Reo Rapa: A Polynesian Contact Language

in Journal of Language Contact

Old Rapa, the indigenous Eastern Polynesian language of the island of Rapa Iti, is no longer spoken regularly in any cultural domains and has been replaced in most institutional domains by Tahitian. The remaining speakers are elders who maintain it only through linguistic memory, where elements of the language are remembered and can be elicited but they are not actively used in regular conversation. Reo Rapa, a contact language that fuses Tahitian and Old Rapa, which has developed from the prolonged and dominant influence of the Tahitian language in Rapa Iti since the mid nineteenth century, has replaced the indigenous Old Rapa language at home and between most people in regular social interaction. This article analyzes Reo Rapa through an examination of its genesis and its structure. This article furthermore defines Reo Rapa as a unique contact variety, a shift-break language: a language that resulted from stalled shift due to a collective anti-convergence sentiment in the speech community. This article further discusses a variety of Reo Rapa speech, New Rapa, which presents important questions for the natural-ness of language change and the visibility of actuation.


Old Rapa, the indigenous Eastern Polynesian language of the island of Rapa Iti, is no longer spoken regularly in any cultural domains and has been replaced in most institutional domains by Tahitian. The remaining speakers are elders who maintain it only through linguistic memory, where elements of the language are remembered and can be elicited but they are not actively used in regular conversation. Reo Rapa, a contact language that fuses Tahitian and Old Rapa, which has developed from the prolonged and dominant influence of the Tahitian language in Rapa Iti since the mid nineteenth century, has replaced the indigenous Old Rapa language at home and between most people in regular social interaction. This article analyzes Reo Rapa through an examination of its genesis and its structure. This article furthermore defines Reo Rapa as a unique contact variety, a shift-break language: a language that resulted from stalled shift due to a collective anti-convergence sentiment in the speech community. This article further discusses a variety of Reo Rapa speech, New Rapa, which presents important questions for the natural-ness of language change and the visibility of actuation.

1 Introduction

On the island of Rapa Iti, one of the least populated islands in French Polynesia,1 a century and a half of indirect socio-political pressure from Tahiti, combined with physical and social isolation2 from the rest of the region has resulted in a complex linguistic situation. Old Rapa, the indigenous Eastern Polynesian language of Rapa Iti, is no longer spoken regularly in any cultural domains and has been replaced in most institutional domains by Tahitian (Walworth, 2015). The remaining speakers are elders who maintain it only through linguistic memory, where elements of the language are remembered and can be elicited but they are not actively used in regular conversation (Walworth, 2015). Reo Rapa,3 a contact language that fuses Tahitian and Old Rapa, which has developed from the prolonged and dominant influence of the Tahitian language in Rapa Iti since the mid nineteenth century, has replaced the indigenous Old Rapa language at home and between most people in regular social interaction. In this article, I describe Reo Rapa through an examination of its genesis and its structure. Furthermore, I explore how Reo Rapa can be defined in the existing framework of contact languages, highlighting it as a unique contact variety. Section 2 investigates how and why Reo Rapa came into existence, through a discussion on the dominant influence and prestige of Tahitian in Rapa Iti. Section 3 examines precisely how Reo Rapa is mixed, highlighting which Old Rapa elements have been maintained (identifying tokens) and where shifts to Tahitian have occurred. Section 4 addresses uniformity of speaker choice between generations. Section 5 discusses how Reo Rapa fits into the contact language framework, and section 6 investigates its variant, New Rapa.

2 Genesis of Reo Rapa: Tahitian Prestige

Reo Rapa has emerged from a prolonged dominance of Tahitian in Rapa Iti. Tahitian has long been viewed as a more prestigious language among Rapa people, maintained in all major cultural institutions since the introduction of Christianity in the mid-nineteenth century. Historically, the prestige of Tahitian has been explicit: it has been associated with new religious ideals, forced Tahitian instruction in early schooling, and use of Tahitian in the government. The prestige of Tahitian still is evident in these areas today, but is now more implicit than previously. Whereas the use of Tahitian was once more overtly enforced, today the language is implicitly required for participation in any socio-cultural domain, and to assimilate to what has become the Tahitian-centered culture of French Polynesia.4

3 Composition of Reo Rapa

Tahitian has been influential in Rapa Iti to the point of bilingualism and subsequent dominance in nearly all cultural domains. From this situation, Reo Rapa, the variety of speech made up of Old Rapa and Tahitian, has developed.

Most Reo Rapa content words come from Tahitian, save for a special set of Old Rapa words, or Old Rapa tokens, that come from traditional activities and practices. Grammatical words, on the other hand, are more evenly sourced from both Tahitian and Old Rapa. Examples (1–4) demonstrate this varied level of mixing. In these examples, words in bold are Tahitian derived, underlined words indicate elements shared by both Old Rapa and Tahitian,5 and plain italicized words are Old Rapa components.

In order to more precisely measure the division of features from Tahitian and Old Rapa, I analyzed both casual speech data and the results of a cross-generational language test that included 127 words and 22 sentences. This test was administered primarily in November and December 2013, with some remaining participants tested in April 2014. I chose the test words and sentences based on my analyses of casual speech observed in 2012 and 2013. I noted frequent and seemingly consistent use of particular words in mixed speech by a number of speakers and so selected these terms as test items. The lexical list (table 1a and 1b) was meant to identify which Old Rapa token vocabulary was consistent. The test sentences (table 2) allowed me to examine the use of these terms in a more connected speech (rather than as words in isolation) in order to assess approximate use of vocabulary and grammatical words, as well as to observe syntactic patterns. This second test was done because I observed that in some cases, speakers were aware of the Old Rapa terminology and in the word-list elicitation would produce an Old Rapa term, while in regular speech they would not use these terms. One example is the words used to mean ‘go’. In word list elicitation, about 55 percent of participants produced the Old Rapa term, naku. However, in the phrasal elicitation, 91 percent of participants used Tahitian haere to mean ‘go’. I observed that haere was also used by everyone in casual speech. For example, a common way to end an evening between friends is to say:

Phrases were tested first, then terms. I would say the sentence or word in French (and in Tahitian for elder consultants who did not understand French, with the help of a Tahitian-speaking translator), and participants were instructed to translate the sentence into their “Rapa” language. Participants were surveyed alone in a semi-private space and were asked to not disclose the questions to others. Initial responses from test participants were considered over secondary responses to accurately reflect their intuitive choice (in natural settings).8

Participants in this survey were from all adult age groups and both sexes, and represent about 15 percent of the actual population. The goal was to survey five or six people from every age group, in order to see what patterns were consistent across all age-groups that speak Reo Rapa. This was also done to check for possible variability between generations. The age groups are organized as follows: age group 1: 18–29; age group 2: 30–39; age group 3: 40–49; age group 4: 50–59; age group 5: 60–69; age group 6: 70+. Table 3 presents the age and sex of each participant, by age group. These participants were chosen based on the following factors: (1) they grew up/spent their childhood in Rapa; (2) they currently live in Rapa, or have spent most of their lives there; (3) they self-identify as Rapa locals.

3.1 Phonological Profile of Reo Rapa

Reo Rapa exhibits a mix of phonological features from both Tahitian and Old Rapa, where lexical items in Reo Rapa are phonologically marked for their respective source languages (apart from those contributions that are evidenced in both Old Rapa and Tahitian). As discussed in the introduction, there is an active awareness that Reo Rapa mixes Old Rapa and Tahitian, but what’s more is that speakers demonstrate some awareness of what sounds are from Tahitian or Old Rapa.9 As shown in table 4, phonemes that are absent in Tahitian, though present in Old Rapa, are the velar nasal /ng/ and the velar stop /k/; phonemes of Tahitian that are not found in Old Rapa are /h/ and /f/. Reo Rapa speakers generally understand that where there is a glottal stop in Tahitian, there “should” be a /k/ or /ng/ in Old Rapa, and where there is an /h/ or /f/ in Tahitian, there “should” be a glottal stop in Old Rapa. As a result, most Reo Rapa speakers can usually identify which components of Reo Rapa are Tahitian or Old Rapa, based purely on phonological forms that demonstrate these contrasting sound correspondences. On account of the general phonological awareness of speakers for each lexeme, I analyze the Reo Rapa phonological system as layered or stratified, rather than demonstrating an adaptive phonology. In Reo Rapa, all consonant phonemes from both Old Rapa and Tahitian have been maintained. Table 4 shows the consonant sound correspondences of Proto Polynesian (ppn), Proto Eastern Polynesian (pep), Tahitian (tah), Old Rapa (or), and Reo Rapa (rr), further demonstrating the layered consonant system.

Regarding vowels, Tahitian and Old Rapa share the same five-vowel system (a, e, i, o, u; with surface length contrast10), thus Reo Rapa also exhibits five vowel phonemes. The precise articulatory nature of Reo Rapa’s vowels in contrast to those of Old Rapa and Tahitian is not examined in the current study, but is an important topic for future investigation.

3.2 Morpho-syntactic Profile of Reo Rapa

Table 5 provides an overview of the primary morpho-syntactic components of Reo Rapa, by source language. Content words (lexicon) are mostly Tahitian and grammatical words come from both source languages. Derivational morphemes also come from both, with the slight dominance of Tahitian. The sources of syntactic structures are much harder to identify, as these languages are so closely related and have very similar syntax.

Some features such as imperfective tam, imperative tam, adjunctive tam, conjunctions, and the prenominal article are not included in the table because these features are realized by (morphologically) identical items in both Tahitian and Old Rapa (e.g., the prenominal article te is used in both languages; the imperfective Tense-Aspect-Mood (tam) marker is e in both languages; the imperative tam marker is a in both languages; the possessive markers are and  in both languages; all prepositions except ‘instrumental’ and all prepositional location nouns except ‘above’ are the same in both languages). Additionally, because Tahitian and Old Rapa are closely related, they have a high lexical similarity due to their many cognate reflexes from pep. Thus, a clear identification of the source language for a particular Reo Rapa lexical item is only possible where either source language has developed separate innovations.

3.2.1 Lexicon

Although much of the lexicon is the same in both languages, most of unshared lexical items come from Tahitian. There is only a small amount of Old Rapa vocabulary in the Reo Rapa lexicon that is different from Tahitian forms. These lexical items tend to be unique Old Rapa innovations, specialized vocabulary for traditional Rapa Iti activities, and some basic vocabulary. Table 6 presents the results of the word-list elicitation test. Here, I have presented each word elicited (in the same order as on the test), the Tahitian form, the Old Rapa form, the prevailing choice, and the percentage of participants who chose the prevailing form. Entries marked with an asterisk are those that showed evidence of almost full replacement by Tahitian in regular casual speech, even though in the elicitation test many speakers were able to identify the Rapa forms. Light shading indicates old Rapa lexical tokens. Additional Old Rapa tokens observed in regular speech are: karā ‘basalt stone used for pounding pōpoi’; most plant names; and most fish names.

3.2.2 Grammatical Words

Grammatical words come from both source languages. Old Rapa contributes the following elements to Reo Rapa: perfective tam marker ka; definite ; question words a’a ‘what’, ’ea ‘where’, a’ea ‘when’, nā ’ea ‘how’; ’ia ‘how many’; negatives ki’ere past negative, kāre non-past negative; adverbial comparative ake; and all pronouns except for the first-person singular free pronoun. Some of these are presented in examples (6–12).

In Reo Rapa, Tahitian inputs for grammatical words include: the subjunctive tam marker ’ia; preposition i; negatives ’aita ‘no’, ’eiaha ‘prohibitive’; prepositional locative noun ni’a ‘above’; plural mau; demonstratives teie ‘this’, terā ‘that’; first person singular vau; adverbs noa ‘continually’ and iho ‘indeed, absolutely’; and quantifiers pauroa ‘all’ and rahi te mau ‘most’. Most of these grammatical words function in the same way as their corresponding forms in Old Rapa.

Subjunctive tam ’ia functions in the same way as Old Rapa subjunctive kia.

ppn prepositions *ki ‘direction, instrument, goal’ and *ʔi ‘location, source, cause’ have reflexes in Old Rapa in two separate forms: ki and i. The two particles have merged in Tahitian (Fare Vāna’a, 2009; Lazard and Peltzer, 2000), and therefore, the distinction between the two ppn prepositions has been lost. Reo Rapa also shows a merger of these particles, taken from Tahitian.

Tahitian contributes two negative particles, ’aita and ’eiaha. ’aita is used in Reo Rapa as a simple “no” response. In Tahitian, ’aita is also used in existential negation, for which Old Rapa typically uses non-past negative kāre. The Tahitian prohibitive negative ’eiaha functions in the same way as Old Rapa eia’a. Most Reo Rapa speakers employ the Tahitian form.

Most prepositional locative nouns are shared by Tahitian and Old Rapa. Both languages exhibit cognate reflexes of ppn *loto ‘inside’; *lalo ‘below’; *muri ‘behind, with, after’ *muqa ‘ahead, in front, before’.18 ppn *fafo ‘outside, out’ has been replaced with an innovation rāpae in Tahitian. This form has been borrowed into Old Rapa, in which we do not find a reflex of *fafo. Thus, the source of this form in Reo Rapa is assumed to be Old Rapa rather than Tahitian. This Tahitian innovation has fully replaced ppn *fafo ‘outside’ in Old Rapa. As a result of these shared prepositional locatives, Reo Rapa also exhibits roto, raro, muri, mua, and rāpae. The only contrasting prepositional locative between the source languages is ‘above’: runga in Old Rapa and ni’a in Tahitian.19 Reo Rapa exhibits Tahitian ni’a.

Old Rapa marks general plurality with anga, a reflex of ppn *nga ‘plural’. Tahitian, on the other hand, employs an innovated term mau to indicate plurality. Reo Rapa speakers use the Tahitian form, mau.

Example (12) demonstrates that Reo Rapa employs the Old Rapa first person bound pronoun. However, for the first person independent pronoun, Reo Rapa uses Tahitian vau rather than Old Rapa ou. It is important to mention that in Tahitian, vau exhibits an allomorph au when following a front vowel.20 Reo Rapa does not exhibit this allomorph and vau is used in all environments.

Tahitian and Old Rapa share the demonstrative forms terā ‘that (far from speaker and addressee)’ and tenā ‘that (far from speaker)’; thus, these elements are used in Reo Rapa. A third demonstrative meaning ‘near (to speaker)’ is evident in both source languages, although with different forms: in Old Rapa, te nei; in Tahitian teie. Tahitian teie is the form used in Reo Rapa.

Finally, Tahitian contributes a number of adverbs to Reo Rapa. Tahitian noa is used in lieu of Old Rapa ta’anga to mean ‘continuously’; Tahitian iho marks ‘indeed, absolutely’ and functions as a reflexive, as well as indicating an upward direction or that something has just occurred. This is used in place of Old Rapa noti.

3.2.3 Derivational Affixes

Reo Rapa employs the causative and nominalizing affixes from Tahitian. The causative prefix in Tahitian can be ha’a- or fa’a- and serves the same functions as Old Rapa ’aka-. Reo Rapa uses both Tahitian forms of the causative. This appears to be more lexical than grammatical, however, as I have found no instance of either of the Tahitian prefixes being used with an Old Rapa base.

For nominalization, Reo Rapa uses Tahitian -ra’a instead of Old Rapa -’anga. This suffix is productive and is also used with or bases, as shown in (26).

In passive affixation, Reo Rapa has maintained Old Rapa -’ia rather than Tahitian -hia. The Old Rapa form is used with Tahitian bases as well, as shown in (27–28).

3.3 Discussion of Source Language Contributions

The distribution of features from the source languages is consistent, however it is not obviously systematic, i.e. the lexicon from one language and the grammar from the other. The lexicon is sourced mostly from Tahitian, but grammar is sourced from both Old Rapa and Tahitian. Grammatically, the features are not clearly divided either; there is a mix of nominal and verbal morphology from both source languages, as well as derivational and inflection morphology. The only visible distinction in the source language contributions is that the Old Rapa features all contain a phoneme that contrasts with a corresponding Tahitian phoneme, in a given morpheme. Thus, source language division appears to be phonologically motivated, based on phonological assimiliphobia, 22 where the Old Rapa contributions all contain an Old Rapa sound correspondence that contrasts with the Tahitian sound correspondence in the cognate form (i.e., or ngtah , or ktah , and or tah h, f).

4 Uniformity of Speaker Choice

This section considers the general consistency of Reo Rapa’s composition through the lens of generational variation. Here, I answer the question: do Reo Rapa speakers consistently pull the same components from the same source languages? The responses from the sentence elicitation portion of my multi-generational test indicate that Reo Rapa is very consistent. (29–35) are several examples of the sentences elicited. Here again, terms in bold are Tahitian, plain italicized terms are Old Rapa, and underlined terms represent identical forms in both languages. These examples include a top line with percentages indicating how many participants chose a particular morpheme. Percentages are generally high, thus signaling the stability of Reo Rapa.

5 Defining Reo Rapa

There is no question that Reo Rapa represents language mixing of some sort due to contact. It is necessary now to explore what kind of language mixing is occurring in Reo Rapa, and precisely what kind of contact language Reo Rapa is. Before attempting to define it, I will first summarize Reo Rapa’s identifying characteristics.

  • Reo Rapa was born from the introduction of the Tahitian language into a monolingual community.

  • The community did not require new communicative means, but rather came to this new variety of speech as a result of bilingualism and subsequent shift due to the dominance and prestige of Tahitian.

  • Tahitian and Old Rapa, the source languages of Reo Rapa, are both Eastern Polynesian languages and share many linguistic features including a large proportion of their lexical items (both content words and grammatical words) as well as nearly identical syntactic structure.

  • There is consistency in source language mixing among all ages of speakers, indicating that Reo Rapa is stable and furthermore is inter-generationally transmitted.

  • There is clear uniformity in source language choice at the morpheme level, however the division in source language contribution is not divided systematically (i.e., grammar from one language and lexicon from the other; nominal morphology from one language and verbal from another; inflectional morphology from one language and derivational from another).

  • The source language choice is instead based on phonological assimiliphobia.

Given the above characteristics of Reo Rapa, how might we define it in the context of other contact languages and new varieties that arise from contact? Is the mixing of Tahitian and Old Rapa just code-switching between two separate languages? Is it simple borrowing from Tahitian, or even heavy borrowing from continuing shift to Tahitian? Is Reo Rapa perhaps a koine or a mixed language? Or is it a previously un-described type of language mixture due to language contact?

5.1 Code-switching

Perhaps the strongest argument against Reo Rapa as just code switching, is consistency and predictability in speaker choice from the source languages. Tahitian forms and Old Rapa forms are not interchangeable for a given speaker. In fact, the distribution of Tahitian forms and Old Rapa forms is consistent across the entire speaker-base. Were it a case of frequent code switching, we would expect a more random distribution of Tahitian and Old Rapa forms for a given set of speakers.

5.2 Simple Borrowing

Borrowing refers to incorporating lexical items of one language into another language’s vocabulary. Speakers typically consider the borrowed forms to be part of their language and often adapt the pronunciation of these forms to fit the native phonological system. This is not what we find in Reo Rapa. Rather, the speakers are aware that certain forms belong to Old Rapa or Tahitian, based on their phonological form. Additionally, Reo Rapa includes significant mixing of grammatical elements from Tahitian. The high level of grammatical input from Tahitian indicates that this mixing is not simply lexical borrowing.

5.3 Continuing Shift

Once again, the evidence of high consistency between generations provides a strong argument against Reo Rapa as a phase in continuing shift to Tahitian. The consistency between generations indicates stability and inter-generational transmission of Reo Rapa, which would not occur in continuing shift.

It is true that Reo Rapa was created through a “borrowing approach” (Meakins 2013:188), where shift occurred from bilingualism and overt social pressures to use Tahitian. In this way, the mixing of source languages in Reo Rapa has occurred via steady borrowing from Tahitian over time. However, the shift that was at one time progressive has stalled, as evidenced in the consistency of the language’s components. In the model in figure 1, taken from Meakins (2013: 182), Reo Rapa would fall into the second category, “shift by degree,” where mixing occurs by gradual shift from an ancestral language to an introduced language resulting from a change in dominance (183). According to Meakins, in the “shift by degree” category, the process of language shift “does not go to completion and what remains is the mixed language” (183). The resulting language can thus have varying amounts of material from the introduced language, but does not represent complete language replacement. This is precisely what we see evidenced in Reo Rapa.

Figure 1

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Figure 1

Direction of shift in mixed language genesis (Meakins, 2013: 182)

Citation: Journal of Language Contact 10, 1 (2017) ; 10.1163/19552629-01001006

Meakins (2013: 183) suggests two reasons for a halt in shift: (1) speakers do not have full access to the introduced language, and/or (2) remaining parts of the ancestral language may be a marker of social identity. The latter is true for Reo Rapa, and is evident in two ways. First, as the majority of Old Rapa lexical elements in Reo Rapa have to do with traditional activities and Rapa Iti practices, they likely represent a unique Rapa Iti identity and have thus been maintained. These tokens of Rapa identity are reminiscent of what Matras and Bakker (2003: 7) refer to as an “inherited special lexicon”, or a selective retention of an ancestral language’s vocabulary after language shift, which “diachronically represents the selective retention of vocabulary, following language shift.” Second, as a result of an anti-convergence sentiment,23 wherein speakers want to retain Old Rapa in attempts to not speak Tahitian, the grammatical contributions of Old Rapa in Reo Rapa are consistently morphemes that contain some phonemic difference from Tahitian. The resistance to speech assimilation, to sounding Tahitian, has stopped the shift process from going to full completion.

5.4 Koine

Reo Rapa cannot be considered a koine because it did not emerge through koineization, a process in which “new varieties of language are brought about as a result of contact between speakers of mutually intelligible varieties of that language” (Kerswill, 2002: 669). According to Trudgill, koineization usually occurs when people from different parts of a single language area settle in a new place together (1986). Furthermore, koineization is the consequence of speech accommodation, the adaptation of speech between speakers (Trudgill, 1986; Kerswill, 2002), that results from “intimate and prolonged social interaction” (Siegel, 2001: 6–7). A koine is therefore a language that mixes features of mutually intelligible dialects due to the speech accommodation occurring between speakers of those dialects who have found themselves living together in a new settlement.

Under the above definition, Reo Rapa cannot be considered a koine.24 First, Reo Rapa’s source languages are Tahitian and Old Rapa, which are not mutually intelligible. These languages are members of the same subgroup of the Polynesian Language family (Eastern Polynesian), but they are not dialects of each other. Second, the contact situation between Old Rapa and Tahitian speakers was indirect, and the two communities were never in prolonged, local contact. Instead, Reo Rapa emerged from bilingualism in a community that was previously monolingual, and then shifted to the dominant Tahitian language. Reo Rapa is thus the result of shift in one speech community, not compromise between two communities, and it did not come about through speech accommodation.

5.5 Mixed Language

If Reo Rapa did not emerge from accommodation or a need for mutual communication, perhaps then, Reo Rapa is a mixed language. In the simplest terms, a mixed language is defined as “the result of the fusion of two identifiable source languages, normally in situations of community bilingualism” (Meakins, 2014: 392). Additionally, “what distinguishes mixed languages from other contact varieties is that they emerge as expressions of identity rather than as a result of a communicative need” (Meakins, 2013: 186). According to these basic criteria, Reo Rapa shows characteristics similar to other mixed languages: it emerged as a result of socio-cultural pressure, which lead to bilingualism and a subsequent fusion between Tahitian and Old Rapa. Reo Rapa was born from the introduction of the Tahitian language into a monolingual community; the community did not require new communicative means, but rather came to a new variety of speech as a result of bilingualism and dominance of one language over the other.

Matras and Bakker (2003: 1) further define mixed languages as “varieties that emerge in situations of community bilingualism, and whose structures show an etymological split that is not marginal, but dominant, so that it is difficult to define the variety linguistic parentage as involving just one ancestral language.” The fundamental element of an ambiguous “linguistic parentage” is frequently referenced in literature on mixed languages (Matras and Bakker, 2003; Meakins, 2013; Thomason, 1995: 16, 2003: 21). Matras and Bakker go so far as to write that mixed languages are radically different languages from their ancestral languages and that they are “substantially different from earlier stages of the language before the incorporation of structures from a second source” (2003: 11–12). This factor is not clear-cut in Reo Rapa. It does apply to Reo Rapa in one sense, as Tahitian has replaced certain features unique to Old Rapa through mixing. This has led to classification of the ancestral language of Rapa Iti as Tahitic and even as a dialect of Tahitian, which is an inaccurate classification (cf. Walworth,2015). However, because the two source languages of Reo Rapa, Old Rapa and Tahitian, are so closely related, they already share a number of features, most notably their syntactic structure. With source languages so closely related, and thus having many cognate morphemes, there is no way to determine the source language for all of Reo Rapa’s features. This is perhaps the most significant problem for defining Reo Rapa as a mixed language.

Another potential difficulty in labeling Reo Rapa as a mixed variety of speech is that contributions from the source languages are not split systematically. Many mixed languages demonstrate mixed systems where the grammar is predominantly derived from one source language and the lexicon from another (Golovko, 2003: 191; Meakins, 2013: 179; Meakins, 2014). While there is significant variation in the degree to which mixed languages fuse grammatical features form their source languages (Meakins, 2014: 393; 2013: 179; Matras p.c. 201525), mixed languages are typically categorized as either Grammar-Lexicon (g-l) mixed languages or Verb-Noun (v-n) mixed languages (Meakins, 2013: 179). v-n mixed languages are more structurally mixed, where the mixed language combines the nominal system of one source language and the verbal system of the other (173). Reo Rapa does not fit either of these categories. At an item level, the mixing is consistent, but at the system internal level (e.g., lexical vs. grammatical/syntactic; nominal vs. verbal; inflectional vs. derivational), there is no stark differentiation of source languages. There is no clear-cut division in source language contribution at a system level. Although the contributions from each source language are clear and consistent in Reo Rapa, they can only be observed at a unit level.

5.6 Shift-break Language

Reo Rapa does not fit perfectly into any of the criteria for the existing categories of contact languages. Reo Rapa thus represents a type of language mixing that has not yet been defined in the current framework for contact languages. It is perhaps best described as a shift-break language: a language that resulted from stalled shift due to a collective anti-convergence sentiment in the speech community. In Reo Rapa, anti-convergence has manifested in unique Old Rapa vocabulary and phonological assimiliphobia. Anti-convergence not only has caused the halt in shift, but has also prompted further changes toward a reversal in shift, leading to the variant of Reo Rapa, called New Rapa, which is further examined, in section 6. Figure 2 demonstrates the flow of language shift in Rapa Iti.

Figure 2

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Figure 2

Evolution of language shift in Rapa Iti

Citation: Journal of Language Contact 10, 1 (2017) ; 10.1163/19552629-01001006

As indicated by figure 2, Reo Rapa is a language born from bilingualism in Rapa Iti of Tahitian and Old Rapa, and then developed out of language shift and subsequent fusion of linguistic features. This shift has stalled due to anti-convergence sentiments, and Reo Rapa has become intergenerationally stable. The halt in language shift due to anti-convergence represents a new kind of contact language, a shift-break language. The shift-break has recently evolved into a reversal of shift and a new variety of Reo Rapa speech, New Rapa.

6 New Rapa

People under the age of 50 sometimes use a variety of Reo Rapa, which I have termed New Rapa. New Rapa represents an attempt by younger age groups in Rapa Iti to reverse the shift to the Tahitian language. Whereas in Reo Rapa Old Rapa features that phonologically contrast with Tahitian are retained, in New Rapa, Tahitian elements of Reo Rapa are phonologically modified to reflect what speakers assume sounds more like Old Rapa. This desire to make their language sound more like Old Rapa stems from a covert prestige in being a “true local” Rapa person.

6.1 Reverse Shift

If we view Reo Rapa as a language in which “shift by degree” has occurred, New Rapa could be considered a “reversal of shift.” In the New Rapa speech style, younger Reo Rapa speakers are adding back what they assume to be lexical and phonological features of Old Rapa, as a means of language creation. These reverse additions to Reo Rapa sometimes coincide with legitimately Old Rapa features; however, oftentimes the additions appear to be historically inaccurate, as discussed in section 6.5. Therefore, it would appear that the goal of the speakers is to create speech that sounds like Old Rapa, rather than truly returning to Old Rapa; they adopt an Old Rapa style of speaking, rather than speaking the Old Rapa language. This language creation, because it is centered on conscious generalizations about the Old Rapa language, is rarely used in casual or spontaneous speech. It is used more frequently in contexts where language can be planned (e.g., formal speeches, elicited speech, chants, and written materials). For this reason, it also emerges in newer forms of media, such as Facebook and popular music.26

The intentional use of modified speech to express a certain group identity mirrors what Thomason has referred to as “deliberate language differentiation” (1995: 30). In deliberate language differentiation, a speech group will modify language in order to define a distinct cultural identity. New Rapa represents, then, a sort of linguistic “u-turn,” (Boretzsky and Ilga, 1994 in Meakins, 2013: 182), which Meakins (2013) described as “an intentional undoing of shift toward an outside language, where a speech group tries to reclaim their ancestral language.” In Rapa Iti, however, the creation and use of New Rapa is not simply an attempt to reclaim the ancestral language; it is a form of resistance to Tahitian linguistic and cultural assimilation, and a reflection of an attempt to return to a unique Rapa Iti identity.

6.2 Cultural Nostalgia and Rapa Insider Identity

In recent years, a motivation to form a unique Rapa identity apart from the rest of French Polynesia, most specifically Tahiti, has developed. Culturally, a Rapa-insider identity is being amplified. Those who are from Rapa Iti and do not move away from the island feel they have more knowledge of the past and therefore identify themselves as “more” Rapa than Rapa people who have moved away or outsiders who have moved to the island permanently.

Rapa Iti is caught between a desire to preserve its older traditions in order to be different from other islands in the French Polynesian Territory and the material desire of youth to move toward a more Tahitian, and increasingly French (Western), way of living. To this move by the youth, there is radical pull back by the elders. This is manifested less in actual preservation and perpetuation of traditional activities and rather in a sort of cultural nostalgia – a longing for old ways that is expressed but not necessarily acted upon. This cultural nostalgia invokes positivity for the Rapa way of life by reflecting negatively on how things are done on other islands, particularly in Tahiti. Furthermore, there is a sense among the Rapa people that “outsiders” from Tahiti cannot understand how life is carried out on Rapa, and most importantly that they will not be able to cope with, or will not want to participate in, the more traditional lifestyle. One woman explained, “All these young girls coming from Tahiti, they won’t go in the roki (‘wet taro bed’). They don’t want to get muddy and they are scared of eels.” Another woman consultant of mine routinely said of her daughter-in-law, who grew up in Tahiti, She’s lazy [because] she’s from Tahiti. She won’t learn how to make pōpoi or help with making bread” (though in reality, the daughter-in-law does try frequently to learn and help).27

6.3 Linguistic Nostalgia and the Covert Prestige of “localness”

The cultural nostalgia that has developed out of pride in being a Rapa insider and the appreciation of Rapa ways of life expressed through the depreciation of Tahiti are paralleled in the creation of New Rapa. New Rapa thus reflects a linguistic nostalgia, a longing for the old ways of speech (Walworth, 2015). Where Reo Rapa developed from an overt pressure to use Tahitian in multiple official domains, New Rapa is developing from a less-explicit desire to mark an insider Rapa Iti identity. Linguistic nostalgia has led to a covert prestige, where localness is defined by how “Rapa” one sounds. Old Rapa’s special inherited lexicon and the Old Rapa phonemes k and ng have become attributed to “localness.” These linguistic marks of being local in New Rapa can be viewed as a reflection of covert prestige (in contrast to Tahitian’s overt prestige in Rapa Iti society). Covert prestige generally refers to the hidden values that are associated with a non-standard form of speech (Labov, 1972: 249; Trudgill, 1972: 183). In this case, there is a hidden value in being more local, and localness is attributed to non-standard, Old Rapa sounding lexemes and sounds.

6.4 New Rapa’s Genesis

The attachment of a “Rapa identity” to Old Rapa sounding forms can be almost entirely attributed to one man, Pierrot Faraire. Pierrot Faraire is the founder of the Tomite Reo Rapa (Rapa Language Committee), a former principal of the Rapa elementary school, and the leader of Tamariki Oparo (a dance group that performs and competes in a territory-wide competition, the Heiva, every July in Tahiti). Faraire founded the Tomite Reo Rapa in the late 1990s, in order to assemble the elders to re-discover the older form of the language.

As the founder and longtime leader of the Rapa dance group, Tomite Reo Rapa, and a religious leader as well, Faraire has been able to influence Rapa Iti society and in particular the teenage and young adult students from Rapa Iti who are going to school in Tahiti. For them, he perhaps represents a connection to their home island, and as the leader of the dance group Tamariki Oparo, he is a Rapa Iti celebrity. In his role as the dance group leader, he also writes chants and songs to accompany the dancing, using what he feels are sounds and words of an authentic Old Rapa language. According to him, “The chants that I write are a way to renew our language.” These chants have a direct influence not only on younger Rapa people in Tahiti, but on people in Rapa, because the dance competitions are televised, and everyone in Rapa watches them and hears the new Tamariki Oparo songs. Faraire’s innovations thus quickly permeate the Rapa Iti society. Many elders on Rapa disagree with the word creation exhibited in his chants. They believe Faraire’s language to be fabricated, and some even refuse to use words that have become commonplace now in Rapa. Among these are the common greeting aronga and a term meaning ‘thank you’, tongia. 28 In fact, non-elder members of the Rapa community admit to never having heard “Pierrot’s language” in the past; however, they do not challenge his authority and assume that he has information about the past that they do not have.29 The younger age groups, particularly those who have participated in the cultural dance group, or have simply admired the dance group (it is quite popular due to its success in the annual French Polynesia-wide competition), have begun incorporating New Rapa, or la langue de Pierrot (‘Pierrot’s language’) into their speech. They learn his new terms in the performance chants for the cultural festival, and believe them to be some older form of the language. They then use them to assert their Rapa Iti localness. This is precisely how words like aronga and tongia have permeated the everyday life of Rapa people.30

As a result of his influence, “Pierrot’s language” is becoming a part of the Rapa speech today and is forming a new speech style on the island, New Rapa. For example, aronga, whether historically accurate or not, is now a common greeting used by everyone in Rapa Iti, save for a few elders who vehemently disagree that it is, or ever was, an Old Rapa word. Tongia is equally common as a way of saying ‘thank you’. It is perplexing that these words have been able to enter into regularly used speech in Rapa Iti in spite of being disputed by elders. I suggest that it has been possible because Faraire has told people that the words were recorded a long time ago. Speakers have no reason not to believe that they are truly ancient Old Rapa words, and words perhaps so far gone that even their elders do not remember them.

6.5 Processes of New Rapa’s Creation

New Rapa is growing beyond the isolated innovations of Faraire and is evident in more formal language use of younger age groups in Rapa Iti. New Rapa exhibits an attempt to “Rapanize” the Tahitian elements of Reo Rapa in order to make Reo Rapa sound less like Tahitian.31 The New Rapa style of speech includes mostly the same distribution of source language features as Reo Rapa. The major difference in New Rapa is that it also contains the following: (1) Tahitian lexemes that have undergone Rapanization, by being phonologically modified to reflect Old Rapa’s consonant phoneme inventory; (2) borrowed terms from other languages that have the same consonant phonemes as Old Rapa; and (3) Faraire’s creations (e.g., aronga).

6.5.1 Rapanization of Tahitian32 Lexemes

Much of New Rapa relies on the process of Rapanization. As a result, the speech style has developed from speakers creating their own words based on what they think sounds more like Old Rapa. It is an educated guessing game, based on what people generalize to be the phonological differences between Old Rapa and Tahitian. Recall from previous sections that there is some speaker awareness of which particular sounds exist exclusively in Old Rapa or in Tahitian. Speakers generalize that the velar nasal ng and the velar stop k are “Old Rapa sounds” because they are present in Old Rapa, but absent in Tahitian. Similarly, “Tahitian sounds” are generalized to be h and f, as these are present in Tahitian but absent in Old Rapa. Based on these generalizations, speakers conclude that where there is a glottal stop in Tahitian, there must be a k or ng in Old Rapa; where there is an h or f in Tahitian, the corresponding form in Old Rapa has a glottal stop in its place. This awareness is used in the process of Rapanization to target what a speaker believes to be a Tahitian sound and replace it with an Old Rapa sound.

As Tahitian and Old Rapa share many reflexes from ppn, a speaker’s intuition for Rapanization is often historically accurate; that is, it adheres to regular sound correspondences. The examples in table 7 are this kind of Rapanization. In these cases, there is no way of identifying if a form is actually a form that was used in Old Rapa, or if it is a modern Rapanization of a Tahitian form. In fact, the only way to determine this is when the two languages do not exhibit cognate forms (due to innovation in one or the other language). This is where the language modification is more visible and the process of reanalysis can be detected. Table 7 shows examples of Rapanized Tahitian forms that contrast with Old Rapa forms, due to innovation either in Old Rapa or in Tahitian.

In other cases, as mentioned, it is not as clear if the New Rapa term is a Rapanization of a Tahitian form, or is a re-introduction of an Old Rapa form. These are instances where the Old Rapa form has been lost and so there is no way to compare the New Rapa form with the Old Rapa form, or instances where the Old Rapa form and the New Rapa form are identical. Table 8 shows examples of when the Old Rapa form has been completely lost; elders no longer remember it. Furthermore, my elder consultants denied that these Rapanized forms existed in Old Rapa. We can therefore safely assume that the Rapanizations are not re-introductions of Old Rapa forms.

There are two additional situations in which we can more clearly see a modern modification of terms. The first is when replacement of a Tahitian sound occurs in words or concepts that were borrowed into Tahitian after Western contact. In most cases, these represent concepts that were introduced through the missionaries or the Bible. Because Christianity was transmitted to Rapa Iti islanders through Tahitian, we can safely assume that the Tahitian forms for Christian concepts were the original forms in Rapa Iti. The two primary examples of this are Tahitian himene ‘sing’, hepetoma ‘week’ and puta ‘book’ to New Rapa ’imene, ’epetoma and puka, respectively. My elder consultants attest that these three terms are newer forms and that only the Tahitian forms were used previously. Consequently, we can safely assume that puka, ’epetoma and ’imene are modern Rapanizations.

The second situation in which we can more readily identify Rapanization is when only some of the Tahitian sounds are replaced. An example of this is Tahitian ’ohipa ‘work’, which becomes New Rapa ’o’ipa. If there were an Old Rapa cognate for the Tahitian form, based on sound correspondences of Old Rapa and Tahitian, we would expect the Tahitian initial glottal stop to be replaced, in addition to the Tahitian h. However, the New Rapa form only replaces the Tahitian h. As a result, I suggest that ’o’ipa is a reanalyzed Tahitian borrowing and not an Old Rapa term. This partial replacement is also observed frequently in complex words, both compounds (example 36) and affixed forms (examples 37–42).


tah ’oroma’i>nr ’oromaki

’Oro is a reflex of ppn *koro ‘intend; desire’ and ma’i/maki are reflexes of ppn *maki ‘sickness, illness, a sore’ (Greenhill and Clark, 2011). Based on regular sound correspondences, we would expect to see something like koromaki in Old Rapa. However, this is not the form that is exhibited and, as a result, we can presume that ’oromaki is not an Old Rapa term, but is instead a Rapanized Tahitian form.

In these examples, only the Tahitian sounds in the affix are replaced, but those in the root are not. This is due to a basic linguistic awareness that the Tahitian causative affixes fa’a- and ha’a- correspond with Old Rapa ’aka- 37 (examples 37–39), and that the Tahitian nominalizing suffix -ra’a corresponds to Old Rapa -’anga 38 (examples 40–42).

6.5.2 Historically Inaccurate Rapanization

There are many instances in which Rapanization does not follow regular sound correspondences; that is, the sound used in New Rapa is not expected based on regular sound correspondences between Old Rapa and Tahitian. Cases such as these are usually called “hypercorrection”. In New Rapa, there are two types of historically inaccurate Rapanization: (1) a historically unexpected “Old Rapa sound” replaces a “Tahitian sound” (e.g., ng is used where k might be expected); or (2) an “Old Rapa sound” hyper-inserts, thus creating a new syllable segment. This occurs with both content words and grammatical words.

The most prominent example of historically inaccurate Rapanization is aronga, which translates to both a greeting and ‘love’. This word is used frequently on Rapa, but it is a “new” term that Rapa people recognize as not used until about ten years ago. Anyone who is familiar with regular sound correspondences in Polynesian would notice that this term is a result of an attempt to provide a reflex of Proto Polynesian (ppn) *qarofa, also meaning ‘love’ (Greenhill and Clark, 2011).39 One would also note the peculiar presence of the velar nasal. Based on regular sound correspondences, one would expect aro’a in Rapa as the reflex of ppn *qarofa, cognate with Tahitian aroha ‘compassion, love, salutation’ (Fare Vāna’a 2008). Here, in order to sound more like Old Rapa, the velar nasal is used in lieu of the expected glottal stop.40

Similarly, in the lexical test described in section 2.2.1, many of my consultants under the age of 50 provided the form tukāne for ‘brother or woman’s brother’. The form in Tahitian is tu’āne. Based on other cognate forms in Eastern Polynesian languages (reflexes of*tuŋane) and regular sound correspondences,41 we would expect ng to occur in Old Rapa, in the place of Tahitian’s glottal stop, resulting in tungāne. Here, however, the velar stop is used.

A slightly different instance of historically unexpected replacement is in the first person singular pronoun. In Old Rapa, first person singular is ou. In Reo Rapa, first person singular is vau, one of the Tahitian forms. In New Rapa, speakers often use a created form, vou, which exhibits retention of the Tahitian labiodental fricative from vau, and a replacement of Tahitian au with Old Rapa ou. This is demonstrated below, in example (43), taken from a New Rapa translation of a Tahitian poem, “Te Poreho”.

A fairly consistent example of hyper-insertion of an “Old Rapa sound” is the insertion of k in certain grammatical markers. Among Old Rapa’s prepositional markers are i and ki (Walworth, 2015). In Tahitian (and in Reo Rapa), these two markers have merged to i. In New Rapa, k is inserted in all Reo Rapa instances of preposition i, resulting in ki throughout. In this case, sounding more like Old Rapa means sounding “not Tahitian”; thus, both the i and ki prepositions in Old Rapa are expressed as ki in New Rapa. Similarly, the accusative marker becomes ki in New Rapa. In Old Rapa, as well as in Tahitian (and Reo Rapa) the accusative marker is i. Examples (44) and (45), elicited from a male speaker (age 29) and a female speaker (age 24) demonstrate these hyper-insertions. Hyper-insertions are in bold, and the reader may refer to section 4 for the standard Reo Rapa utterances corresponding to these examples.

The elders have little tolerance for the hyper-insertion of k in these types of utterances. One of my elder consultants said, “They are putting k in everywhere. It sounds like k-k-k-k-k, caca.”43

6.5.3 Borrowing from Polynesian Languages

Some terms have been borrowed from other Eastern Polynesian languages that are not Tahitian. For the most part, these terms appear to have been borrowed from Rarotongan, in-line with Faraire’s comment that he uses a Rarotongan dictionary to find Old Rapa words. These borrowings are typically found in prayers that were composed by Faraire. One such example is kōpapa ‘body; corpse’ (also heard as ’akakōpapa ‘lie down; genuflect’). My elder consultants did not agree with this, reporting to have never heard this term and to have only ever heard tino, the Old Rapa reflex of ppn *tino ‘body’. Rarotongan does have a term kōpapa ‘body’, which appears to be an innovation. Most other ep languages have a reflex of ppn *tino for ‘body’, including Tahitian. It is likely that this term was borrowed by Faraire from Rarotongan into Rapa because it is clearly distinct from the Tahitian form.

6.5.4 Re-introduction of Old Rapa Lexemes

Not all of New Rapa is word creation. It does appear that some Old Rapa vocabulary has been reintroduced. It is clear that these words have been reintroduced because the Old Rapa form is not used in standard Reo Rapa, where the Tahitian form is used instead. I suggest that they have been reintroduced via Faraire through his chants and translated prayers. Some examples of this are: anga ‘plural classifier’, ’enua ‘island’, ngutua’are ‘household’, ta’unga ‘leader’; pē’ā ‘woman’, and karakua ‘parent’. These terms were all heard in prayers and sermons/convocations given by Rapa Iti deacons at church services (examples 46–49). ’enua and ngutua’are have also appeared in Facebook posts by Rapa islanders as well as in song lyrics. It should be noted that the Old Rapa meanings of ta’unga ‘leader’, karakua ‘parent’, and ngutuā’are ‘household’ have been expanded in the religious context to include ‘deacon’, ‘God (as the ultimate father)’, and ‘congregation’, respectively. In the following examples, New Rapa words are in bold. Examples (46–48) are taken from the prayers and sermons at church services; example (49) is from a FaceBook post by a 30 year old Rapa woman.

6.6 Non-uniformity of Utterances

It is very important to note that New Rapa is not consistent between speakers; rarely do any two speakers provide an identical utterance for the same meaning in elicitation. New Rapa is not uniform because so much of it is based on the individual speaker’s assumption of what is more Old Rapa sounding, which in turn is often based on an inconsistent knowledge of sound correspondences and a lack of knowledge of Old Rapa forms. Building on their understandings of the differences between Old Rapa and Tahitian, speakers “test out” various combinations to see what will be accepted by their listeners as local “Rapa” speech. Over time, perhaps certain features of New Rapa will become more stable, but presently, they are inconsistent. For example, the phrase ‘that woman in the taro bed’ has one consistent Old Rapa form, and one consistent Reo Rapa form, but New Rapa has multiple possibilities (example 50). In fact, the same speaker might produce all the variations on separate occasions. There does not appear to be any pattern in which variation is used when, nor are choices clearly based on social situations or present company. Variations do not appear to be related to context, gender, presence of other speakers, or age group of speaker. It seems to be simply language experimentation. The only clear motivation is to use forms that are different from Tahitian.(50)‘that woman in a taro bed’

6.6.1 Doublets in Reo Rapa

Doublets are a common occurrence in language contact situations where significant borrowing has occurred (Blust, 2011). Reo Rapa also exhibits doublets due to the contact situation, but they are a unique type of doublet that has resulted from the re-nativization of borrowings rather than through implementation of a borrowed form. These doublets differ from those described by Blust (2011) in that they are not lexical replacements that contradict native phonology. They are instead re-nativized forms of lexical replacements. These doublets are made up of a Tahitian sourced Reo Rapa form and a Rapanized form. Examples of some of Reo Rapa’s doublets are given in table 9.

6.6.2 Homonyms

Finally, in the creation of New Rapa, homonyms are forming between Tahitian components of Reo Rapa and Rapanized forms. Examples (51–54) demonstrate some new homonyms that have resulted from Rapanization.44

6.7 Broader Implications of New Rapa

The type linguistic innovation occurring in Rapa Iti is important to highlight as it demonstrates historical changes that are intentionally initiated by individuals in a speech community, and which do not follow regular sound correspondences. This kind of deliberate change provides evidence for socially motivated, rather than linguistically motivated, sound change and furthermore supports theories that sound change is not always linguistically motivated (Blust, 2005; Milroy, 2003). Blust wrote (2005: 221) that “social forces are widely recognized as the engine driving the implementation of some sound changes, but until recently these have not been implicated at all in the actuation of sound change.” In the creation of New Rapa there are clear “exogenous motivations” (Milroy, 2003), system external motivations, for the changes occurring in the language. While a small example, New Rapa provides proof that actuation of sound change can be motivated by purely social forces.

The notion of altering one’s speech in order to associate with (or disassociate from) a particular social group is not at all unusual. However, clearly identifying the source for the linguistic features that come to mark a particular social group is typically not possible; the precise source of actuation is rarely known (Labov, 1972: 317). In 2001, Labov (89–119) discussed actuation of language change in terms of a “triggering event”, or cause event, which sparks system internal change, or in his words, “a bend in the chain of causality”. However, as he shows through his many examples, while we can identify the change, the “bend”, it is difficult to specifically identify the moment of actuation. Labov (2001) and Baker (2008) have furthermore proposed the idea of a linguistic leader, a speaker who observes a relationship between sound and identity and adapts their speech accordingly. This marked speech then spreads to other speakers and consequently affects a sound change (Baker, 2008: 29). However, there are few real-time examples that offer evidence of linguistic leaders.

Whether through a triggering event or via a linguistic leader, the implementation of a linguistic feature that later becomes associated with a particular group’s identity may go completely unnoticed, according to Labov (1972: 319). He wrote specifically: “The change first appears as a characteristic feature of a specific subgroup, attracting no particular notice from anyone” (319). New Rapa contrasts with this description, as both the inception and implementation of its characteristic features are clearly visible. In this way, New Rapa provides a rare opportunity to identify the clear and deliberate speech changes a speech group is making in order to establish cultural distance from another group.

7 Conclusion

Reo Rapa presents a new type of contact language—one born from bilingualism and developed out of language shift. The stall of the language shift has resulted in a fusion of linguistic features that have become intergenerationally stable. The halt in language shift due to anti-convergence represents a new kind of contact language, a shift-break language. The shift-break has evolved into a reversal of shift and a new variety of Reo Rapa speech has emerged as New Rapa. The changes that have developed in New Rapa and the visibility of actuation present a unique opportunity. While there are many examples of language contact affecting language change, there are very few that can point to the precise moment or exact person that initiates a change. In fact, most of the discussion on possible language external forces being responsible for the actuation of language-internal change is speculative or anecdotal at best (Golovko, 2003: 184–185; Kulick, 1992: 2–3; Laycock, 1982: 36). New Rapa therefore represents one of the few cases available for study that provides concrete evidence demonstrating non-linguistically motivated actuation of language change. Finally, and fundamentally, Reo Rapa’s unique development and New Rapa’s unusually visible genesis offer an excellent example of the importance of studying smaller and particularly endangered languages.


I wish to acknowledge Yaron Matras for taking time to discuss the Rapa Iti language situation with me and for providing comments and helpful suggestions on a previous version of this paper. Many thanks to Felicity Meakins, Lyle Campbell, and two anonymous reviewers for providing suggestions for improvement on earlier drafts. My additional thanks are due to Katie Drager, Yuko Otsuka, Robert Blust, and Ken Rehg for their comments on the data (originally written-up as part of my dissertation). Finally, I am indebted to the many people in Rapa Iti who offered their time to participate in my language survey; to Pierrot Faraire for taking time to talk with me about language creation and conservation; and for my primary consultants (Te’a Tamata, Teuira Vahine, Ma’urei Angia, Takura Angia, and Lionel Watanabe) whose expert knowledge of Old Rapa made it possible for me to compare it with the other varieties of speech I found spoken on Rapa Iti. The research for this paper was funded by the Chateaubriand Fellowship in the Humanities and the Bilinski Foundation. All errors in the citation or interpretation of the data are my own.


1 Official census data puts the Rapa Iti population at approximately 500 people (Challier, 2012), however, based on my observations, there are not more than about three hundred people permanently living on the island. The official census number is likely inflated due to two main factors: (1) students who board nine months of the year on other islands for school; (2) permanent residents of Tahiti with Rapa heritage claiming residency in Rapa Iti to maintaina cultural connection with the island.

2 At about 350 nautical miles from its nearest neighbor, Ra’ivavae, Rapa Iti is one of the most isolated islands in the Pacific. In addition to its geographic isolation, Rapa is socially isolated from other islands; due to the lack of an airport on the island, travel to and from Rapa is possible only by a several-day-long boat trip.

3 Reo Rapa translates literally to ‘language of Rapa’ in both Tahitian and Old Rapa. I have chosen this name because it seems suitable for the language most widely used on Rapa Iti, and spoken by nearly the entire population.

4 See Walworth 2015 for more on the influence of Tahitian in various cultural domains.

5 Because these two languages are so closely related, they share a number of lexical and grammatical features.

6  adjc= adjunctive tam. See Grammaire de l’Académie tahitienne (2009: 224) for the function of this tam in Tahitian, which is the same function here in Reo Rapa.

7 In Tahitian, ‘food’ is mā’a (Fare Vāna’a, 1999). However, in Reo Rapa, both vowel segments have become short resulting in ma’a.

8 For example, a common occurrence in word-list elicitation was for participants to state an initial response and then immediately after remember the Old Rapa word and retract. The following is an example from a male participant (tr), 44 years old, interviewed on November 23, 2013: {mw: rouge (‘red’) [listing], tr:’ute’ute [pause] non, non – kurakura}. The Tahitian form ’ute’ute, instead of the Rapa form kurakura, was recorded as his response in this case.

9 This is particularly notable in the emerging new variety of Reo Rapa, New Rapa, discussed in section 6.

10 For more on Old Rapa’s vowel system, see Walworth, 2015.

11 All Tahitian forms and their functions were observed with Tahitian speakers and confirmed in Fare Vāna’a (2009).

12 All Tahitian forms were taken from Fare Vāna’a’s Dictionnaire Tahitien-Français (1999).

13 Many participants who did not use kakī instead used the word for throat in Tahitian, ’arapo’a.

14 I have included the full list of numbers 1–10, although some of these terms are clearly identical in Tahitian and Old Rapa.

15 No one uses kono’u in regular speech.

16 This was a particularly interesting contrast as 100% of participants stated niho for teeth and puaka ni’o for goat, lit. ‘pig with teeth’. It may be of interest here to note that, in Old Rapa, puaka appears to signify any land mammal that has been recently introduced. Animals that were brought originally have their own unique names: kurī ‘dog’, kiore ‘rat’, manu ‘bird’, moa ‘poultry’, puaka ‘pig’. Mammals that were introduced post-settlement take puaka and an identifier: puaka ni’o ‘goat’, puaka toro ‘cow’, puaka ’oro ’enua ‘horse’.

17 In Reo Rapa, the lexeme rahi appears to be a Tahitian input, however the lexeme’s syntactic function and semantic value in Reo Rapa is not always consistent with how it us used in Tahitian. According to an anonymous reviewer, in Tahitian, rahi is used as a post-nominal intensifier where its semantic value is more quantitative than qualitative. For example: ‘Ua para rahi te taofe ‘The coffee ripened in great quantity.’ To further demonstrate the contrast between Reo Rapa and Tahitian, this reviewer suggested that the Tahitian equivalent of the translation in example (6) would be the following,‘Ua para roa te taofe which employs roa, a quantitative intensifier, instead of rahi: ‘Ua para roa te taofe.

18 The ppn forms in this section are taken from Greenhill and Clark (2011).

19 Both forms are reflexes of ppn *lunga ‘above’, however theTahitian form, ni’a, demonstrates two sporadic sound changes that contrast with Old Rapa’s form, runga, which follows the regular sound changes that occurred in the language.

20 The variation of vau is based on personal observations of Tahitian, but it is also reported in Fare Vāna’a’s (2009) Grammaire de la Langue Tahitienne.

21 In Rapa Iti, when men catch sea urchins, they dump them on the dock and women gather together to process them. This involves hitting the top of the urchin gently with a medium sized stick to crush the spines and break the top of the shell.

22 This term was coined by Yaron Matras based on his observations of the language’s source language contributions during a personal discussion with me in January 2015.

23 Yaron Matras used the term anti-convergence in personal conversations with me about Reo Rapa, in January 2015.

24 A reviewer of an earlier version of this paper suggested that Reo Rapa might be in a pre-koine phase of koineization, but I do not believe this to be the case. Siegel defined the pre-koine phase as “the unstabilized stage at the beginning of koineization…in which various forms of the varieties in contact are used concurrently and inconsistently” (1985: 373). Siegel’s pre-koine coincides with Trudgill’s “Stage i” of koineization (Trudgill, 1998 in Kerswill, 2002: 686). In Trudgill’s Stage i, the speakers are migrants and are no first-language speakers. Under these definitions, Reo Rapa cannot be considered a pre-koine. I have demonstrated in this paper that Reo Rapa is stable across generations, that it is intergenerationally transmitted, and that the source language contributions are consistent.

25 Matras, in personal discussions with me about Reo Rapa, echoed Meakins and expressed that mixed languages are extremely varied in composition which makes it difficult to make a clear structural definition for contact varieties categorized as “mixed languages”.

26 The lyrics of a very popular song among Rapa people, “Pito,” which was written in New Rapa, can be found in Appendix D of Walworth (2015).

27 This particular situation is likely also related to the general treatment of in-laws in Rapa (see Walworth, 2015).

28 According to my elder consultants, there were no Old Rapa terms for ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’. These concepts were brought with Tahitian, and so the Tahitian words ’ia ora na and māuruuru were used for ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, respectively.

29 Whenever I engaged with non-elders about language, they would routinely ask me, “Have you talked with Pierrot? He probably knows.”

30 An example of this use comes from a discussion over dinner with my host family. My host father was very involved with the church, and knowledgeable in Old Rapa. Because of this, I was asking him one evening about the meaning of a word in a prayer that I had heard at church that morning. The word was karanga, in this context meaning ‘speech’ or ‘the word’. He said that he did not recognize that meaning of the term, which, for him, meant ‘world’. I made a note and as I was writing, my host sister (age 30), who had danced in Tamariki Oparo, said, “No, that’s right. That word is in one of Pierrot’s songs.”

31  Kieviet and Kieviet (2006) briefly mentioned that some words used in Rapa Iti appeared to be Tahitian words that had been rapanisé ‘Rapanized’. They did not explore this observation further, but they should be acknowledged as the first to use the term “Rapanized” in this context.

32 All Tahitian terms referenced in this paper were taken from Fare Vāna’a (1999) unless otherwise indicated.

34 This is a possibly related proto-form, which meant ‘handsome lothario’ in ppn Greenhill and Clark, 2011).

35  ppn *fera ‘spread wide open’ (Greenhill and Clark, 2011).

36 Old Rapa (or) puke means ‘group of children’.

37  ppn *faka- (Greenhill and Clark, 2011).

38  ppn *-Canga (Greenhill and Clark, 2011).

39 Reflexes of *qarofa in many pn languages are used as a greeting. These reflexes are listed in Greenhill and Clark, 2011 under ppn *qarofa.

40 Consciousness of this choice was explained to me by Pierrot Faraire, in 2014.

42  ake ra functions in a narrative as a transition in time, ‘then’.

43  Caca is French slang for excrement.

44 All ppn forms in these examples are from Greenhill and Clark (2011).

  • 31

    Kieviet and Kieviet (2006) briefly mentioned that some words used in Rapa Iti appeared to be Tahitian words that had been rapanisé ‘Rapanized’. They did not explore this observation further but they should be acknowledged as the first to use the term “Rapanized” in this context.

  • 33

    Greenhill and Clark (2011).

  • 41

    Greenhill and Clark (2011).

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Reo Rapa: A Polynesian Contact Language

in Journal of Language Contact



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Kieviet and Kieviet (2006) briefly mentioned that some words used in Rapa Iti appeared to be Tahitian words that had been rapanisé ‘Rapanized’. They did not explore this observation further but they should be acknowledged as the first to use the term “Rapanized” in this context.


Greenhill and Clark (2011).


Greenhill and Clark (2011).



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