2012, after my mother had passed, I felt this book was the only avenue for reconnecting to my heritage. I felt detached from the Polynesian side of my family as my Dad was Australian and my mother was Tongan. I was brought up more connected to my father’s side and attended the Catholic Church in Bargo, New South Wales, Australia. When in Tonga with my mother, we would visit the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga at the Centenary Church in Kolomotu’a.


    Back on the Tongan boat at night, as the waters lapped its edges, I revisited my memories, recognising the emptiness. The older I got, the more the longing grew to learn more of the culture lost to me.

    As the sailboat drifted (my word) through the thick whiteness that was made up of Tongan words from past conversations, I manoeuvred the craft towards my journey of belonging.

    I watched the phrase mālō e lelei pass my eyes as the sailboat was still consumed in a thick Pacific fog of wordy persuasion. I could make some of the phrases out in the thick haze, such as kātaki, the word for please, lanu moana for ocean blue and fiekaia, the word for hungry. Yet most of the terms I did not know.

    Sailing through the misty oceanic language, I remembered looking through my Tongan Dictionary. Combing through the colours, I remember finding the word lanu, the Tongan word for colour. Fingers scrolling down the dictionary, all the colours had the word lanu in front of them, lanu pulū for blue, lanu moli for orange, lanu vaioleti for violet. To describe colour in Tongan, all you had to do was put the word lanu in front of it. If you wanted to say ocean blue poetically, you said lanu moana, as moana is the Tongan word for ocean, or lanu langi, because langi was the Tongan word for sky.

    Sailing through the white word mist that encompassed my vision, I still don’t know how to speak much of the language. Yet, I felt a deep longing to connect to my lost cultural heritage.

    Dark waters of the Pacific Ocean splashed against the sides as I continued into the night. The language cloud of Polynesia that I did not know still blinded me from navigating the oceans to my destination. One phrase floated past, Ko hai ho hingoa? It reminded me of the time in 2010 as I was practising when  I asked my cousin, Ko hai ho hingoa? that translates into What is your name? He gave me a weird look as he repeated, Ko hai ho hingoa? in a thick Australian accent. I realised there was a specific pronunciation of the vowels and how important it was to the understanding of the language.



    In the Tongan language, the vowels are pronounced as:

    Aa – ah

    Ee – eh

    Ii – ee

    Oo – oh

    Uu – oo


              In the Australian pronunciation of the vowels are inter-changeable somewhat is:

    Aa – uh - ay

    Ee – ee -ey

    Ii – eh -eye

    Oo – or

    Uu – ou


    Out of nowhere, the name Amelia abruptly exploded into vapours in front of my face as the smell of evaporated oceanic salt air filled my nostrils. I brought back to a time when I was in Year Seven during 1996 at Picton High School in New South Wales

    ‘My name is Ah-me-le-uh,’ she said, trying to get my pronunciation right in her Australian accent.

    Ah-mah-le-ee-ah,’ I replied in a thick Tongan accent.

    Only to find out years later, from my mother, that Amelia has the same spelling, just a different pronunciation of the vowels.

    Not knowing how to learn the correct pronunciation, I let go of learning for some time. When I was a child, Mum would always say, ‘I can’t teach you Tongan, I’m not a teacher, I don’t know how to teach.’

    Winds were blowing in my hair, and with no way of learning the language of my family. Manoeuvring through these white vapours of the speech was hard enough, as was getting the correct pronunciation of the words.

    In the foggy cumulus of foreign words, I see a phrase written in English, “What accent is that?” I laughed as the taste of salt spray lightly filled my mouth, as the swell deepened, and I was back educating university students as part of my lived experience mental health role.

    ‘Born in Bowral cobber!’ I responded in a thick Aussie accent.

    Then accentuating the situation with yet another phrase, reminiscent of the attitude I have been known to receive.

    ‘I’m sorry, my family has lived in regional New South Wales since 1841,’ I said to them.

    Defending my nationality, under the assumption that I was being teased for being Tongan, when logically I was born in Bowral, therefore I should have an Australian accent. .

    ‘Well,’ a girl slightly shocked ventured. ‘How did you get that accent?’

    Standing in front of the room, I blinked heavily.

    ‘What accent?’ I asked.

    There may be a possibility that they were not racist.

    ‘You … do have an accent,’ replied a male university student.

    ‘Wait,’ I said, as I considered the only logical explanation of where this mystery accent came from. ‘Dou I dalk like dis?’

    ‘Yeah, that’s a thicker accent than the one you’ve got,’ the slightly shocked girl said.

    ‘How’d you get that when you were born Bowral?’

    ‘It …’ I drifted off into the thought of my mysterious Polynesian accent. ‘Oh, I did travel to Tonga for a month when I was six months old.’


    Then I realised, with watery eyes, how many organisations in the years I have been doing this lived experience mental health education role deserved an apology. Every place that asked me where my accent was from, was met with defensive nature as I thought my accent was logically Australian.

    The ocean swell seemed to flatten, in I still wanted clarity in amongst this language that clouded my vision to navigate my way of cultural identity.

    I moved the sail in a new direction to see if the thick white Tongan word fog would lighten enough to see the stars.

    Within the smog of white words, I saw the seventeen-letter alphabet move past my eyes. It took me to a memory of standing in Tongan Language School in my fourth year, in 2020, and I still not knowing the alphabet. It was then I realised if I am going to learn Tongan, I was going to have to attend more.

    The dark blue sky began to lighten, and readjusting the sails, the wind hit my face blowing through my curly hair. I peered over the side and saw the water moving faster along the edges of the sailboat as it ploughed on.

    After attending Tongan Language School in 2007, I still did not know the alphabet. So, I decided to participate for a whole term instead of just three or four times.

    After spending some time practising, I finally was able to remember it.


    Aa Ee Ff Hh Ii Kk Ll Mm Nn NGng Oo Pp Ss Tt Uu Vv ’


    I found the Learn to Speak Tongan book again in 2010 and read the chapter that introduced me to tense markers, which are words that change the tenses of the sentences or individual words. The complexities of the language are something I have learnt. For example, there is one word for eat, as in kai which changes to ate when using a past tense marker. Adding a prefix that means, to desire, as in fie- to the word -kai, turns it into the word, fiekaia which is a word that means hungry. The alphabet became more complex; every word ends with a vowel a e i o u, and every consonant are separated with a vowel.

                In the approaching dawn, the word cloud became thinner, I still didn’t know the language entirely, but the words still hung around and now I could see my goals more clearly.


    Copyright © Richard J Bell 14th February 2020